A dog the size of a greyhound jumping as high as 62 inches in the air can be quite impressive. Folks who head to Thalian Hall this weekend will be able to see Feather do just that. The pooch happens to hold the Guinness World Record for highest jump at 75 inches—the equivalent of a 6-foot-3-inch-tall man. Deemed as the rising star in Mutts Gone Nuts—a two-person, nine-dog comedy act—Feather can only be outdone by her quadruped friend, Geronimo. Geronimo holds two Guinness World Records for double dutch-style jump rope in one minute.
The dogs’ talents can be attributed to their trainer Samantha Valle, and the leads in the comedy act, Joan and Scott Houghton. Valle has helped Mutts Gone Nuts become one of the most fun, off-the-wall theatrical experiences.
“She’s phenomenal,” Scott Houghton exclaims about Valle to encore. “We started working with her five years ago . . . she’s really the best at what she does.”
Mutts Gone Nuts’ performers are all rescues. They were in dog shelters before they were showstoppers. The Houghtons took in Feather and Geronimo, along with Pixel, Nerdy, Chuck Taylor, Charlie, Paco and Finn, while Valle adopted Rocky, a rescue out of Frederick, Maryland. In Wilmington Rocky will show off his new moves in a “canine musical freestyle routine,” wherein Valle dances with Rocky. It’s part of their goal to showcase dogs living happy lives to their full potential rather than leaving them in a puppy mill or animal shelter. Due to the admittance of 6.5 million animals to shelters each year, as many as 1.5 million Feathers and Geronimos are euthanized, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Houghtons have helped with dog rescues since 1999.
“That’s a big part of our message,” Scott asserts. “If you’re going to get a dog or cat for your family, check out the local humane society or the animal shelter, or maybe go to petfinder.com. There’s a lot of great cats and dogs out there and they’re looking for a home.”
Six years after the Houghtons began their rescue work, the pair established their dog comedy act. How they got into their act goes back further. The Houghtons created their own duo of physical satire in 1985. Comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy and the Smothers Brothers, along with comedians such as Dick Van Dyke, impacted them. After two decades in the slapstick comedy business—doing street performances on unicycles or juggling and walking tightropes at festivals—the Houghtons craved something new. Enter Mutts Gone Nuts.
“We had a few friends that had animal acts and [it] always looked like a lot of fun,” Scott recalls. “We love dogs, so it seemed like a natural transition. I noticed the animal acts had a lot of appeal—they would pull a big audience [and] big crowds.”
Though larger circus acts have fallen out of favor from less-than-stellar travel and living conditions of exotic animals like elephants and tigers, working with dogs is different for the duo. They live on a 3-acre farm in Damascus, Maryland, where the dogs are able to run free and learn new acts for their show.
“We do something we call ‘observational training,’” Scott suggests. “We just find what a dog really enjoys doing and reinforce those behaviors.”
Some like to catch frisbees, some like to climb around, some like to jump. Training transpires most days. Yet, in the show the dogs don’t always obey Scott’s orders. So the act uses it to their advantage come showtime: Scott will tell them to jump through a hoop, only to see the dog dive instead.
In result, all nine canine friends treat their job like playtime instead. When the music starts playing for their stage entrance, the doggies perk up. One of the routines Scott favors is the mutts, which includes six dogs on the stage, each on a pedestal. Each dog takes a turn performing a trick, which occur in obedience to Valle and Joan, as the canines outmaneuver Scott.
In addition to showcasing the dogs, Mutts Gone Nuts includes bits by Jonathan Burns. The contortionist takes the stage when the dogs are on a break. “[Burns is] all over the place,” Scott confirms. “So, yeah, we’re lucky to work with him.”
The tour stop in Wilmington will give attendees the opportunity to help with the Houghtons’ mission and rescue efforts. The couple will raise money for Monty’s Home, a local rescue program in Burgaw founded in 2007, inspired by a rescue canine named Monty, who passed away from cancer in 2006. The nonprofit takes in abandoned dogs, and trains and rehabilitates them before adoption.