By Sharon Sullivan –
Ethan Wilhelm and Keri Caraher spotted something unusual in early 2014 as they drove down a Macon, Georgia, interstate highway — a dog was running down the median strip separating the divided roadway. The couple turned around at the next exit and drove back and found the mutt, still alive, lying on the side of the road with gashes and wounds all over her body.
Using a bowl of food and a slip lead leash, Wilhelm coaxed the stray animal into their car. A deputy sheriff advised them to not look for its owner. An animal shelter told them it would euthanize the dog. Instead, Wilhelm and Caraher adopted the hound and made her a “canine star.”
The mutt they named Whoopie Pie remained depressed for a long time, Wilhelm recalls. Then, “after about six months she wagged her tail for the first time, and now she is one of the happiest, goofiest dogs in our household,” he says. “She does dock diving and amazing belly flops and cannon balls,” as one of The Canine Stars, a stunt dog company the couple founded in Fort Collins in 2012.
Whoopie Pie is one of 13 dogs the couple owns — most of them rescue animals they adopted and trained to be among their Canine Stars’ regular cast of characters. The show dogs entertain audiences at county fairs, theme parks, half-time shows, and corporate events all over the world, including the Virgin Islands, The Netherlands, South Korea and throughout the United States. In Colorado, The Canine Stars have performed at the Jefferson, Larimer, Adams and Boulder county fairs, as well as at the National Western Stock Show.
Caraher, a former website developer, grew up with dogs and began training pooches in 1999 to compete in dog sports. She drove across the country for national championship events. Wilhelm worked at an animal shelter as a teenager where he noticed some breeds were deemed “unadoptable” and were often euthanized, particularly pit bulls. The two animal lovers met each other while working part time for other dog show companies, some of whom promoted pure-bred breeding.
Both Caraher and Wilhelm, however, have a soft spot for mixed breeds — mutts — who, the couple contends, not only make good pets but also, with proper training, excellent athletes.
Shazam performs his high-flying act with The Canine Stars’ co-owner Ethan Wilhelm. Photo by Keri Caraher.
The Canine Stars run agility relay races, catch high-flying frisbees, dive off docks into water and do flyball racing — a team sport where four dogs compete head-to-head with four other canines, jumping over hurdles and snatching a tennis ball from a box at the end before returning with the ball to the start.
Caraher and Wilhelm work with 15 other trainers and their dogs — subcontractors like LeRoy Golden of Texas — who join them for various performances worldwide. Golden dedicated his life to rescuing pit bulls from shelters, Wilhelm says.
“We always wanted to do our own thing and promote rescue/adoption as our main mission; that’s why we went out on our own,” Wilhelm says. “Dogs can be trained to be companions; all dogs have personalities. With training, you can have your best friend.”
The Canine Stars’ co-owner Keri Caraher encourages Whisp during a performance. Photo by Ken Gee Photography
Plus, they wanted to work with dogs full time, Caraher adds.
“Our lives revolve around the dogs,” she says. “We’re having a lot of fun; the business pays for the dogs. We’re happy traveling and doing what we do.”
AMERICA’S GOT TALENT
2019 was Canine Stars’ busiest year with shows in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and in cities across the United States, including Alaska. They were on the road all but one month that year.
“We were crazy busy,” Wilhelm remembers. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and touring slowed, which gave The Canine Stars team time to work on a skit for NBC’s television series “America’s Got Talent.” After viewing videos of their acts, the AGT producers contacted The Canine Stars, inviting them to audition for its televised competition show. The team was too busy touring, however, to take the time to develop a skit — until 2020.
The Canine Stars’ Riesen and Opal wait backstage at “America’s Got Talent.” Photo by Keri Caraher.
“We came up with an idea that’s kind of a spoof of the show,” where four of their dogs appeared to be mimicking the four celebrity AGT judges, Wilhelm says. Each animal was dressed in an outfit created to look like what the judges had worn the previous season. During the act the dogs and their trainers sat inside custom-made chairs with armholes for the humans, plus holes for the dogs’ heads, with past seasons’ recordings of the judges’ voices seemingly coming from the dogs’ mouths.
“Each dog did something different,” says Brighton resident Jo Crickenberger, who began traveling with The Canine Stars team five years ago with her chocolate Labrador named Riesen. Crickenberger and Riesen also participated in the “America’s Got Talent” competition.
“We dressed up each dog based on previous shows right down to the nails — and the judges caught it. They recognized themselves,” Crickenberger recalls. Riesen portrayed “Simon Howel,” a parody of executive producer and judge Simon Cowell. Crickenberger remembers Cowell’s telling the team, “The dogs acting like the judges, judging your act, while we are judging you is absolute genius.”
The Canine Stars’ dogs mimic “America’s Got Talent” judges on the TV show in 2021. Photo by Keri Caraher
The Canine Stars team traveled to Los Angeles to audition for the show a year ago, in April 2021, before performing the skit live in August at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. Their audition took place in Pasadena and was aired June 1, 2021, on the program’s season premier.
