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
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
“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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