The most talented movie star in America is two and a half feet tall, 7 years old, and 39 pounds. He has brown eyes, a natural black vest and tail, and his pale chest, arms, and legs are dotted with tan freckles. His name is Jumpy.
And he’s a dog.
Human actors tend to specialize in one thing, maybe two. Meryl Streep knows languages, Cate Blanchett emotes, Jackie Chan does flips, Christopher Walken can dance.
But Jumpy does everything. The Border Collie/Blue Heeler mix understands English, Spanish, some German, and numbers. Jumpy skateboards, surfs, dives, twirls, Razor-scooters, rides horses, paints modern art and landscapes, putts golf balls, plays piano, winks, walks on his hind legs, writes his own name, and does parkour. He can do comedies, dramas, kids’ shows, and commercials, where he’s been hired to fake-pee on TVs, synchronized-swim like Esther Williams, and freeze in midair like Keanu Reeves — all without camera tricks. On YouTube, he casually challenged the world record for balloon popping — 54 balloons in 3.3 seconds — leaving the official Guinness title-holder, a Jack Russell, boasting emptily of bursting 100 in 39.08. And if you’re still not impressed, Jumpy can leap 20 feet off the top of a van and, for his climax, walk down a flight of stairs on his front paws.
This month, Jumpy stars in the western In a Valley of Violence and steals the movie from A-list humans like Ethan Hawke and John Travolta without saying a word. Jumpy plays Abby — short for Abilene — a dog hustling toward the Mexican border with her owner, Paul. (Yes, her — he’s game to play female.) Paul, played by Hawke, is a traumatized soldier who’s been forced to massacre Native Americans. He can’t talk about the horrors he’s seen and only opens up to his dog. “I’m so used to talking to you that I barely know what to say when somebody talks back,” he grunts.
“Jumpy was, like, on some other cosmic level,” says Hawke. One day during filming, Hawke was crossing the street when a gust of wind blew off his cowboy hat. The crew groaned. A flubbed take. The only calm one was Jumpy. He grabbed the hat and caught up with Hawke. He improvised.
“He was participating in the creativity of the film, which is insane,” says Hawke. Jumpy knew that he was acting, that today he was Paul’s dog. “Usually, even if the dog is really well-trained, he might do that if the trainer’s hat went off his head. Jumpy did it when my hat went off my head. And he didn’t bring it back to his trainer — he brought it back to me.”
Director Ti West didn’t use the hat take. What audience would believe it?
“It was like a fucking Buster Keaton movie,” said costar James Ransone, who plays Deputy Gilly Martin, pampered son of John Travolta’s Marshal Clyde Martin. “Without hyperbole, I can say that Jumpy is smarter than some actors I’ve worked with. If that happened with other actors, they would just freeze up and be like, ‘The hat!’ and look all crazy. I was like, ‘Fuck this dog, I’m going home.’”
Jumpy’s eventual path to Hollywood was paved in Barranquilla, Colombia, where an animal-obsessed 9-year-old named Omar von Muller filled his house with creatures: not just dogs, but snakes, birds, monkeys, rabbits, alligators, and a tamandua, the South American anteater.
Back then, Colombian TV had only two black-and-white channels. They played a lot of Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. When von Muller turned 10, his older brother moved to Miami and left behind his German Shepherd, Cookie. The boy took his new dog to the park with a piece of bread and ordered her to sit. She did.
“I was really excited,” says von Muller. Soon he was getting Cookie to jump through a flaming ring fashioned out of a discarded baby walker, baseball bat, rags, and diesel. His mom was fine with it. “Colombia’s a little different than it is here,” laughs von Muller, who today lives outside L.A. with his wife and two daughters, neither of whom have access to flames.
After high school, von Muller followed his brother to Miami where he saw an ad for a canine academy. “I was like, ‘What? You get paid for doing this?!’” says von Muller. He applied, and a few weeks later he was promoted to head trainer.
When Hurricane Andrew wiped out the Gulf in 1992, von Muller decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. He moved west with a Jack Russell named Andrew and started assembling a roster of talented dogs, a house of superstars, all of whom you’ve seen on TV. And these dogs aren’t just his coworkers — they’re his pets. Says von Muller, “When I get a dog, it’s to keep him forever.”
