FOREVER LASSIE

FOREVER LASSIE


By:  Date: 09/18/2007

NAIA Newsletter: September 18, 2007

by Kerrin Winter-Churchill

Who among us can predict the legacy we will leave behind in the wake of our lives? For most of us, it is difficult to imagine that the skills and interests particular to our existence will have any lasting effect on the world, and yet the thread of cause and effect runs through every timeline on earth. How we choose to fill our days really does matter. Put into the perspective of what we are to the world of animals, the weight of responsibility for their future existence falls squarely on our shoulders. We may not realize it, but every single time someone new meets our beloved creatures, opportunity springs eternal.Here is a chance to win new fans for the dogs we hold so dear to our hearts. Will a chance encounter spark a flame of interest to carry forward to a new generation? Who will we meet today that has the power to change our lives?

Rudd Weatherwax probably never asked himself such questions. He was a man of action, busy making a living with the canine companions that he treasured. When Weatherwax was a very young child, he lived with his six siblings on his parents' goat ranch in New Mexico. The sons and daughters of a Texas marshal who also trained horses trick riders in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the Weatherwax children came by their love of animals naturally, but a chance encounter with a stray dog set the wheels of fate into motion. As a very young boy, Rudd accompanied his brothers into town to pick up some feed for their livestock. While the older boys loaded the wagon, Rudd was distracted by a feisty terrier mix running loose in the alley. Recognizing a special quality in the whiskered stray, the little boy encouraged the dog to follow him home. Desperate to keep his new pal but knowing his father would never allow a frivolous animal to live on their ranch, six-year old Rudd simply began working with the dog, turning him into a productive member of the family. Given the name of "Jig," the little dog grew proficient at ratting and daily tasks such as finding misplaced articles.

A half dozen years or so later, Rudd was now a teenager when his father moved the family to California and settled in farming country just outside Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. To find work, the father answered newspaper ads for stunt work and trick riding in the burgeoning motion picture business of the 1920's. Soon, the lure of the movie business and steady pay prompted him to bring his agile, athletic children along to the sets where they too were hired as extras and trick riders, standing in for actors and actresses who couldn't or wouldn't do their own stunts. For the price of a sack lunch, the youngsters would stick around on the set, making themselves available just in case they were needed.

In the meantime, another stray terrier had crossed Rudd's path near home at the small ranch. Falling for the stray's charm, young Rudd tested this new fellow on the spot and was delighted by his responsiveness. Not averse to a bit of mischief, "Wiggles" and Rudd made the most of skillfully stealing an apple here and there from local orchards. One day, Rudd took his little dog to a movie set where Rudd instructed the dog to perform a few tasks while the cameras were rolling. The director liked what he saw and told Rudd to come back the next day, not to act or double but to bring the dog to complete the scene. The scrappy little dog was soon earning money for his master and trainer. Over time, all of Rudd's brothers got into the business of training or handling entertainment dogs. With Rudd the most focused, talented, and professional of all the Weatherwaxes, all the Weatherwax men – even the father – were known at every movie studio and in demand. The Weatherwax name became an industry if not a household word. If a dog was needed on a set, a call went out for a Weatherwax-trained or handled dog. During Hollywood's Golden Age, oldest brother Mac trained all the dogs in Call of the Yukon, Jack took the contract for The Wizard of Oz, handling Terry, the Cairn Terrier, in the role of "Toto," Frank even handled a cat in one movie, and Rudd trained and handled the Wire Fox Terrier known as "Asta" in the Thin Man series, another terrier who played "Daisy" in the Blondie series, and even one of the "Petes" for The Little Rascals short films.

