CHICAGO — What complaints might a dog have about its human companion? Consider the inner monologue of Martin, the canine star of the new ABC sitcom “Downward Dog,” which premiered last week.
“We used to go on walks,” he says into the camera. “Like, actual walks. Whereas now she just kind of, like, shoves me out in this little prison yard” — you know, the backyard — “and acts like that somehow counts as connection time.”
His lips move in those CGI-aided talking head shots, but otherwise his performance is all-dog, which allows the show to offer up both a pet’s-eye view of the world — “I did a very bad thing but I don’t necessarily think that makes me a bad dog” — and that of the people who take care of him, including Nan, an amiable but harried 30-something played by Allison Tolman (“Fargo”), and her very laid-back on-again/off-again boyfriend Jason, played by Lucas Neff (“Raising Hope”).
The show was shot in Pittsburgh (and is based on a charming web series from creators and executive producers Samm Hodges and Michael Killen), but its stars are all former Chicagoans, including the dog — real name Ned — who comes from the PAWS Chicago animal shelter. The trio was in town last week and stopped by the Tribune.
Q: Was there chemistry read (audition) with the dog?
Tolman: No, because he was such a recent rescue. He was still being socialized. He wasn’t even starting to learn — they don’t call them tricks, they call them behaviors — he wasn’t even starting to learn how to be trained until just before we started shooting. At that point in time, he was straight out of a shelter and still learning how to not be scared and be around humans.
Neff: He was still super …
Neff: Yeah. He was very traumatized, I think, being in any new environment. Instantly felt threatened by everything. And because the lifeblood of our show is that dog’s happiness, we erred and production erred on the side of caution and really slowly introduced him to the rest of the team.
Tolman: The way we worked is that we would set everything up as much as we possibly could (before shooting a scene) and then the dog would come in at the last minute. So he’s really the star — he comes in at the last second, just in time to roll.
Neff: He’s the Eddie Murphy of our show. Barely makes eye contact.
Q: Does he have a stand-in, though?
Tolman: He has a stuffed animal version of him called Stuffy, that’s his stand-in. And the dog hates his stand-in — er, stuffed-in. So they had to make sure, the last thing they would say (before “Action!”) was, “All right, we’re good, we’re lit, Allison’s here — take Stuffy out!”
Stuffed animals, for some reason, are very triggering for him and he wants to bite them.
Neff: We saw it last night at the White Sox game and the mascot Southpaw is just essentially a giant stuffed animal and a living embodiment of Ned’s living nightmare! So Ned was immediately like, “I will save everyone! Aruff!” He was tracking his every movement. Southpaw felt OK about it, but I don’t know how much of that was just Southpaw putting on a brave face. (Laughs.)
Q: But his demeanor seems to be so …
Neff: He’s very chill.
Tolman: He doesn’t get worked up or exacerbated, really.
Q: On the show, even though his lips are CGI’d to move for the talking heads, the rest of the time he behaves like a normal dog doing dog things.
Neff: Right, it’s not like he suddenly has a cup of coffee and is reading the newspaper! It’s not like “Wishbone” — God, another great show with a dog. Wishbone solves crimes and re-enacts great literature. He portrays fictional characters in the show. Ned is just a dog.
The great thing is the bits of humanity that we’ve endowed him with comfortably fit with dog behavior, which is kind of being morose and a little melancholic. Selfish. Dogs are so selfish! I’ve read inane things about dogs being infinitely in love with us and only experiencing love for us. Let me set the record straight: They are horrible, selfish animals!
All they want is everything you have!
Tolman: He said sarcastically …
Neff: (Laughing) No, I love dogs. I have four and they are all monsters. Megalomaniacal, egomaniacs who would betray you at the drop of a hat!
Tolman: And people think cats are devilish!
Neff: No, cats are honest. Dogs? Fickle. But they’re great.
Q: Have either one of you worked with animals before?
Tolman: I worked with a dog once. In “Krampus” (the 2015 Christmas horror-comedy) I had a bunch of kids and a dog. But this is definitely the most prolonged time that I’ve spent on set with an animal.
Neff: On “Raising Hope,” two incidents leap to mind. I was dressed as a giant butt, Dr. Butt — a buttocks — and I was strapped to a giant colorful spinning wheel and a chimpanzee in a T-shirt threw foam bananas at me.
Tolman: Which is pretty much the same as our show.