After von Muller acquired two Jack Russells and an American bulldog named Popeye, he wanted a Border Collie. He saw a Craigslist ad from a teenager offering an 8-week-old puppy for $50 that his dad had taken home from a farm. Von Muller made the two-hour drive, but the dog was a disappointment. It wasn't purebred; it was a mutt. He drove home alone.
The next day, the teenager called him in a panic. The puppy wouldn’t stop barking. If von Muller didn’t take it, his dad was going to throw him out on the street. Von Muller said he’d rescue the dog for $20 — if the kid met him halfway on the road.
“I bought him mainly to get him away from that situation,” says von Muller. “I wasn’t planning on keeping him.” Von Muller’s daughter asked what a dog like that was good at. “Jumping,” he answered. “Jumpy!” she cried. OK, the puppy can have a temporary name, thought von Muller. For now.
Jumpy cried for five straight nights. “He was crazy,” groans von Muller. But crazy is good. It shows the dog has the energy to learn. “The look in his eyes is just, ‘Tell me more,’” says von Muller. He let Jumpy stick around. The dog’s face was black, which meant he couldn’t work in front of the cameras — too difficult to light — but he had potential for von Muller’s small canine circus, The Incredible Dog Show, which toured Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic between commercial gigs.
“I wasn’t really thinking this dog is going to make it in the industry,” admits von Muller. On the dog show’s first — and last — trip to Mexico, von Muller was aghast to discover that he’d been misled about the country’s animal entrance policies. Customs would let in three dogs; he had four. One would have to be quarantined in a warehouse for days. Purebreds like bulldogs and Jack Russells were at risk of being stolen or “misplaced.” So von Muller made the hardest choice of his life: He let the men take Jumpy away.
Around then, a miracle happened: Jumpy’s face turned from black to tan. “He looks great on camera,” says von Muller. “He turned out to be a very good-looking dog.”
Von Muller started training Jumpy like an athlete. They practiced jumps and catches, Jumpy leaping from the top of the washing machine into von Muller’s arms. They built trust.
“If he was on a fifth-story floor and I say, ‘Jump!’ he won’t hesitate,” says von Muller. “He’ll just fly. He’ll kill me and he’ll kill himself. But he will just do it.” So von Muller has to be cautious for both of them, to know that Jumpy needs to stretch and rest when the dog just wants to keep going.
They spent thousands of hours together, blending playtime and tricks until 10 at night, waking up at 5 a.m. to take Jumpy skateboarding in an empty Home Depot parking lot until security chased them away. (Walmart was kinder.) Now, Jumpy does 12-foot half-pipes. He steers. “That’s something that you don’t know until you start trying and working them,” says von Muller. When he started putting Jumpy’s stunts on YouTube, calls came in from all over the world. Jumpy eagerly went to work.
“Just counting car commercials, he’s done Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, GMC,” lists von Muller. Altogether, Jumpy’s shot roughly 80 ads. “In this business, some companies wouldn’t want to use the dog that was in another commercial, but so far, they don’t have a choice. If they really want a dog to do what he does, they want him.”
Jumpy has been promoted to von Muller’s top dog, which means he gets to sleep in the house. And he’s the only dog in the family portrait. “He deserves it,” says von Muller. “He worked hard for it.”
The loyalty is mutual. Jumpy stares at von Muller like a politician’s wife. When von Muller mows the lawn, Jumpy paces behind him. The other dogs lie in the grass.
“He’s my boy,” says von Muller. And Jumpy has an ego. So with Popeye nearing retirement, von Muller’s two new dogs are female: Jazzy, one of Jumpy’s daughters, and Lucy the Labradoodle, a butterscotch gymnast. “I’m not gonna bring in other males,” insists von Muller. “He’s territorial.”
To get on Jumpy’s good side, I’ve brought him a present: a stuffed toy of the kitten from the action comedy Keanu. Von Muller places the gift on the carpet. He makes Jumpy earn it: “Stay. Wait. Back up. Get close. Wait. Back up. Turn around. Turn the other way. Wait. I’m going to count to three. One. Two. Two and a half. Four. Five. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three!” Jumpy chomps the cat.
