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Adorable photo of dogs attending a Stratford performance takes off online

A group of service dogs in training took in a performance of Billy Elliot, and charmed the audience and staff

A group of service dogs in training took in a performance of Billy Elliot, and charmed the audience and staff

A group of service dogs took in a production of Billy Elliot at the Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario this week. (Stratford Festival )

A photo that appears to show the Stratford Festival going to the dogs is winning hearts online.

The picture shows a group of pooches ranging from poodles to golden retrievers sitting patiently in their cushy seats, taking in a production of Billy Elliot at the Stratford Festival last week.

But while the photo may be fun, it turns out the dogs' mission is serious: they're training to be service dogs, and they're practicing what it's like to help their handlers navigate through a theatre.

"It's important to prepare the dogs for any activity the handler may like to attend," says Laura Mackenzie, owner and head trainer with K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs, who led the Stratford Festival outing.

One of the service dog trainees attending the Stratford Festival. Says head trainer Laura Mackenzie, “The dogs loved the show almost as much as their handlers.” (Stratford Festival)

"The theatre gives us the opportunity to expose the dogs to different stimuli such as lights, loud noises and movement of varying degrees. The dogs must remain relaxed in tight quarters for an extended period of time."

In the process of the training, the dogs and their handlers do everything an attendee would do: navigate safely though crowds, travel along narrow aisles, fit into bathroom stalls — all while ignoring distractions, including food and the other attendees.

The dogs attended one of Stratford's "relaxed performances" for people who need softer lighting and gentler sounds, who tend to vocalize during the performances, or who need to move around, making the shows ideal for attendees on the autism spectrum, parents with infants or young children, or people who need to get up during a show.

The shows are part of the festival's many accessibility initiatives, which include performances with closed captioning for the hearing impaired, audio description for the visually impaired, braille programs and touch tours.

"About a dozen dogs came to our relaxed performance, and they were all extremely well-behaved," says Stratford Festival spokesperson Ann Swerdfager. "I was in the lobby when they came in, then they took their seats, then got out of their seats at intermission and went back — all of the things we learn as humans when we start going to the theatre."

“Everybody was so thrilled to see all these dogs at one time in the audience. It's really exciting. And it's thrilling to be part of something that is going to serve theatre goers of the future,” says the Stratford Festival's Ann Swerdfager. (Stratford Festival)

Swerdfager says having the dog trainees in the audience is good for the performers, too — especially a show like Billy Elliot that involves child actors — because it gets them accustomed to having service dogs in the audience.

Of course the attendees and staff loved having the pups on hand, too. "Everybody was so thrilled to see all these dogs at one time in the audience. It's really exciting. And it's thrilling to be part of something that is going to serve theatregoers of the future," says Swerdfager, who adds the festival welcomes attendees with service dogs many times a week.

"It's wonderful that going to the theatre is considered one of the things that you want to train a service dog for, rather than thinking that theatre is out of reach for people who require a service animal, because it isn't."

After the show, the handlers asked if they could take a photo, and it has since taken off online, receiving thousands of shares and retweets on Twitter and Facebook.

"Today it was picked up by a Twitter account called We Rate Dogs that has 8.3 million followers, and another one called Darth which dressed one of the dogs dressed up as Darth Vader," says Swerdfager with a laugh. "Lots of comments and heartwarming remarks like 'Best photo ever' too. It's been fantastic to watch it happen."

So in the end, how did the furry trainees do? "All of the dogs were fantastic and remained relaxed throughout the performance. Some even watched through the cracks of the seats," says Mackenzie, who plans to return with a new pack of tail wagging recruits. "The dogs loved the show almost as much as their handlers."

The Stratford Festival runs through to Nov. 10. Productions this year include The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Neverending Story, Othello, Billy Elliot, Little Shop of Horrors, The Crucible and more.

The Stratford Festival dogs and their handlers outside the theatre. (Stratford Festival)

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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