Ruff crowd: Here’s why several dogs were watching a musical in Stratford

Stratford Festival attendees and actors alike were surprised by a dose of cuteness last week when a group of service dogs was spotted in the audience.

The group of dogs, ranging from poodles to Golden Retrievers, was attending a showing of Billy Elliot as part of their training to acclimatize them to the environment for their future owners.

This year’s production of the musical is categorized as a relaxed performance, meaning there’s less noise and flashing lights to allow greater accessibility to attendees with special requirements.

This allowed K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dog handlers to bring their canine students for some theatre training.

As a thank you to the festival, owner and head trainer Laura Mackenzie said she posed the pups for a sweet photo that has since captured the hearts of many on the internet.

“Everybody [in the audience] was really interested,” Mackenzie said. “The theatre staff told us at first that even the stage people, the actors, were kind of shocked when they saw the dogs. But, you know, the show must go on.”

Luckily, the dogs were perfectly well-behaved for the 162-minute musical.

The K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dog trains about 20 service dogs every two years.

“We were pleasantly surprised that all of our dogs did great,” she said. “We had no problems. No barking, no restlessness; they did their jobs, so it made us feel great.”

While the furry crew made adorable audience members, they were primarily there for work.

“We like to try to take the dogs to anything that an owner may want to do with their animal,” Mackenzie explained.

“We have a group of handlers and we try to take them to all different kinds of venues [with] different kinds of stimuli for the dogs. Once they’re certified, we know that they’re confident going anywhere with their owners.”

Training a service dog is no easy feat, the seasoned dog trainer explained.

It takes about two years for one to graduate the Inn’s regimented program. Right now, the Inn has 20 teams — a dog and a handler — working together.

At the end of the day, Mackenzie hopes the circulation of this adorable image changes the perspective of service animals and shows just how vital they are.

“I hope that people just understand what a service dog is and what it can do for the community,” Mackenzie said. “There’s been lots of bad press about service dogs, fake service dogs. There is a need for this. They’re not pets, they’re working animals.”

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