Although all the Weatherwax children were involved in the movie business, Rudd and Frank made dog training for the entertainment industry their life-long careers. Sharing both a deep brotherly bond and a love for dogs, they went into business together. They formed Studio Dog Training School with a handshake and split all income straight down the middle. At the height of their business, the partners kept a kennel of over sixty canines. Although some well-remembered motion films of the era had purebred dogs in their casts, most of the working dogs in Hollywood were mixed breeds. On sets all over Hollywood, nondescript mutts crossed desolate streets of old western towns, ran with kids actors through parks and alleyways, sat on the stoops of cityscapes, and more. Whether they were a focal point of the film or merely an extra on the set, most of these dogs were supplied by the Weatherwax brothers, who had learned firsthand the power of the Great American Mutt. Routinely the two dog men walked the animal shelters, looking into pleading eyes, searching for a special quality that said, "Save me. Train me. Put me in the movies." These dogs became the money makers, the bread and butter trade, that appealed to the average moviegoer who just might have a very similar dog at home. On cue, they pulled back curtains to reveal the villain, jumped onto the horse's back, snarled at the bad guy, rescued damsels in distress, and provided moments of comic relief. These amazing dogs earned a solid reputation for the brothers, helping their partnership last through the 1970's.

A Star is Born

Though they didn't solicit work to train personal companions, industry insiders began referring their friends and family members to the brothers, and the Weatherwax name was passed around to well-heeled owners who occasionally called on the trainers to fix the erratic behavior of their pet dogs. In 1941, "Pal," an eight-month old Collie typical of breeding programs then was sent to Rudd Weatherwax to break the bad habit of chasing motorcycles. Agreeing to take the dog, Rudd began basic training, and Pal learned quickly. He was soon beyond sits, downs and recalls. He was fetching, barking and waving on cue, but he would not give up his motorcycle-chasing. It also turned out that his owner never came to claim him. Knowing the dog's potential, Rudd decided to use him in film work. Sadly, just like today, calls for purebred dogs on movie sets were few and far between, so Pal sat idle. Deciding to give the dog an expanded repertoire, Rudd took Pal home to train for what he termed "high school maneuvers." "My dad used to say, it's true that every boy needs a dog, but every dog needs a boy too," says Bob Weatherwax. "Pal learned how to pull a boy from danger by gently grabbing hold of my trousers. He learned how to lead a boy by gently taking my arm in his mouth." Bob, exactly a year younger than Pal, became Pal's little boy.

Around that time, Rudd responded to a cattle call for a well-trained Collie to play the part of "Lassie" in the upcoming film adaptation of the best selling book, Lassie-Come-Home, by Eric Knight. Although Pal performed beautifully, he wasn't a champion show specimen and, because he was so young, his coat wasn't in full bloom. He simply didn't look the part of a hero dog, and the part went to a beautiful show dog instead. Weatherwax would have been surprised to win the role despite his dog's talents, but he was more concerned with ever being able to market his purebred dog. With so many other dogs demanding his attention and constantly employable, Rudd made the decision to part with Pal, loaning him indefinitely to a rancher friend where the dog guarded livestock. Several months passed, and one day Weatherwax received a call from MGM. Pal was needed as a stunt double for the show dog. Rudd hurried back to the ranch and brought the dog home to his family, who got busy pulling burrs and mats from the dog's coat.

Lassie-Come-Home had been slated as a standard, black and white Class B film. Although the movie's production crew had shot some footage, filming was stalled by the canine star's refusal to jump into the flooded San Jacinto river. The director hoped that Pal could stand in for the star so they could get past this one scene. Pal was brought to the bank of the river and on cue was given the signal to jump in. With cameras rolling, the well-trained dog did as he was told, but no one counted on the quickening current and the drift effect due to excessive rains. On the opposite shore, Rudd ran downstream to stay even with Pal, encouraging him to swim to him, even though he knew the dog was already out of range of the black and white cameras. Meanwhile, a half mile further ahead – at the very precise moment of Pal's struggle – the studio's brand new Technicolor cameras were being tested by shooting the flora and fauna on the banks of the same river. When the valiant Collie swam into view, sharp-eyed camera operators naturally adjusted their focus, following Pal's struggle through the water, capturing all the drama as the dog – still taking his cues from Weatherwax – dragged himself onto shore, pretending to be too exhausted to even shake the water from his fur. After seeing the color test film, the director, Fred M. Wilcox, declared, "Pal may have jumped into the water, but Lassie swam out." When MGM's top executives saw the color footage, they decided to reshoot the entire film from scratch using the new Technicolor cameras and the stand-in Collie. History was made when the beautiful show collie that would not swim was fired, and Pal took on his first and most significant role as the star of Lassie-Come-Home.

