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A Considerable Town

Omar Von Muller's Skateboarding Dogs. Yes, Skateboarding Dogs.

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Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 12:23 PM
click to enlarge Dash goes skateboarding - ADAM GROPMAN
  • Adam Gropman
  • Dash goes skateboarding

It's a pleasant summer day down at Venice Beach, the boardwalk humming with activity. On the paved path pointing toward the water, near where Windward Avenue ends at the beach, a skateboarder shows off, kicking sturdily against the pavement, leaning into ovals and figure-eights, occasionally falling off the board but then sprinting and jumping right back on. It's not Tony Hawk-level skating, but it's pretty damn good for a dog.

The mind has to adjust to what the eye sees. He's a scrappy little canine, with a pointy snout and a sturdy tail, and he's soon joined by another, much larger dog, also on a board. While together they make for a comical Mutt & Jeff duo, their skateboarding is seriously good.

On a beach known for many sights -- some outrageous, others randomly weird, but only a handful indicative of real, rarefied talent -- this act is rather mind-blowing. These pups aren't just staying on a rolling board that's been pushed by a human, they are actively, aggressively skating -- going against what one would imagine is every dog's powerful instinct, which is to get the hell off a moving slab of wood on wheels.

"When someone sees a dog skateboarding, they go, 'Wow, that was awesome!' " says the dogs' owner and trainer, Omar Von Muller, 49, a Colombian native of part-German heritage, with intense dark eyes, craggily handsome features and a ball cap. "But they don't realize the hundreds of hours I put into that. And in those hundreds of hours this dog got a lot of exercise, a lot of play, a lot of things that he really likes to do. "

While today's skateboarding session is just for fun, and offers tourists and beach walkers a sensational free show, Von Muller used to take his show to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where an hour and a half would yield $350 cash.

"Most people try to go too fast when teaching such tricks," says Von Muller, who's been training animals for nearly 30 years. "I take my time, I set myself a goal of the next few months. It's about motivation -- you get the dog motivated to do the skateboard. It's not just about putting him on the skateboard. Then you train him for five minutes and put him away. The next day he's gonna be eager to come out and do it again."

While we Angelenos hear about hordes of people flocking to L.A. to get into the movies, the spotlight rarely shines on folks who come to L.A. to get their animals on camera. Von Muller is one of many fascinating specialists operating at the novelty fringe of the entertainment factory whose "product" is both crucial and irreplaceable.

His work on commercials, TV shows and films over the years often has matched him with other people's animals, but Von Muller likes working with his own dogs the most. His pooch Uggie recently played prominent co-starring roles in major release Water for Elephants and Cannes favorite The Artist, starring Malcolm McDowell, John Goodman and Missi Pyle.

"In the beginning I was really impressed by it," Von Muller says of showbiz's grand allure. "Around 15 years ago, I went to this little motel -- they had sent me for a job with my shepherd, and I go in and it's Sharon Stone, and I was, like, 'What?!' So you get starstruck. The first couple years it was like that."

But now it's more like Von Muller and his talented animals are the stars.

"Reese Witherspoon, who was in Water for Elephants, loved my dogs," he says. "I used to take Popeye, the big guy, with me, and she was crazy about Popeye. The dog wasn't even in the movie, but I'd take him along for the ride."

Uggie even won a "Palm Dog" -- a riff on Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or -- at the festival for The Artist. Animal- and gossip-related blogs claimed that Water for Elephants star Robert Pattinson was so taken with his canine colleague that he asked to adopt Uggie upon completion of filming.

"That didn't really happen," Von Muller says with a laugh. "But he did really bond with him."

At his Panorama City home, Von Muller keeps seven highly trained dogs of various breeds and sizes. Framed photos of him beside various celebrities line the walls of his office and he plays YouTube videos of his dogs doing skateboarding tricks; mountain boarding on a board with huge wheels for going down wild, unpaved hills; and painting on canvas with a brush held in the mouth. He's worked with rats, lions, tigers and snakes on various productions, but dogs are clearly his best long-term talent partners. His next far-out training idea is getting a dog to ride a bicycle in a realistic manner.

One thing bugs Von Muller, however. The compensation. It's fair, "but I think we should get residuals. We do not get residuals, and I think it sucks.

"Even a puppeteer with a puppet that is an animal, and you don't see him, gets residuals. What happens is that not everybody is going to jump in the boat and do it. It's like the production says, 'OK, you wanna get residuals? We'll go get somebody else.' "

Nonetheless, both Von Muller and his dogs are having way too much fun to stop. "A couple of my dogs, I can put on a skateboard and they'll die," he says. "I'm serious, they will get a heatstroke and die because they will not stop skating."

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