Editor’s note: Premises for reality shows seem to be unlimited these days, so it came as no surprise when reality television went to the dogs. Greatest American Dog, which debuted on CBS in July 2008, featured twelve extraordinary teams of dogs and owners from across the nation, living together and competing against each another to determine who had the best-trained dog. Each week, the dog-owner teams competed in different training challenges, and each week a panel of three judges voted one team off. The last team standing earned the title of “Greatest American Dog” and $250,000.
While the show is no longer on the air, it represented a significant milestone in the world of dog-themed television. For one thing, Greatest American Dog aired on a major network during prime time, something no other dog-themed show had done since the days of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. And while 5-6 million viewers weren’t enough to compete successfully against reality shows like Survivor and Big Brother, both of which bring in 20+ million viewers every week, Greatest American Dog was one of the most-watched TV series about dogs ever.
Laurie Williams and her then five-year-old Maltese, Andrew, were one of the twelve contestant teams featured on Greatest American Dog. As we approach the anniversary of the show’s debut, we caught up with Laurie to find out what it was like to compete on a dog-eat-dog reality television show.
How did you and Andrew find yourselves on a reality television show?
LW: I never imagined myself, nor had any desire to go, on a reality show. However, the moment I read the announcement requesting applicants for “a reality show about dogs and training,” I was intrigued. The opportunity to be a part of the first nationally televised show that vowed to demonstrate the relationship between dogs and their people greatly interested me. It would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the relationship I have with my dogs, as well as demonstrate my dog-friendly, clicker training techniques. Let’s face it, as a professional dog trainer and behavior counselor, what’s not to like about that? But I had even more motivation. It would be a national forum to show that, despite what was currently dominating (no pun intended) the airwaves, it was possible to have a well-mannered dog without using fear and intimidation.
I sent in an application, and a few weeks later I got a call to bring Andrew to an audition in New York City. A month or so after the audition we were notified that we’d made it to the finals. We were flown to Los Angeles for a last round of auditions and for medical and psychological testing. I can’t imagine going through a more thorough screening, even if I were applying to work for the Secret Service! Ultimately Andrew and I were chosen, and we were given only a few days to pack our things and start filming in Agoura Hills, California.
Did you have any reservations about being on a reality television show?
LW: I did have some reservations venturing into the unknown, but I truly thought that the involvement of the dogs would keep the regular, somewhat surly, and sensationalized reality show antics at bay. Boy, was I naïve to believe that! The decision to thrust twelve dogs of different ages, sizes, and temperaments—along with their equally diverse owners—into one house for six weeks was undoubtedly made by someone with absolutely no dog training or behavior experience!
What were the training competitions like?
LW: You would think that the challenges would be designed to showcase the bond between dog and owner, but, unfortunately, the activities that best showcase that, like rally obedience, don’t always make exciting/entertaining television. Let’s face it, who would sit and watch rally obedience on television every week for an hour? Okay, we would, but the regular viewing public probably wouldn’t. Agility plays much better on television, and it was used in several challenges, but it also would have become boring if it had been featured every week. So, that’s where the painting, photo shoots, zip lines, and elephants (oh my) came in. Some challenges were entertaining, some shocking, others were just plain silly. It was definitely more about television entertainment than about assessing the bond between dog and owner.
How did you use clicker training in the challenges? Do you feel that it help you to succeed?
LW: I used the clicker in most challenges that involved any type of targeting or distance work. We were rarely given much time to "train" or prepare for the challenges, and many challenges required the dog to work away from you. I was able to teach Andrew new behaviors fairly quickly, certainly more quickly than most of the others, who struggled quite a bit. There were several challenges that required the dog to "go touch" something. In one challenge he had to go ring a bell—I taught him to do that in minutes. In another challenge he had to tap on a lever to open a door. Again, he learned to do it within minutes by using the clicker as a marker. Let's just say Andrew and I were very successful at anything that involved real training!
How did the other contestants and judges respond when they saw you using clicker training?
LW: It became increasingly clear how most of the contestants and some of the judges, based on their comments, didn't really understand clicker training. In one challenge the contestants were supposed to distract the other dogs and encourage them to break their stay and come to them. We were allowed to use toys, props, and even food to lure and entice the other dogs. Some of the other contestants thought that they would use the clicker to entice Andrew. So they started calling his name and clicking! Little did they know that by clicking him as he was on his stay they were actually marking and reinforcing the stay! The joke was on them!
What were some of the greatest challenges of being on a reality television show?
LW: Anytime you throw a diverse group of people and dogs in a house together, there will be some challenges. Couple that with long working hours and harsh weather conditions and it can be very stressful. Temperatures were often over 100°F, and the cameras were rolling 24/7, so we were always “working,” as were the dogs. As a clicker trainer and avid dog sports exhibitor, I was better equipped to help Andrew handle the stress than the other competitors were.
How did your training and competition experience prepare you to overcome these challenges?
LW: Since the clicker was so familiar to Andrew, I believe its use brought him a sense of home and familiarity that helped calm him in some of the more stressful situations. I also knew the importance of giving him plenty of breaks. I took every opportunity to take Andrew back to our room and crate him in a quiet area away from the sometimes-crazy activity. Unfortunately, some of the other contestants didn’t know the benefit of providing this respite or were more concerned about their dogs getting airtime, so they didn’t follow suit.
How has being on a reality show together changed your relationship with Andrew?
LW: We have a multiple-dog household, so the six weeks Andrew and I spent together was the very first time he's had me all to himself—and me him! That special time had an amazing effect on our working relationship. Having to rely on each other not only for companionship but as partners took our relationship to another level and increased Andrew’s confidence two-fold.
Do you think your appearance on the show has influenced how people think about dog training?
LW: Yes, I do. Being on the show has really helped me spread my dog-friendly training and the message about the importance of relationship-based training. The producers did a good job showing me and my positive training methods in a much better light than they did the people who used more aversive methods. I am truly grateful for that!
How has being on the show impacted your business?
LW: Andrew and I have become celebrities in the dog world, and even almost two years later we're still recognized at many dog events. When traveling we're sometimes recognized at airports. My business, Pup 'N Iron Canine Fitness & Learning Center, has grown tremendously as a result of the show! I have become internationally known as a dog training expert. Even during these tough economic times, our classes are packed and my private behavior consulting clients have tripled. I can't complain about that! I was recently elected to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Board of Directors and have definitely received more judging assignments these past few years as well!
Would you do it again?
LW: Absolutely! It’s likely I will never experience such a profound human and dog behavior learning experience again. I know I wouldn’t be the trainer I am, nor possess the insight I have today, had I not gone through this unique psychological experiment. And I’m not the only one who has benefitted—Andrew has as well. He’s a much more confident dog than he was before, and our bond is even deeper. Clicker training got us through those six weeks at Canine Academy, and I’ve continued to rely on it introducing him to something new. We’ve been playing agility for less than a year and he’s already competing at the excellent level. I’m one of a select few who will ever be able to say my dog and I were on a reality show together. And, we not only survived, we’ve thrived!
What are you and Andrew up to now?
LW: I just began my term as a member of the APDT Board of Directors and am currently working on my book, traveling the country judging APDT, AKC, and UKC rally obedience, presenting Teacup Agility demonstrations, and competing in AKC agility with Andrew. Andrew is busy breaking new ground on the agility course and has advanced from the novice to excellent level within four months! He's become quite the rock star!
Thank you, Laurie! We can’t wait to see what you and Andrew do next!