Von Muller beams. “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what a dog can do.”
For a dog to become a superstar, the timing must be perfect. Careers are subject to trends. Like any genre — westerns, slashers, sports pics — canine flicks cycle in and out of popularity. There’s about 15 years between peaks — roughly the lifespan of a dog.
Dog movies rose in the silent era with Rin Tin Tin, were reborn with Asta in the screwball series The Thin Man, rallied behind Lassie, swooned over Benji, and exploded again in the late ’80s and early ’90s with K-9, Beethoven, Turner and Hooch, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, and White Fang. Around that time, every hit TV show had also a hound, from Married... With Children to Frasier to Empty Nest to Full House. Comet, the Olsen twins’ on-screen golden retriever, had his fur dyed brown to play a murder victim reincarnated in the body of a stray for the fuzzily metaphysical drama Fluke. Alas, his big move to the silver screen didn’t stick.
Within these larger trends are micro-trends. Rin Tin Tin, brought to the states by WWI soldier Lee Duncan, was a smash because Americans had just discovered the German Shepherd. By the time Hitler invaded Poland, Hollywood wanted a patriotic mutt. Collies were supplanted by poodles, which gave way to Labradors, which were then passed over for chihuahuas, pugs, and Jack Russell terriers.
“There was a time when bulldogs were just everywhere,” says head trainer and animal acting professional Joel Norton of the animal talent agency Hollywood Paws. “Then three months later, we went two solid years without a call for a bulldog.” Three decades ago, people were so mad for St. Bernards that a galoot named Chris proved his range with star turns in both Cujo and Beethoven. We haven’t seen a major St. Bernard since.
Today, the trend is for anonymous blondes — the canine equivalent of 16-year-old Moldovan catwalk models — hired so people don’t get distracted by their individuality. “Your basic dog that doesn’t elicit any emotion other than ‘dog,’” explains Norton. “Those are very common in ads and in movies when they don’t want the dog to [distract] from the product they’re trying to sell, or the emotional thing they’re trying to do in the scene.”
There’s also nepotism: When Lassie was rebooted in 1994, the role went to the original’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson. And every breed is subject to typecasting. Pitbulls almost never work. “Just the stereotypical roles, on a chain leash being held by someone who’s supposed to be a gangster or a thug,” adds Norton, and although Hollywood Paws is flooded with calls from the owners of fluffy white maltipoos, they’re so unpopular with agents, there’s pretty much no point in training them for a job. And if Jumpy were a short-legged Corgi, he’d never get to romp around the Wild West. Sorry, pup. Only British castles for you.
Not every dog can be Uggie, the brown-and-white breakout star of the 2012 Best Picture winner The Artist, who took endless photo ops on red carpets, flew first class, feasted on filet mignon, kissed Ellen DeGeneres on national TV, published an autobiography called Uggie — My Story in which he revealed he was an Aquarian, and scored a personal invitation to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner addressed to him and his “human companion.” His date was Omar von Muller — he trained Uggie, too. Which makes Uggie and Jumpy brothers, of a sort.
Uggie, too, could improvise. When his costar, actor Jean Dujardin, put a gun in his mouth, Uggie panicked and pulled the weapon out. The director couldn’t use that take — too sentimental. Von Muller hoped Uggie might get an Oscar, too, but the industry has yet to accept that an animal is actually emoting. “They say that a dog is only working for sausages,” said von Muller to The Daily Telegraph, “but an actor is only doing it for his paycheck.”
“A dog like Uggie is pretty rare,” says Norton. Jumpy is even rarer. “That dog breaks every rule known to training and man, and everybody knows it — including him,” adds Norton. “Jesus, there’s literally nothing that dog doesn’t do. I’ve trained hundreds of good dogs and there’s a point where training ends and just pure genetic magic takes over. I’m tall and I’m thin and if you trained me for years and years, I’d be pretty good at basketball but I’d never be a Michael Jordan. At a certain point, talent goes so far and then there’s just these genetic one-in-a-millions.”