America Loves a Collie

Looking back on the film, it's really no wonder the movie was nominated for an Oscar. Lassie-Come-Home had all the elements of a blockbuster success; Technicolor, incredibly appealing child actors Elizabeth Taylor and Ruddy McDowell, and a magnificent Collie. Premiering in 1943, Rudd took his entire family to the event, staying all the way through the credit roll, hoping to gauge the opinion of the crowd. "Well, we really bombed out," he told his wife. "They're all crying." Clearly, Rudd had misread the crowd's reaction. Audiences loved the film, and MGM quickly concluded that America loved this Collie. Taking advantage of their gold mine, MGM signed Weatherwax and his beautiful dog for more feature films; eventually a total of seven were made. From then on, Rudd Weatherwax worked almost exclusively on Lassie projects, while Frank worked the rest of the business that came to Studio Dog Training School. As before, they continued their custom of bringing all income to the table, cutting it down the middle. Pal's rise to stardom was indeed a full-time job for Rudd, whose own imagination and talents were constantly challenged by the scripts prepared for Lassie movies.

Although stand-ins were occasionally used for a scene that might call for a fight between Lassie and a wolf or lion, Pal performed his own stunts, and Rudd did not use other Collies to fill scenes. True of all the Lassie movies and the television episodes, one Collie performed all the principal work, and this dog was always a direct generational descendant of Pal. In most instances, any other Collie used was a son or grandson of a Lassie breeding. It is a myth that many Collies were used, each of whom could do one trick. That's the thing about Collies: their versatility is so deep that they can do everything asked of them.

Not merely well-trained dogs that responded to a cue, the Weatherwax Collies have always performed as true actors who tap into their emotions with the help of their drama coach. Using his unique training method of voice inflection to create the illusion of emotion, Rudd (and later his son Bob) could build on behaviors by raising or lowering his voice, drawing out his words, using hand signals. Each of these cues alone added a behavior and, when strung all together, these behaviors became fluid action for the camera, providing the desired effect on screen. This special "Weatherwax Method" wasn't really something Rudd invented. It was merely his own personal style, the roots of which were developed long before when he first met those scrappy terriers called Jig and Wiggles.

Lassie for All Seasons

Like all good trainers, Weatherwax continually added to his repertoire of training methods and tools throughout his life, but by the end of the sixth movie in 1951, Rudd Weatherwax faced a serious dilemma. Though Pal the canine actor was getting old, Lassie the movie star Collie was forever young. Noticing the graying muzzle, watching the dog's stiffening gait and reading the letters from fans of all ages, Weatherwax realized that Lassie had to live on for future generations of fans to love and adore. Adding the job of dog breeder to his resume, Weatherwax consulted with serious Collie fanciers, who advised him on breeding for color and genetics. Rudd knew that a future Lassie had to look as much like Pal as possible, but a sable-mahogany coat with a full white ruff, four white paws, and a facial blaze weren't all that was needed. Weatherwax knew that Pal was special for his bombproof nature, his trainability, and his joy for stage performance. Combining the precise looks with the specialized characteristics that blend to make an A-list movie star was a daunting task.

While most serious breeders concentrate on family or line-breeding, Weatherwax decided that his Lassie line of Collies would be created as outcrosses, concentrating mainly on the sire's side of the pedigree. The females bred to Pal and to each successive Lassie were all completely unrelated to him or each other. Down through the generations, each mother of Lassie has always been chosen for her sound temperament and her white-factored genetics to help insure the blaze, ruff and white legs. With this criterion in mind, Weatherwax began cultivating relationships with a select group of Collie owners who allowed their selected females to be bred to Pal for the sake of America's Lassie. In his golden years, Pal sired several litters of puppies, and Weatherwax had the weighty responsibility of sorting through them for a successor.

