Gone to the dogs

Ger­man shep­herds hit the stage at Kennedy Cen­ter

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JESSE YEATMAN jyeat­man@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @JesseEn­tNews

Thou­sands of eyes in the au­di­ence watched in an­tic­i­pa­tion as Jeb and Bella rushed across the stage through flashes of light­ning and boom­ing thun­der in the har­row­ing scene. It was the pair’s first per­for­mance at The John F. Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, and they were clearly a hit.

At least that’s what own­ers Kelly Burkhardt of Hol­ly­wood and Bob Nixon of Me­chan­icsville said of their two Ger­man shep­herds, which per­formed ear­lier this spring at what Nixon called “the Su­per­bowl of op­eras.”

Richard Wagner’s “The Ring” is a four­some of Ger­man dra­mas, with each sec­tion pre­sented on a dif­fer­ent night as a cy­cle by The Washington Na­tional Opera. The two dogs from St. Mary’s per­formed in the sec­ond part of the opera, called “The Valkyrie.”

“They had their own dress­ing room,” Burkhardt said. She and Nixon also had spe­cial parking spots near the cen­ter, and were given per­mis­sion to walk the dogs any­where in and around the build­ing, she said.

Burkhardt had been to the Kennedy Cen­ter many times as a child, when her par­ents would take her to see a va­ri­ety of per­for­mances. That made see­ing the back­stage that much more spe­cial, she said.

Nixon said he had been to the Kennedy Cen­ter as an adult while work­ing as a dog han­dler for the Se­cret Ser­vice un­der the Rea­gan and Bush eras. It was still a great ex­pe­ri­ence to ac­tu­ally be part of the play, he said.

“We got mobbed by peo­ple wait­ing to take pic­tures,” in the lobby af­ter the per­for­mances, he said.

And although the nights — in­clud­ing re­hearsals — ended very late, “It was so worth it,” Burkhardt said.

They had four per­for­mances, in­clud­ing one dress re­hearsal.

Both dogs ap­peared in just one scene that lasted only sec­onds. They had to run all the way across the stage, off-leash, while bark­ing. Do­ing that feat alone, on com­mand, could prove dif­fi­cult for many dogs, but there were added en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, too. There was pre­tend light­ning and thun­der sounds, a bel­low­ing orches­tra play­ing and the floor, which was grated, tilted to­ward the front of the stage on a fairly sig­nif­i­cant slope.

“It was just a lot go­ing on at once,” Burkhardt said.

Add to that the sold-out au­di­ence and it was no telling what might have hap­pened. In the end, though, the show went on and the pair per­formed per­fectly, the dog own­ers said.

“It’s an aw­ful lot for a dog,” she said.

This was Bella’s first pub­lic per­for­mance. Jeb, how­ever, is no stranger to per­for­mance art.

He ap­pears in two episodes of “House of Cards,” the Net­flix orig­i­nal se­ries about pol­i­tics in Washington, D.C.. Jeb is seen as a Se­cret Ser­vice guard dog in the tele­vi­sion drama.

“What goes into that stuff is just amaz­ing,” Nixon said of the pro­duc­tion.

Some­one with the tele­vi­sion show con­nected Nixon with staff at the Kennedy Cen­ter when they de­cided to have live dogs in the opera, he said. “Now we’re on this list,” he added.

At 10, Jeb is a bit older than 7-year-old Bella. Both dogs were ini­tially trained at Ap­ple­jack K-9 Academy in Char­lotte Hall, with fol­low-up train­ing from their own­ers. Jeb was trained in find­ing drugs, track­ing and per­sonal pro­tec­tion while Bella was trained in ex­plo­sives, air scent, hu­man re­mains and per­sonal pro­tec­tion.

They both trained to be Calvert K-9 Search Team dogs and each had been on a search mis­sion be­fore their own­ers be­gan fo­cus­ing train­ing on their other dogs.

The ca­nine search team trains a few times a month, and are called into duty by the po­lice dur­ing emer­gency searches. Burkhardt is the op­er­a­tions chief for the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I grew up with them” and wanted a good fam­ily dog that would of­fer pro­tec­tion, she said of Ger­man shep­herds. In­deed, the breed will pro­tect their fam­ily at all costs, so long as they are trained prop­erly, she said. But they are also play­ful — es­pe­cially with chil­dren in the fam­ily.

“They’re just re­ally well-rounded dogs,” she said.

She stressed the need for proper train­ing, be­cause the shep­herds are very strong an­i­mals.

“With any large-breed dog, you are ob­li­gated to train­ing,” she said.

And, like any ac­tor hop­ing to make a break in the busi­ness, the dogs’ good be­hav­ior was no­ticed, Nixon said. He and Burkhardt were asked if they’d be in­ter­ested in hav­ing the dogs par­tic­i­pate in next year’s opera per­for­mance of “Dead Man Walk­ing” at the cen­ter.


Bob Nixon with Jeb and Kelly Burkhardt with Bella pause for a pho­to­graph. The two Ger­man shep­herds in May per­formed in the opera “The Ring” at the John F. Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in Washington, D.C.


Bella sits in a dress­ing room at The John F. Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts.

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