It takes about one month to teach a dog how to jump rope.
It might take a little longer to get the animal to walk a tightrope or to balance on a broom.
Johnny Peers brings his traveling, canine-centric comedy act “Johnny Peers & The Muttville Comix” to Smith Wilkes Hall today at 5 and 7 p.m. as part of the Family Entertainment Series, marking his first time at Chautauqua Institution.
Peers might be headlining the act, but it’s really his 16 dogs that draw in the crowd. For 45 minutes, Peers and his furry assistants will perform a variety of circus stunts, with Peers acting as the official ringmaster.
For Peers, the training is part of the fun. He said that it all starts with getting the animal to simply come to him when he calls for them. Then it gets more complicated.
“You have to become their friend first, let them trust you,” he said. “Once you get their respect, and once you respect them and they respect you, it’s pretty easy after that.”
Aside from balancing acts, he works with the dogs on comedic effect, teaching them that it’s all in the timing.
“It’s basically a comedy act,” Peers said. “It’s actually organized confusion. It looks like everything is going wrong, but it’s not. It’s actually choreographed. Something you might have seen in old-time Vaudeville.”
The 16 dogs, a variety of mixed and purebred, are mostly shelter and rescue dogs that Peers has adopted. Among the various breeds there are terriers, a border collie, a pointer-mix and a basset hound.
As a child, Peers’ father was a concession worker for a circus. Peers would hang out with the clowns and watch them perform, and he eventually went on to graduate from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. In a show early in his career, Peers just happened to use a dog in his act. All of a sudden, the performer had a new specialty.
Though Peers never intended to have a dog-friendly circus act, he and his pooches have been traveling around the nation since 1980. Since then, Peers’ act has been featured on “Late Show with David Letterman,” “Live! with Regis and Kathy Lee” and “Primetime Live.”
Gwen Papania, the Institution’s director of youth services and a dog lover, said that she always looks to book an animal-friendly show during the season, as the show brings a happy, silly diversity to the series.
The four-legged performers are more than willing to entertain. Peers said that the dogs know they’re working the crowd, and once the music starts the dogs realize that the show has begun.
“They thrive on the attention and the noise and the applause,” he said. “You can tell right away that they are hyped up and excited.”
Peers said that both he and the dogs love to make the audience laugh. Usually, the performer will have kids from the audience come to the stage to help out. Most exciting for Peers is knowing that if a kid is laughing, a parent is happy, and everyone might be able to escape their problems for a little while.
Of course, getting fawned over by kids and parents all the time has led to some ego problems.
Chico, a Chihuahua, is the star of the show, balancing on wires and a broomstick that rests on Peers’ head.
“[Chico] is starting to make demands,” Peers said. “He wants Perrier water and wants his own private dressing room. … I start to wonder if he’s going to go out on his own and do his own show.”
After spending so much time with his dogs, Peers has come to view them as family.
“They’re my best friends, actually,” Peers said. “We’re just one big, happy family. I’m starting to look like them — that’s the only problem.”