In In a Valley of Violence, you’re aware of Jumpy before you see a second of film. First you hear him panting. Then the screen floods with light and there he is, staring at the camera, amber eyes shining in the sun. He has a red bandanna around his neck and he looks like a star. When Hawke’s horse gallops across the screen, Jumpy races alongside them, so pleased he’s practically dancing.
“I literally think I googled ‘talented dogs,’” says In a Valley of Violence writer-director Ti West (The Sacrament, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers). Jumpy’s YouTube channel was the first result. West watched Jumpy do a standing backflip and then immediately forwarded the video to his producer, begging: “Find this dog.” Luckily, Jumpy and von Muller live just an hour north of Hollywood. The three met up for tacos, played in a park, and then West went off to hire the rest of his cast.
“The first time I met him about the movie, pretty immediately Ti started rambling about this amazing dog,” says actor Taissa Farmiga, who was reading for the part of Mary-Anne, a hotel operator and estranged teenage bride. “I kind of realized then who would be the real star of the movie.” Before she knew if she had the part, Farmiga left to shoot Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don’t Apply, and when she got to set, Beatty introduced her to her character’s dog: Jumpy. “I freaked out,” grins Farmiga. “He was definitely a different character. He played more of a house dog — a calm, obedient little lapdog who just laid with my character on the couch.” Farmiga emailed West and gushed about how wonderful Jumpy was to work with and how close they got on the set. She got the role. “I think that pretty much sealed the deal for me of how I got the job,” laughs Farmiga. “If I have Jumpy’s approval, I have Ti’s approval.”
Meanwhile, West was revamping Jumpy’s role. “[In] the original script, I didn’t have the foresight to write that he would cover his face with a paw or roll himself up in a blanket to go to bed,” says West. “When I started to see what what Jumpy could do, I was like, ‘I’m going to write to Jumpy’s strengths. He’s like the genius in third grade — I’ve got to give him enough to stimulate his mind.’”
To a point. Jumpy could walk across the set on his back legs and push open the saloon doors with his paws. A director could use that in a comedy or Planet of the Pups sci-fi, not a bloodthirsty western.
“The movie’s supposed to be an old time,” agrees von Muller. “You can’t have a skateboarding dog.” No worries — Jumpy shows off plenty on his Nick Jr. show Mutt & Stuff, a preschool sitcom about a school for dogs, where he’s played a knight, a pirate, a race-car driver, a hip-hop dancer, a pirate, a soccer goalie, and, yes, a skateboarder. In one episode, he dunked on a Harlem Globetrotter, and when the rival basketball player tried to take a free throw, Jumpy pantsed him.
“There’s a person in there,” says West. “It makes you feel really weird about all the other dogs in your life and how much they’re probably capable of that they’re not doing.”
“Dogs are generally thought of as just ‘the dog’ in movies,“ adds West. “But in this movie, the dog is a main character, so we shoot him just like he’s a person. When Ethan’s talking to Jumpy, there’s over-the-dog-shoulder shots, which was a very thing strange thing to set up for, and then the reverse shot. We treat Jumpy like an actor.”
On James Ransone’s first day on set, he spotted Jumpy walking Uggie on a leash. “Omar was like, ‘Yeah, Uggie’s really old. He doesn’t give a shit anymore,’” laughs Ransone. The old dog, a year away from his death from prostate cancer, was content to let his protégé drag him around the desert. As for Jumpy, “I think he’s got a little bit of a fucking intellectual superiority complex,” says Ransone. “I went through this whole thing where I was like, ‘I didn’t see him in The Wire.’”
“With almost every animal that you’re in a movie with, you can’t get to the level that Jumpy’s at,” adds Hawke. “Jumpy and I actually had a relationship — I could actually act with him and speak with him.”
Not only did Jumpy improvise with Hawke — Hawke improvised with Jumpy. In one scene, he’s talking to Jumpy when the dog suddenly gets distracted by snapping at a fly. Hawke stayed in character and made a joke about the bugs. He reacted to Jumpy like he would any acting partner. “In what movie would I not respond to somebody licking a fly?” laughs Ethan. They were just two actors in the moment making movie magic. They were equals.
