Service Dogs Attend A Performance Of ‘Billy Elliot’ To Learn How To Properly Behave In A Theater

by Angela Andaloro

When you go to the theater, you want to be able to focus on what’s happening onstage. That isn’t always the case, however.

Sometimes you get stuck with inconsiderate audience members who can distract you by talking through a performance or using their phones. At the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, Canada, there’s one group that audience members don’t have to worry about being a disruption. Thanks to certain “relaxed performances” provided by the theater company, a group of service dogs have learned how to behave themselves at the theater.

The relaxed performances at the Ontario theater are for audiences who want to enjoy a show but can benefit from a less-structured environment.

While all patrons are welcome, the performances are ideal for those with intellectual or learning disabilities, sensory processing conditions, and more. Recently, the theater put on a production of Billy Elliot for a very special audience. The service dogs from K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs were learning how to behave in the theater for handlers who might be interested in attending performances.

A dozen good boys and girls learned what it takes to sit through a theater performance at Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario. The service dogs in training from K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs attended the performance so that they could learn how to accompany future handlers.

The photos of the dogs in the audience at the show are simply adorable. Each pooch is at a theater seat, paying careful attention to what’s happening onstage while a performance of Billy Elliot is going on.

“It’s important to prepare the dogs for any activity the handler may like to attend,” Laura Mackenzie told CBC. Laura is the owner and head trainer with K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs who organized the dogs attending the relaxed performance.

“The theatre gives us the opportunity to expose the dogs to different stimuli such as lights, loud noises and movement of varying degrees,” Laura explained. “The dogs must remain relaxed in tight quarters for an extended period of time.”

The training exercise saw the service dogs and their handlers navigating a regular day at the theater, including moving through crowds and tight aisles and getting to bathrooms. They accomplish these tasks while ignoring potential distractions from other patrons and concessions.

The relaxed performance was the perfect place for the dogs to begin learning about going to the theater. The performances are Stratford Festival Theatre’s way of accommodating audiences with disabilities or sensory processing issues, although all patrons are welcome.

“There is a relaxed attitude to noise and movement within the auditorium, and some minor production changes may be made to reduce the intensity of light, sound and other potentially startling effects,” the theater company explains on its website, which includes a schedule of such performances.

“About a dozen dogs came to our relaxed performance, and they were all extremely well-behaved,” Ann Swerdfager, spokesperson for the Stratford Festival, told CBC. “I was in the lobby when they came in, then they took their seats, then got out of their seats at intermission and went back — all of the things we learn as humans when we start going to the theatre.”

Ann also noted that the exercise was good practice for the performers, who need to get used to seeing service dogs in the audience. Since Billy Elliot features some child performers, the theater wanted to be certain they wouldn’t get distracted mid-performance either.

The festival welcomes attendees with service dogs multiple times a week. “Everybody was so thrilled to see all these dogs at one time in the audience. It’s really exciting,” Ann noted. “And it’s thrilling to be part of something that is going to serve theatregoers of the future.”

Both the festival and the service dogs are opening up the world of theater for those who might think it’s out of the question. “It’s wonderful that going to the theatre is considered one of the things that you want to train a service dog for, rather than thinking that theatre is out of reach for people who require a service animal, because it isn’t,” Ann explained.

Everyone hopes that as the photos go viral, people everywhere who do the important work of training service dogs will recognize the full spectrum of their potential. By training them for all kinds of situations, you open up the world of the dogs’ future handlers.

“All of the dogs were fantastic and remained relaxed throughout the performance. Some even watched through the cracks of the seats,” Laura said. “The dogs loved the show almost as much as their handlers.”

Laura was so pleased with how the performance went that she plans to return with another pack of pups in training as soon as she can. It’s just one small step in making it so that opportunities aren’t restricted for those with disabilities or sensitivities.