Chester Gigolo might just be one of Hudson County's hidden talents. He's a budding actor, having appeared in commercials for Verizion, QVC, and Mastercard. He's a published author, and he's a star athlete.
And he’s a Berger Picard – a medium-sized, herder dog breed originating in France.
He doesn’t do it alone. He has extensive help from owners Christina and Taylor Potter of North Bergen.
So does his “brother,” Hudson, a golden retriever who starred in the film “Our Idiot Brother,” and the only dog to have barked live during “Saturday Night Live's” cold open.
Hudson did motion capture work for the Grand Theft Auto 5 video game.
“Siblings” Morgan and Pepe, both tiny, hairless Chinese Crestedes, round out the bunch in the couple’s waterfront townhouse. They’ve appeared in ads for Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, and HSBC Bank, among many others.
All four are trained and accomplished in not only show business but athletic competitions.
The canines competed in the Westminster Kennel Club Masters Agility Championship in New York City on Feb. 11.
Though none advanced to the finals, each dog is highly accomplished on the competitive stage.
Three of the four dogs are multiple time Masters Agility Champions (MACH).
The national American Kennel Club organization administers the awards to dogs who exhibit extraordinary skill on set agility courses. Just to emphasize how difficult winning a MACH is, before a dog can even compete for one, it has to have reached Master level. That requires winning eight titles in the AKC.
Chester is a MACH 3, having won it three times. He's also the first Berger Picard in history to reach MACH 3. Pepe is a MACH, having won the title once. Morgan is a MACH 12; she is the highest MACH to have a AKC Breed Championship.
And though Hudson is still working to reach MACH glory—Taylor compares him to a Formula 1 racecar that has great speed on the course, but no control—he has also won a few AKC titles.
Getting into training
The Taylors began training dogs to bring more excitement into their lives. “When we got married, we had a golden retriever,” Christina said. “It was a well-trained pet, but it was a pest. We started training kind of out of boredom, going and taking the dog and his son – we bred him – to training classes.”
Co-incidentally, the retriever and his son were Hudson's great-grandfather and grandfather, respectively.
“It was just to give us something to do,” she added. “We started doing obedience training. We really enjoyed that. So we got them certified as therapy dogs and kept the training up and just kept going and just started doing agility.”
Around 2000, the Taylors moved from Massachusetts to North Bergen. That is when they decided to ramp up their training efforts.
“We got into more serious, competitive obedience, with American Kennel Club,” Christina said. “And that's kind of what turned into getting an agent.”
“At a seminar for therapy dogs, we met a lady—she mentioned her dog was going to be in the media,” added Taylor.
“Christina cornered her later and got the name of her agent.” From there, it was full speed ahead. Hudson, Chester, Morgan, and Pepe joined the home in the succeeding years.
The couple said it wasn't difficult to train their dogs for bright lights and obstacle courses. “We do a lot of socializing with the dogs,” said Christina. “They go into every environment; they go to agility trials every weekend and there's a lot of noise, a lot of different people, a lot of different behaviors. Different looks of dogs. And all the training that we do is positive reinforcement.”
During a recent visit with a reporter, Pepe served as a good example. While Christina spoke near the kitchen counter, he walked over because he knew that his treats were on top.
“He knows when we want to address him or something, come over here, we'll give him a treat,” she said. “So they're all very eager to learn. You pull out the treats, and they're ready to learn.”
Christina has used treats on commercial sets as incentives for the dogs to focus and avoid distractions.
“We also train them to listen to other people,” Christina shared. “Because sometimes, in a movie, the dog has to walk with somebody else. The actor has to tell them, 'Sit,’ or ‘quiet.’”
But training the dogs for physical competition is different from just understanding commands on a movie set.
“Agility does not come naturally for many breeds,” Christina said. “Most dogs, if they're playing outside, they're probably going to run around things as opposed to running over things. They're going to go the quickest way. So you have to train them. If there's a jump, you have to take the jump; you can't go under the jump, you have to go over the jump. And then the weave poles, that's the hardest thing to train. That takes almost two years because you really can’t start training a puppy to do weave poles because their body is so much smaller than it's going to be when they get bigger.”
“One of the obstacles is a seesaw,” Taylor said. “It's pretty big. So instead of putting a puppy over that, what we do is make a thing called a wobbleboard. I just take half of a tennis ball and slap it on two by two square plywood. And you have the puppy step on it. It's this thing moving around, and just kind of building that, 'I'm not afraid.'”
Noting a relaxed Pepe and Morgan on the couch, Christina loudly clapped her hands, which didn't garner any response. “They're pretty calm,” she said. “Like, 'Yeah, whatever.' The less stuff that freaks them out, the better.”
Christina soon brought out Hudson and Chester individually, from behind a gate where they head when visitors come.
“Peekaboo,” she said, an instruction to Hudson to pop his head out from under her legs. “Good boy,” she positively affirmed.
Hudson immediately removed his head and took a few steps back, before Christina ordered, “Peekaboo” again.
For his next command, Hudson had to “take a bow,” causing him to drop to the ground as Christina pointed to the floor.
She then ran through a few more of the 20 to 30 hand signals their dogs recognize.
For “dance,” he completely balanced on his rear legs when she raised her arms up and outwards, almost shaking his paws in a rhythmic fashion.
The breakout star of his family, Chester was scheduled to compete in additional Westminster trials for the upcoming weekend. It's part of his busy life, which will get busy this summer when he will sit down with Christina to “write” his third book. Not bad for a dog only 6 years old.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org