Nine direct generational descendants in all, Pal's son Lassie II (or Lassie Jr. as he was known) was the first of the television Lassies. Though his sire Pal starred in the very first episode in 1953, Lassie Jr. took over and shared the stage first with Jeff Martin played by Tommy Retting. He eventually passed his role as "Lassie's boy" onto Timmy played by John Provost. Eventually Baby took over for his sire, becoming an older Timmy's constant companion, transitioning into the new story line as Lassie went to live with Corey Stuart. Later, Baby gave way to his son Mire who left his forest ranger buddy behind and traveled on his own. Eventually Mire passed the Lassie torch to his son Hey Hey, who sired Big Boy, who sired The Old Man, who sired Howard (the golden sable star of the 1994 motion picture Lassie: Best Friends Forever), who sired the ninth generation of Weatherwax Lassie dogs, a beautiful mahogany sable named Laddie – a very twenty-first century version of Pal.

Sadly, although Pal's litter was most likely AKC-registered, he didn't arrive at the Studio Dog Training School with his papers. Even though all the females he was bred to were also AKC registered, Weatherwax never registered any of Pal's descendants or the descendants of the other generations of Lassies. Given this non-registered status, it is ironic to realize that Lassie has represented purebred Colliedom to decades of dog lovers, bringing thousands of people into the sport of purebred dogs as well as influencing the choice of a family pet. On any given day a fancier will exclaim, "I watched Lassie every single week after school, and I vowed to have a dog like that when I grew up." In this way, the Weatherwax Lassies are the ultimate performance-bred dogs – working to full potential and winning fans for all types of dogs.

Growing up by his father's side, Bob Weatherwax has known all the Lassies from Pal to Laddie. Mentoring under his father, he credits Rudd with teaching him most of what he knows. When he was twenty-one, the younger Weatherwax turned pro, eventually taking over for his father and training the last three Lassies – all descendants of the original Pal. Training and traveling with the ninth generation – Laddie, Weatherwax is pleased with the coat color, markings and temperament of his latest star. "We really have done a good job raising sturdy Collies," says Bob Weatherwax. "Our dogs have solid temperaments and are very intelligent. Of course, they don't look like show Collies. The Weatherwax Collie is a little bit bigger, they have a white blaze on their face and their dark eyes are larger too." Keeping the Weatherwax line of Collies going and in the family, Bob now partners with his daughter, Mary Duxbury, who keeps all the breeding records. Unbroken chains seem to be a Weatherwax theme that doesn't stop with people or Collies. The feisty terrier sidekick is another tradition handed down with each generation. Rudd had a real love for these little dogs, and each Collie from Pal all the way to Laddie has had one of his own. Since the days of Pal, these little dogs have appeared in the movies along with the Collies, and most of them have been hand-selected from the wire runs of animal shelters. "Our Collies have been incredible companions and, of course, they've done well for us but yes, the little ones are a tradition for the family too. Reflecting on this tradition that began with Jig and Wiggles, Bob Weatherwax comments, "They make excellent actors and they're good companions for the Collies. At the end of a long day, it's nice for the Collie to be able to curl up with his little pal." Looking back on the long line of Collies and terriers that his family has worked with over the years, Weatherwax shudders to think what would happen if all dogs, except for those that were actually being shown at a dog show were spayed or neutered. Referring to the now dormant AB1634 bill, Weatherwax says, "Such severe laws could easily cause dogs as a species to die out. The people who support that bill just don't realize how much damage it would cause. One generation and out. Extinct. That's it. I hope that I never see a day when the Dog is a thing of the past."

Weatherwax's fears are well-founded. As a California resident, he was on the front lines of the battle to preserve our rights to breed dogs without restriction. Since none of the Lassies were ever registered, had the failed AB 1634 bill instead passed, the Weatherwax line of Collies – like most families of true working bloodlines – would have been forced to either move to a "safe state" or be extinguished. Fortunately, Lassie the canine star has a larger than life effect on the public, and with every new generation of fans, ardent human protectors of Man's Best Friend are awakened. Traveling to Sacramento with Bob, Laddie was a tangible representation of what would be lost if bills such as AB 1634 were passed.

If Rudd Weatherwax could have seen the future, he would have been amazed. In 1941, he accepted a motorcycle-chasing collie into his training program and from his skilled hands emerged a canine star for the ages. As the archetypal symbol of the greatness of the canine species, we know that for as long as there is Lassie, dogs will live forever.

Lassie photographs - courtesy of Weatherwax Trained Dogs

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