The history of Hollywood is littered with would-be canine celebs. In the early 1950s, newspapers announced a new starlet every two months: a Great Dane named Baron, a pair of bloodhounds named Diamond Jim and Bugler Ann, Corky the mutt, Raggs the mutt, Alo the shelter dog, Shaggy the sheepdog, Chinook the sled dog, Zorro the husky, and Mr. Troubles the collie. A Boston terrier named Mr. Lucky signed a $25,000-a-year contract for being able to say “I want my mama” and “Let’s go for a ride.” (“You can hear the roll of the R,” exclaimed his producer to Hollywood Citizen News.) The owner of Tchaikovsky the poodle bragged that his dog played the piano. A reporter investigated. “His version of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, while scarcely recognizable, had considerable to commend it,” he concluded. “It was at once vigorous and stalwart.”
Blame Lassie. The collie had just become a big-money movie star and was about to shoot the TV pilot that would make him a legend. Every puff piece pointed out that Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, bought the dog — whose real name was Pal — for just $10. Maybe your dog could be a millionaire.
What better investment than scooping up a $3 mutt from the pound and getting him cast on Petticoat Junction for $500 a week? That’s the rags-to-riches story of Higgins, a.k.a. Benji, who ran around the TV set 39 weeks a year for nine years — $175,000 annually, if you’re counting — and then conquered movies. Variety ran advertisements for other dog hopefuls: “He’s young, he’s hot, he’s a poodle for today. CINNAMON. Watch him do his thing on The Jeffersons. (Seeking West Coast representation).” Or Tundra, a white Samoyed whose owners spent $100,000 trying to launch her career. They bought spreads of her clenching a knife between her jaws under the alias Rambow-wow, and when she scored random gigs, they ran another ad to celebrate with Tundra in a sombrero, bullet belt, serape, and mustache that hooted, “Wanted to let you know I’m on The Love Boat this Saturday!”
But sometimes with fortune comes tragedy. Dogs aren’t exempt from the ill fates of Hollywood. Strongheart, Rin Tin Tin’s biggest rival, burned his leg on a set lamp and soon after died of cancer. Rinty’s second-biggest rival, a now-forgotten German Shepherd named Peter the Great, was murdered in a shoot-out between a man and his wife’s mistress. Peter, crouched in the backseat, had just met them that day. Wrong place, wrong time. Major, the spot-eyed pup from Our Gang, died after gorging himself at Thanksgiving. The LA Times headline read, “Holiday Feast Fatal to Dog Star of Past.” A 14-year-old girl stumbled on a black toy French poodle named Mona Lisa and crushed the small dog to death. (Mona Lisa’s owner sued the family for $11,000.) Air Bud’s right rear leg was amputated before the film came out. Uggie killed a kitten. Even Benji slummed it as a Playgirl centerfold. There was America’s favorite family dog on his back, paws cocked, lips parted nervously, gold satin sheet barely covering his modesty.
Are these dogs happy? Well, the American Humane Association, who monitors film sets for abuse, exists for a reason. Animals are harmed. In 2006, a trainer on the set of Eight Below caused a scandal when he punched a husky in the chest. Two years later, five puppies got sick and died shooting Snow Buddies. If you love the kids’ classic Milo and Otis, you might want to skip to the next paragraph. The Japanese filmmakers — who operated outside the AHA’s jurisdiction — broke kittens’ paws to make them limp and forced a pug to fight a bear.
Still, the relationship between trainers and animals has been more progressive than, say, humans and other people. Or trainers and people. Flipper’s handler told the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner he advised treating dolphins “like a woman — let them know you need them and they play hard to get.”
In the early 1920s, a full decade before FDR abolished child labor, Rin Tin Tin’s owner, Lee Duncan, stressed that he made sure his dog wanted to work. As Susan Orlean recounts in her fantastic biography, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Duncan insisted that “work was play.” Rinty ran and jumped because he liked the feel of his muscles and the pleasure it gave his best human friend, who would in turn show his appreciation by letting the dog chew on his favorite toy. Where B.F. Skinner manipulated rats to press levers with snacks and shocks, Lee shunned both. He rarely used treats. Bribes, like modern-day gold stars, bred complacency and lazy self-satisfaction. And he never used punishment. Lee refused to even say Rin Tin Tin was “trained.” He preferred “educated.”
