LOS ANGELES — A million dollars will change you.
Since a father and son took their 10 flipping, twirling dogs from the center ring of a circus to the stage of a reality show, where they won TV competition "America’s Got Talent," people pack their performances at large venues and they have been tapped to star in short films bankrolled by Ellen DeGeneres’ pet food company, one of which is set to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.
Richard Olate, 56, son Nicholas, 21, and 10 poodle-mix dogs — most of them rescues — dazzled audiences and grabbed the "Talent" title in 2012 with their jumping, running, hiding, rolling and riding of dog-size cars and scooters. In the fast-paced, trick-filled shows, the dogs use slides and jump ropes better than most kids, fall into a conga line in perfect sync and one does backflips flawlessly.
After winning the million-dollar prize, the troupe headlined a show at the Venetian resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip for six months and started traveling in a cushy motorhome and trailer that pamper people and pooches.
"The dogs give us our life, so we make sure they are always in a good place," Nicholas Olate said of the dogs’ new mode of travel, which has heating, air conditioning and showers. "Everything’s decked out for their comfort."
The Olates, including wife and mom Rebecca, who serves as road and communications manager, spend more than 11 months a year on the road. They still play circuses, but with their fame, now take their performances to concert halls, NBA games and other large venues. A major draw is 6-year-old Lili, the family’s only canine performer who can do a backflip and a key reason the Olates won "America’s Got Talent," whose new season premieres May 27.
The act triumphed after 45 years of work by the elder Olate. Nicholas Olate says his father, the second youngest of 22 children born in Chile, was 10 when he adopted and started training strays. By 12, he was supporting his entire family with his dog shows. After a circus group saw the act, Richard Olate and the dogs were performing in the United States.
Nicholas Olate, born in Oregon, started working with his dad when he was 6.
He said he is often asked how they train the dogs — they don’t use treats, instead making the work fun and filled with love.
"Maybe my dad would have trained with treats, but he was so poor, he didn’t have money for them," Nicholas Olate said.
For those who wonder if the dogs enjoy performing, you can tell how they feel by their body language, said Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a San Diego veterinarian and author of pawcurious.com.
"In my experience, high-energy dogs that are given an outlet for that energy are usually pretty darn happy," she said. "Running, jumping, weaving — those are all activities a dog’s body is suited for. Work, take a break, have a snack, repeat: not a bad life for a pup."
The Olates and their dogs have even taken on a new type of performance, starring in a series of short online films promoting shelter adoptions. They could even be eligible next year for Oscar consideration in the narrative short film category.
Told from the dog’s point of view, a 6-minute French language film called "Le Sauvetage" ("The Rescue") opened the Sonoma International Film Festival in California this month and will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May.
Nicholas Olate plays lead character Phillipe, who falls in love after the dogs rescue him and co-star Tate Ashley from their lonely, boring lives. Richard Olate also appears in the film, sitting on a bench holding a dog.
The next film, set for release in June, will look at how dogs choose their human best friends.
The Olates’ pooches also manage some brand placement for Halo, Purely for Pets, the DeGeneres-owned natural pet food company that’s funding the films.
Steve Marton, Halo’s CEO and executive producer of the films, wants them to gain a large audience "because they show how lives can be changed forever when you take a shelter dog home."
"Before you see the show, you assume the guy’s a good dog trainer," Marton said of the elder Olate. "Then you see it, and you realize Richard is not managing the dogs. He is out there with his partners."
The dogs liked the crowds that gathered for "America’s Got Talent" and the show they headlined in Las Vegas, the family says.
"The crowds pumped the dogs up and added to their energy," Nicholas Olate said.
The younger Olate continues to add to his repertoire, displaying his singing chops in a pop album called "Think Big." The dogs also released one, called "The Olate Dogs’ Christmas," where they bark along to the music.
Olate hopes to try out for "American Idol" next year. The dogs aren’t eligible.
— Watch "Le Sauvetage" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FI-HlqNJL3w
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