Animal act reviews

The greatest dog trick trainer you have never heard of: Ray Nicholus & his dog, Jackie

capture9I’m a fan of dog trick videos from the past and present and have watched over a thousand of them, including many vintage clips from the early 1900s. I always get teary to see footage of vintage dogs doing amazing tricks where neither dog nor trainer is credited–now totally lost to history. I’m going to start posting some of these videos here, on Dash’s circus blog, to memorialize the great trainers of the past.

For this first edition of “Vintage Trick Dogs,” I actually managed to find out lots of information about both dog and trainer.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a YouTube video showing one of the most remarkable dog/handler teams I have ever seen. This pair–filmed circa 1950–could do tricks I have never seen any other dog do, past or present. And their friendship and love showed through in every trick in the original 8 minute video, which included plenty of patting and ear ruffling.capture5

How did the video get on YouTube? As I was to find out later, the trainer’s sons, Ray Jr. and Richard, put hours of work into converting old super-8 film to DVD, editing the clips together, and setting up a YouTube channel to host the video. They did all this as a legacy to their father and to Jackie. But the video had been posted 6 years previously and had only 1,039 views. In an era when a “snoring puppy” can get millions of views overnight, I found it tragic that this remarkable video had such a small number of views.

In fact, I was so upset that I tracked down Ray Jr. and got his permission to edit and shorten the original video, add music, and put it on my own YouTube channel (without ads, of course) in hopes that it will get the large viewership it deserves. We also had a wonderful long phone chat about his father and Jackie.

Start by watching the video:

When I saw this video, I assumed Jackie’s trainer, Ray Sr., was a professional circus trainer from a multi-generational dog training family. Not even close. In fact, Ray Sr. was the son of an immigrant miner, grew up on a Montana farm, and was a lifelong barber with a 5th grade education. And he never owned another dog after Jackie.

Ray Sr.’s mother was born in Czechoslovakia (likely around 1870), and married Ray’s father, who lived in northeastern Italy, by the Alps. The father was from a family of alpine mountain guides, but worked as a miner. They had 14 children and moved to Colorado to work in the mines in the early 1900’s. Ray Sr.’s father earned only $1/day. After narrowly escaping a mine collapse, the family relocated to Circle, Montana, where they became homesteaders. Ray Sr. grew up mainly on this ranch, and had to leave school after 5th grade to work on the farm. He hauled grain with a horse team, and was known for being great with animals, including being the only one in the family that could ride one particularly ill-tempered horse. In fact, even Ray’s brother who was a professional rodeo rider could not ride the horse!

capture10Ray Sr. served in the military for a while, after the end of WWI, and participated in amateur boxing matches there. He moved to Chicago in his early 20’s, went to barber school, and worked as a barber on the North side of Chicago until he was 80 years old. Ray Sr. had three children, at least two of which (Ray Jr. and Richard) went to college and had professional careers.

The original video said the footage came from the 1930’s. However, Ray Sr. acquired Jackie in the 40’s. From Ray’s age, Jackie’s age and the clothing in the video, I believe this was likely filmed sometime between 1948-52.

Ray Sr. referred to Jackie as a Border Collie. However, as somebody who has been around hundreds of BCs and owns an AKC Champion BC, I believe Jackie is far too small to be a purebred Border Collie. She appears to me to be a mix of Border Collie and Papillon (the two breeds I currently own). Some support for my guess is that deliberate Papillon x Border Collie sport mixes of the 21st century look identical to Jackie in size, color, ear set, coat length, etc.

According to Ray Jr., Jackie learned and performed all these tricks without a single food treat. In most cases, when I hear that dogs don’t get rewards for following cues, I assume they were trained through punitive measures, which I strongly disagree with. But watching these videos, I believe Jackie is in that 1% of dogs who work simply because they love having a job. She probably also received occasional reinforcement in the form of tug games, judging from her ability to swing on a rope. 🙂

Ray Sr. originally trained Jackie to do tricks to entertain kids at his barber shop and keep them from crying or fussing during haircuts. One signature trick was for Jackie to go into a back room and count the kids coming back into the barbershop one at a time. Once they had re-entered the front room, she would bark out how many kids were in the shop. I believe most of this footage was taken on the sidewalk in front of Ray Sr.’s barbershop. Some of the footage in this video also shows Ray & Jackie performing for kids at the playground of Chicago’s Budlong Elementary School, which is still in operation as of 2016. She won 17 first prizes at dog shows, which apparently had a “performance” category not found in shows today. Ray Sr. and Jackie also performed at the iconic Chicago Theater.

chicago-theatre2      chicagotheaterinside

Jackie also did useful tricks at home, including an unexpected one. Ray Jr. tells me that one day, his mother was trying to take a nap, but the light was coming through her door. She jokingly asked Jackie to close the door and—to her surprise—Jackie complied. Ray Sr. admitted he had taught her the trick.

After Jackie passed awcaptureay, Ray Sr. lived another forty years, but never owned another dog.  He remained active throughout his life and, at the age of 80, he was still able to do one-handed pushups. He died at the age of 85.

Ray Sr. left no books, notes or training videos behind. None of his children went on to train dogs. Nothing remains of Ray & Jackie’s trick legacy but this video. Please help keep the memory of this wonderful team alive by sharing this blog post and/or video with your friends on Facebook or elsewhere.

Thank you!

And if you’d like to see the original, unedited version of this video, it is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1OW_QTTUM8. You can see lots more boxing footage, an a lot of snuggling and ear-ruffling that I had to remove to shorten the video.

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