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Performing pooches

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Lyric (holding the flag), Viola (the fireman) and Faela (in rear) are all decked out for a Biscuit Eaters performance. Rayna Stout, trainer/behavior specialist, says she has a closet full of dog costumes for her performing troupe.

Teaching a dog to obey simple commands like "Sit," "Heel" and "Come!" takes dedication and commitment.

But once your dog has the basics down, you might be tempted to teach him a few tricks, like rolling over or playing dead.

Maybe both you and your dog need something more challenging. How about jumping rope or playing the piano? Mailing a package? Getting a drink out of the fridge?

Rayna Stout loves challenging her menagerie with those kinds of tricks. As early as middle school she tried teaching her dog to jump over obstacles. She enrolled in dog obedience courses taught by Judy Leonard and decided she, too, would like to be a dog trainer. After graduating from Cedaredge High School, she completed a three-month dog training course in Austin, Texas. She took along a young, untrained border collie named Kit, who later became the foundation of Rayna's breeding program.

Rayna loves border collies -- they're smart, loyal, fast and fairly easy to train. But Rayna wanted a dog that was a little smaller and more agile, so she began cross breeding border collies with papillons. The resulting "toty" collies are happy, alert and just as eager to please as border collies. "Toty" means tiny or very small in Scottish, Rayna explains.

Border collies can weigh up to 20 pounds; Rayna's toty collies average about 15 pounds apiece and she is working to get them to about half the size of border collies. "I'm now on my third generation," she explains.

For easier births, she uses a male papillon and a female border collie impregnated through artificial insemination -- just one of the many useful skills she learned working in a vet clinic.

The toty collies are outgoing and they don't have any nervous tendencies, so they do well as members of Rayna's "Biscuit Eaters" performing troupe. With their black-and-white coloring, they look like a pint-size version of a border collie. "I call them fun size," Rayna says.

While most of her dogs are toty collies, she has a few rescue animals in her menagerie as well. She pauses to count up the total number of her dogs and settles at 19 -- for now. A new litter is expected in just a couple of weeks. The oldest member of Rayna's family is 14 and the youngest is eight months old and in training. All but a big, fuzzy malamute are allowed inside. It's just too hot in the house for the well-insulated malamute, Rayna says.

She affectionately calls him one of her "freeloaders" because he doesn't do tricks. Lyric, on the other hand, earns her keep.

Lyric is the star of Rayna's troupe. She has performed in the Philippines and won the PetFest in Austin, Texas, two years in a row. The first year Lyric did a car trick. She's been taught to open the door of a Little Tyke car, climb in and shut the door. Once she's behind the steering wheel, Sabre -- a mixed breed weighing in at about 50 pounds -- pushes the car forward.

For the winning trick the second year, Lyric painted a picture.

Rayna shortened a paint brush and covered it with vet wrap so it would fit comfortably in Lyric's mouth. Lyric draws the paint brush across the canvas, creating a series of dots and dashes. "Just like any dog, sometimes she'll try to eat the paint," Rayna says. To create multi-color paintings without smearing, Rayna lets the paint dry between coats. "At the end, I'll put her paw print on the canvas," Rayna says. "That's the only part of the painting I touch."

Lyric also won top honors at the Montrose County Fair for her mailbox trick. She pulls down the latching door, puts a package in, closes the door and raises the flag.

Lyric is so talented she has earned the title of expert trick dog through "Do More With Your Dog."

She can jump rope -- as seen in the Parade of Lights. She can also play basketball, open a toy fridge and get Rayna a drink, pick up rings and put them on a peg, untie people's shoes and fetch just about anything. At night she helps Rayna by picking up all the toys the other dogs have left lying around.

She can also be a comedienne. Even though they've got a routine down pat, she sometimes adds her own twist to performances. For example, if Rayna's got the jump rope in her hands, she'll start playing tug of war instead of jumping rope as they've practiced over and over. People start laughing, and that's enough reward for Lyric. Rayna thinks quickly during performances, working those unexpected twists into the dogs' routines.

The dogs have learned to jump through a hula hoop held in the air, but again Lyric has her own version of the trick. She noses the hula hoop up off the ground and then jumps through it without any assistance.

Each of Rayna's dogs has its specialty. Aesop, the "baby daddy," can also jump rope. Velvet is learning to play the piano. Kit has titles in obedience and rally, an event which consists of a series of 15-18 stations, each with a different command for the dog to execute.

Training is nearly a full-time job, Rayna says, although she has a paid position in an auto repair shop. Winter weather curtails the lessons somewhat, but during the summer Rayna is outdoors with her dogs as much as possible. Velvet and Hudson go to work with her, so sometimes Rayna can squeeze in some extra training time with them during the day. Hudson was one of the "keepers" from her latest litter and is just cute as can be, she says.

A certified dog trainer, Rayna said she would like to offer specialized classes that go beyond basic obedience. She can also help dog owners address behavior problems. Barking, aggression, digging, jumping up, stealing food, pulling on the leash ... "These are all problems we create or we don't address when the situation when it starts," Rayna says. "I can train the dog, but sometimes it's harder to change people's way of thinking." Consistency is key, she says: "It's black and white -- say no or say yes, one of the two."

Many times when she's training her dogs, she doesn't say a word, instead using hand cues to instruct. With several dogs in training at her house, it's often a matter of watch and learn. When one dog sees another being rewarded for certain behavior, it's quick to copy that behavior. "Whoever does it fastest gets the treat first, so they pick it up pretty quick," Rayna says. Picture four of her dogs up on a pedestal spinning around in unison. It takes a lot of practice, but training sessions keep the dogs' minds engaged and help her build a bond with her dogs. There's also less time and energy for negative behavior, like digging in the garden or chewing table legs.

You can see Rayna's dogs in action on her Facebook page, Biscuit Eaters Performing Dogs.

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