In I, Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, the Dog Who Was Toto, his coach, Carl Spitz, agreed. “Never try to make either a mechanical puppet or an angel of him,” he said. “Tricks are what magicians do. Dogs perfect routines.”
“You want your dog to work for you because he loves you, and not because he fears you,” commanded Asta trainer Henry R. East in his 1934 guidebook, How to Train Dogs for the Home Stage & Moving Pictures. “All the joy in his life depends on how well he understands the meaning of our words.”
Imagine what it was like to be in those early theaters watching these loyal canines dote on their on-screen masters. Before the movies, humans loved their dogs. If you lived on a farm, they were colleagues. In the city, they were companions. But these fictional canines, who saved children from wolves, brought couples closer together, and rescued their masters from witches and fires, argued that dogs were more special than we’d imagined. When Strongheart’s handlers claimed the German Shepherd could cry, fans believed him. As Orlean wrote in Rin Tin Tin, “Dogs, in fact, were perfect heroes: unknowable but accessible, driven but egoless, strong but tragic, limited by their muteness and animal vulnerability.” Dogs were complex — almost human.
Or maybe better than human. Audiences numb to seeing films torture and kill Homo sapiens sob when a dog is injured. The website doesthedogdie.com has graded 4,128 movies on an emoji scale of Happy Dog, Sad Dog, and Crying Dog. Wes Anderson kills a dog (or cat) in nearly every movie for cheap emotional impact, a tic he got from Alfred Hitchcock, who manipulated audiences with animals in peril in Rebecca, Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Marnie, The Birds, Saboteur, and especially Sabotage, in which he blew up a puppy with a bomb.
At least caring about fictional dogs is progress. Four hundred years ago, philosophers like René Descartes treated dogs even worse. Descartes shunned the idea that dogs have souls. “I think, therefore I am,” he preened. As for dogs, “they would surely express their thoughts as well, if they had any.” And since dogs couldn’t use reason to defend themselves, clearly they were what he called “animal-machines.” Dogs, he claimed, did not feel hunger, thirst, or pain. To prove it, Descartes nailed strays to boards and dissected them while they were still alive. He ignored their whimpers. Their cries were just a robotic reflex, like a spring popping out of a smashed watch.
That was a low point. Human-dog relations weren’t always that bad. In fact, our species grew up together. The oldest pet skull to date belongs to a 31,700-year-old Paleolithic dog who lived with a family in present-day Belgium and looked like a blunter, broader Siberian husky. We say we domesticated the dog, but that’s not exactly true: Ancient wolves realized that men had meat, and the smartest ones loitered around scavenging for scraps. The ones that attacked humans were killed. We allowed the tamer ones to live, and with every generation, they got a little nicer.
Mankind took longer to realize that our species made a good team. Nomadic life was hard; a dog helped. These early hounds tracked prey, protected the camp, and gave body heat at night. The tag team had better odds of surviving together than apart — you could say our species self-domesticated ourselves.
Over the millennia, that bond became unusually close. Dogs prefer us to each other — and some humans feel the same. Odysseus’s mutt remembered his master after they’d been apart for 20 years. Most dogs forget their own mothers in two. Hide a snack under one of two cups, and cats, rats, birds, and chimps will attempt to pick the right one on their own. However, a dog first looks to us for a clue. We’ve made them codependent. But when you watch Jumpy hold a selfie stick in his mouth and film himself sprinting so fast down a beach that, for a weightless second, his body is horizontal, suddenly that codependency seems, well, freeing. After a hundred thousand generations, the dog is fulfilled.
“Just like in humans, the dog mind is a new frontier of science,” says Dr. Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and author of The Genius of Dogs. “We have learned more about dogs in the last decade than we have in the last century.” Hare is one of the evolutionary biologists upending our millennia-old assumption that mankind deliberately domesticated the dog. His research has helped establish the connection between our species — what he calls psychological convergence.