Although The Canine Stars didn’t make it to the final competition, “We got a standing ovation from the judges,” Wilhelm says. “Comedian Howie Mandel was one of the judges. He said it was ‘one of the best animal acts he’s ever seen on the show.’”
“Britain’s Got Talent” contacted The Canine Stars team about auditioning for its own reality show, although Caraher and Wilhelm haven’t yet found the time to pursue that opportunity.
OUR DOGS ARE PETS FIRST
During regular competitions and shows, Canine Stars trainers share stories about the dogs they’ve rescued, adopted and trained to be these “amazing pets and performers,” Caraher says. “There are so many homeless dogs out there. Our goal and purpose of the business is to encourage people to consider adopting their next dog.”
Crickenberger has five dogs, one of which is a rescued terrier mix named Crouton that she began training along with her chocolate lab, Riesen.
“I’m his fourth home,” she says. “He had been locked in a closet, was emaciated, had lost his hair.” She adopted the pup after he had been fostered and rehabilitated. “After four different owners, and at 3 years old, he’s finally in his forever home,” Crickenberger says.
When not working at her “real job” as a medical coder, Crickenberger travels as often as she can with The Canine Stars. Typically, that means two or three times each summer, with trips ranging from four days to three weeks, depending on the show. She and Riesen have attended the National Western Stock Show, the Calgary (Canada) Stampede, the Alaska State Fair, and, most recently, a show in Kentucky.
If you’re wondering if it’s humane to make dogs perform — a question Wilhelm says he is asked a lot — Wilhelm explains that they never force a dog to do anything it doesn’t want to do. Trainers use positive reinforcement, trust-building exercises and treats to encourage the dogs to participate in what they like to do naturally, he says.
Bootzilla grabs the flying disc thrown by Ethan Wilhelm. Photo by Sara Carson.
“If you watch the dogs, you see we don’t force,” he says. “They do what they love. It’s just like how a dog plays frisbee in the park. They like it even better before an audience. If they don’t want to join in, they can hang out. We look for dogs with extra energy to burn. Whatever they’re doing in the show is their favorite thing to do. They love the sound of a live crowd cheering for them — they’re little performers just like people.”
“All of our dogs are pets first,” Caraher adds. “We started training them because it’s fun. Dogs want to interact with their humans. A relationship with a dog is awesome, especially for kids. We want them to have relationships with dogs instead of their phones.” While they have a house in Fort Collins, Caraher and Wilhelm train the dogs on an 8-acre property in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, where they stay in what was once a car shop that’s been converted into a big, roomy home.
The couple’s 13 dogs all sleep in their bedroom, where the hounds stay in 5-feet-by-5-feet pens, except for the three to five mutts who take turns sharing their bed each night, Caraher says.
A DREAM COME TRUE
In 2020, The Canine Stars launched a youth mentorship program to teach kids ages 12-18 how to train their own dogs and help raise awareness of the need for pet adoption. To apply to the yearlong online program, young dog owners worldwide submit videos of themselves working with their pets.
All of this year’s applicants happened to be girls from Canada, Bosnia, the United Kingdom, Hungary, South Carolina and three from North Carolina. Participants meet biweekly via Zoom where students share videos of their dogs doing tricks; they also give feedback to one another.
“We give an assignment, say, throwing a frisbee,” Wilhelm says. “We teach proper techniques for throwing, different types of throws, sequences. Then we watch videos together on Zoom. Every two weeks there’s a special assignment for which they have to train.”
Seventeen-year-old Meghan Wilcox, who lives near Greensboro, North Carolina, graduated in December from the 2021 Canine Stars youth program. She works with her dog Sawyer, an Australian-Shepherd mix she rescued four years ago. “I found him when he was 6 months old in a river behind my house; it was January and cold,” she recalls. “He had been abandoned in the woods. I took him inside, gave him a warm bath; he laid down by the fire like he’d always lived there. We’ve been close ever since.”
While enrolled in the youth mentorship program, Wilcox and Sawyer were invited to audition with The Canine Stars for the “America’s Got Talent” show. “They needed a pretty, fluffy dog” for the skit, she says. They also wanted a dog who could sit still wearing a costume (Sawyer had been through obedience training). Although the AGT routine itself lasted only a couple of minutes, Wilcox remembers it took a lot longer to practice and shoot the scene.
Thirteen dogs plus their trainers came to Los Angeles for the two-week, all-expenses-paid trip. They all stayed in motor homes at a campground on the beach. “It was a dream come true for me,” says Wilcox, whose family is originally from Divide, near Colorado Springs. “When I was 13, I watched all the ‘America Got Talent’ acts with dogs. I remember watching it as a family and telling my mom, ‘I’m going to do that someday.’”
Sharon Sullivan is a freelance writer for Colorado Country Life from Colorado.