You may not be able to teach old dogs new tricks, but Gregory Popovich can.
He can also train cats.
And even a mini-horse named Diamond.
As the creator of the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, Popovich has trained dogs, cats, mice, birds and other pets, all rescued from animal shelters, to perform tricks like play soccer, jump rope, push another animal in a small shopping cart or stroller, act as firefighters who must rescue other animals from a building, ride scooters, balance in different situations, jump through hoops and more.
On the 25th anniversary tour of the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, the show, in association with the Spokane Humane Society, comes to the Bing Crosby Theater on Wednesday.
A fourth-generation circus performer, there was little doubt that Popovich would follow in his family’s footsteps.
From an early age, he helped his mother onstage during her dog act, and he began to learn the art of juggling when he was 6.
Juggling appealed to Popovich because it was good exercise and helped build his character.
“If something wrong in my career happen, I just blame on myself, not on outside reasons so always tried to find what I did wrong,” he said.
At the age of 14, Popovich began working on his first solo act, juggling while on a free-standing ladder. After the premiere of this act, at 17, Popovich joined the Moscow Circus Group in his native Russia.
Popovich represented the circus at international competitions and now has countless juggling awards to his name, including an Award of Excellence from the International Jugglers’ Association.
In 1990, Popovich was asked to join the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and in 1992, he began working on his own Las Vegas show, which is where he incorporated his first cat, a family pet named Snowbird, into his act.
When selecting animals from the shelter, Popovich focuses more on personality and the chemistry between himself and the animal rather than looks.
One of his best performers, he said, was a dog injured after a car accident.
“Other dogs come to the door jumping, barking, and he seems like he understands he doesn’t look good and nobody pay attention to him,” he said. “He was so lonely and I walk couple times through the shelter and I stop by his door … and I decide to took him and it was one of the best performer later because he became talented, he was really talented, and we have great relationship.”
Popovich spends between three and six months training each animal using positive reinforcement. Rather than force an animal to learn a particular trick, Popovich will watch the animal as it plays and build a trick around what it likes to do for fun.
The most difficult part is not training, however, but transitioning the tricks from his living room to the stage.
To make this transition, Popovich has family members applaud after the animal performs a trick. He also plays music to show the animal that applause and music don’t hurt.
Even with the slow introduction to the spotlight, some animals just don’t want to be onstage. In those cases, the animals become Popovich family housepets.
When on the road, Popovich travels with 12 dogs and 14 cats, plus a menagerie of doves, a parrot and mice. Each animal has its own compartment in a custom-made trailer with air conditioning, heating, food and water.
Popovich also travels with a cast of talented performers from the Moscow Circus School who perform acrobatic acts. The Popovich Comedy Pet Theater also features physical comedy, balancing acts and juggling.
“It’s combination of talent pets and humans and audience have to decide who more talented by applause,” Popovich said. “Until now, my pets always have much more applause.”
Popovich said the show is a mix of circus and theater and features a central storyline about a clown who has been kicked out of the circus.
With his show, he is trying to bring back the spirit of vaudeville-style performing in contrast to more modern shows.
“I try bring the spirit back so people can see personality, me or my partners or my furry stars,” he said. “This is communication between stage and audience, which in modern, huge, technology production sometime is lost.”
For the past 11 years, the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater has called the V Theater in the Aladdin Resort and Casino home, though Popovich has also brought his act to stages around the world and has appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Penn and Teller Special: Live from Vegas” and season two of “America’s Got Talent,” where he and his furry friends made it to the semi-finals.
He and his talented bunch of pets also starred in a feature-length movie called “Popovich and the Voice of the Fabled American West” in 2014.
Throughout his career, Popovich has tried to teach people that “animals are people too.” To help spread this message, a portion of the ticket sales will be donated to the Spokane Humane Society.
“If after my show, someone from the audience visits the local animal shelter, adopt one kitty or doggie, I feel like my main message reached target,” he said.
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