Dogs have learned to watch our eyes and our actions. If a dog witnesses one human steal food from another, he’ll avoid the thief. And they understand our speech. Most dogs can learn to sit, stay, heel, fetch, walk, and maybe understand their own name. Jumpy knows at least a hundred words. But even he’s outclassed by the subject of Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. The female border collie actually knows 1,022 words, a mixture of nouns and verbs and categories. Her owner (and the book’s author), animal linguist Dr. John Pilley, bought Chaser nearly a thousand toys and gave each a proper name, everything from Acorn, Afro, Ahab, Aidan, Al Jolson, Alleycat, and Alligator to Zebra, Zebra 2, Ziro, Zocher, Zombie, and Zoo.
Chaser remembered who was who — impressive and a little ironic, as Pilley, her human, had to Sharpie the names on each toy. (Dog: 1; psychology professor: 0.) When Chaser landed the cover of the National Examiner next to Brad Pitt, Pilley’s research went viral, another word the professor didn’t know. Then he made an even more groundbreaking discovery: Chaser could learn names through deduction. If Pilley hid a new stuffed animal in the pile and ordered her to fetch a name she hadn’t heard, Chaser would cock her head, look confused, and then sift through the toys until she reasoned through process of elimination that this stranger must be the correct one.
Why can’t your dog do this? Because language acquisition is the same for both children and canines: It’s easier when you’re young. Imagine that a tot or pup’s brain is like a mound of clay. When fresh, they can be sculpted into cups eager to collect information — in essence, our brains learn how to learn. Pilley poured learning into Chaser for hours every day. It kept her pliable. But the longer a brain is left to harden, the harder it gets to pick up Portuguese, learn to paint, or master juggling. When we say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, we’re also talking about ourselves.
Pilley argues that there are two ways a mammal learns: step-by-step, reward-based obedience, and creative, open-ended education. In human high school terms, that’s the difference between “plug this equation into your calculator,” and “here’s the logic behind calculus.” For a dog like Jumpy, it’s the difference between “walk across the street” — a robotic command — and “partner with that man” — a request that invites the dog to solve a problem, or, say, rescue Ethan Hawke’s hat. One simply rewards the right answer; the other inspires genius.
In a Valley of Violence has its Los Angeles debut at the Egyptian Theatre, site of the first-ever Hollywood premiere. Jumpy is wearing an oversize purple bow tie, cufflinks, and a gold jacket with a split tail and three black buttons down his chest.
“I figure I had to dress him better than the director,” laughs von Muller. West, in a red flannel shirt, nods in acceptance.
Jumpy happily poses for pictures outside. He planned to go to the after-party. Alas, one of von Muller’s daughters wasn’t feeling well. “Fucking surprised he’s not DJ’ing,” grumbles Ransone, who’s brought his own dog, Sonny, as though to mark territory.
Von Muller and his wife take their seats. Jumpy lies down on the floor, sticking his head up every few minutes for popcorn. When the crowd claps for West, Jumpy pokes his head through a crack in the seats. The woman in front of him politely ignores his nose. Von Muller hasn’t seen the film yet, and when that first gorgeous close-up of his dog fills the screen, von Muller scratches Jumpy’s ears. “Yay Jumpy!” he grins. At the fly improv scene, von Muller jokes, “We trained the flies, too.”
All of Jumpy’s comic scenes get a laugh. When he rolls himself up in a blanket, the theater spontaneously claps. Jumpy lightens the film’s bleak tone. He keeps the audience smiling. Erase him, and the human punch lines wouldn’t land, they’d stick out like broken thumbs. But tonight, the theater is in hysterics. And when the blood starts to spill, they hold their breath. Even Jumpy doesn’t bark.
In a Valley of Violence is marvelous fun, a wickedly subversive film. West turns every expected western beat inside out. We’ve never seen a hero-killer quite like Paul ride into town. When he saddles up to the bar, he doesn’t order whiskey. He asks for a bowl of water for his dog. Travolta’s marshal, who Paul’s doomed to square off against, is a reasonable man. Neither wants to fight. But fate intervenes, and the unlucky town learns that Paul is the kind of guy who would shoot someone in the back. Or stab them. Or beat them half to death with their own boot. As the end credits roll, the Egyptian bursts into applause.
But Jumpy only cares about one critic’s opinion. And when the lights go up, he gets it. “You did awesome,” cheers von Muller, kissing Jumpy on the nose.