It was a bow that landed Hudy, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, a leading role in "Annie," the classic musical opening this week at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka.
Seeing that simple action, "I went, 'he's an actor,'" said director Rebecca Rizzio.
Hudy is a therapy dog who's been trained to bow to clients as a part of his work at the Courage Center, the Golden Valley-based rehabilitation center.
In the Lyric Arts production that opens Friday and runs through Dec. 16, he'll play Sandy, the dog that Annie takes in after running away from an orphanage.
This is Hudy's second acting gig. He also appeared in the theater's 2009 production of the children's fantasy "Bridge to Terabithia."
"He gets in there and does his job," Rizzio said, adding, "He's going to be the star of the show."
That said, it's tricky sometimes trying to get Hudy in the right place at the right time.
Even though he's highly trained, he occasionally goes off-script. For example, if something distracts him, he might start barking in the middle of a song, Rizzio said.
To keep Hudy focused, Rizzio makes sure he spends most of rehearsal time one on one with 12-year-old Regan Duffy, who plays Annie. That way, he'll watch her for cues.
As such, Duffy has to be firm in her verbal commands. Sometimes, she borrows familiar directives from Hudy's everyday life, like "Go see Momma," to coax him offstage.
Duffy also has been learning hand signals to get Hudy to sit or stay. In one scene, she has to scratch his belly. She also keeps a stash of treats in her pockets. "Food is a good motivator for him," she said.
Duffy, who has a yellow Lab of her own at home, said working with Hudy is a fun challenge. They've bonded. "When I get really close to him, he starts to kiss my face," she said. "He's super sweet and cute."
The right type to cast
Joanna Diem, Lyric Arts' production manager, said the character of Sandy "represents the need to take care of one another."
It's a theme that applies just as well to Hudy's day job.
Every day Hudy accompanies Liz Louis of Anoka, his handler and owner, to the Courage Center. So does another dog, Oscar, Louis' 4-year-old black Lab.
Louis facilitates therapy sessions with the dogs and children and adult clients at the Courage Center, whose medical situations vary.
Hudy and Oscar are both service dogs, meaning that they've been trained to assist people with disabilities.
Hudy can pick up certain objects with his mouth, close cabinet doors (something he's been known to do in the theater dressing room), switch lights on and off and open and close doors, among many other things.
Those skills come in handy with different types of therapy, related to everything from speech to walking.
'Ambassador of Hope'
Hudy has been recognized for his heroism in rescuing an elderly woman who suffered a fall. Last year, Helping Paws, a nonprofit organization that trained him as a service dog, named him an "Ambassador of Hope," because he provides hope to people with disabilities, Louis said.
"Every day he brightens up someone's life," she said. "I'm just lucky to walk along his side."
He loves to get laughs. "Usually, I'm the brunt of his jokes," she said. "If I tell a client, 'He'll get the phone and bring it to you,' he gets everything but the phone."
Often, antics like that provide welcome comic relief.
Speech language pathologist Corrie Muench vouched for that. A patient whose ability to articulate words has been impaired, for example, because of an injury, can practice on Hudy without judgment.
"A lot of clients are going through horrible, unexpected life changes none of us can understand," she said. "When Hudy rests his head on them, it says, 'I love you just the way you are.' It's good for their mental outlook."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.