Neff: Those chimps were much more engaged socially then Ned often is. They were very interactive and strong, which was terrifying. And then on another episode I was placed up a tree and I threw ham at a bear. A real bear! You always know when it’s a real bear.
Tolman: Did you know Nicole’s husband trains bears?
Neff: Yeah, it was their bear!
Tolman: Was it really? (To me) Our head trainer, Nicole Handley, her husband trains bears. It’s such a small word.
Neff: The thing about our lives is that they’re so relatable. Oh, I also had seven tarantulas placed on me.
Tolman: I would be OK with tarantulas, but not some other bugs.
Neff: The thing is, I can never tell if the trainers are messing with me. The guy was like, “Tarantulas are totally chill unless they see each other and they get a little too close, and they fight to the death and we’ll step in.”
Tolman: I think, with bugs on me, I would be like, “I need you to tell the trainer ahead of time not to joke around. Like, I’m not OK with you messing with me. I don’t find it cute.”
Neff: I don’t know what’s a better reality — that he’s being a jerk but I’m safe, or he’s telling me the God’s honest truth and I might have a gladiatorial death match on my chest, tarantula v. tarantula.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that everyone watching or talking about the show is going to focus on the dog?
Tolman: Once I started watching the series I realized, oh, he is the star of the show. (Neff starts laughing.) If he could have a number and not a “D” (for dog) on the call sheet, he would be No. 1. He is the star. He’s got the best lines, he’s adorable, he’s all anybody can talk about. I was like, “I’m not jealous of a dog!”
Neff: Well, I don’t know if you remember this, but for a while I worked with a baby (on “Raising Hope”) and, yeah, you just get used to it. Everybody wanted to talk about the baby — or Cloris Leachman. And it’s the same with the dog. I don’t mind it that much really at all.
It’s interesting because you’re working with a creature that has no fictional aspects, do you know what I mean?
Tolman: Yeah, the dog isn’t complicit in the storytelling.
Neff: That’s the tough thing about working with dogs or babies, you’re always negotiating between what you can do as an actor and what they’re ready to do as a baby or animal. That’s the challenge. We have to do what we’re doing on the timeline of a dog. That’s the hardest thing and you’re like, “I hope my best take is when this dog does the thing that is essential to the show!”
Q: Was there a getting-to-know-you period? So that Ned would look comfortable with you?
Tolman: A big part of it was just spending time with the dog on a fairly regular basis so he could get to know us and our smells and our energy. I spent my afternoons over at his house where he was with the trainers. I would sit on the couch and read and he would be like, “Oh, right, I remember this woman.”
He greets Lucas by sniffing his armpits rigorously. (Note: This was witnessed during the photo shoot. Rigorously is an understatement.) And he greets me by walking up and then just leaning all of his weight against my legs at once. He doesn’t want me to do anything, just carry my weight.
Q: He doesn’t want a belly rub?
Tolman: Sometimes, but he usually works his way up to it. If you were immediately like (excited voice), “Who’s a good boy?” he’s not that dog.
Neff: I have four dogs and some of them, all they want are belly rubs — 24/7, 365 — gimme that rub, on the belly. One of my dogs is just like, “Hold me,” and he just wants to burrow himself into you. And my other dog just sits near you and stares until you rub his head. They’re all super different.
Ned doesn’t seem like he’s consistently into anything except doing his own thing.
Tolman: Yeah, he’s very much his own dog. And he’s really not motivated by your approval like a lot of dogs are. So he doesn’t really care if you’re like, “I want you to do this thing and then I’m going to tell you you’re a good boy!” He’s like, “I really don’t care if you think I’m a good boy.”
Neff: (as Ned) “It’s more about my opinion if you’re a good boy.”
Q: He’s kind of like Martin!
Tolman: He is exactly like Martin.
Neff: He’s actually very close to the character on the show. He’s really pondering!
Tolman: And doesn’t want to be spoken down to!
Neff: Yeah, and treated as a peer at least if not better.
Q: If he’s not motivated by praise, what is he motivated by?
Neff: The trainers have treats, so he’s motivated a bit by food, but it changes.
Tolman: But sometimes he’s had enough to eat that day. He’s never like (excited munching) with a treat. He’s always like, “I’ll take it as a favor to you, sure.”
I think he’s smart enough to be like, “Well, I know what they want, I’m going to do this thing for them, they clearly need it for whatever reason.” But he’s not a waggy dog where if you said, “Oh, you did it so good!” he’d be like, “I did it so good, I’m going to do it again!” That’s not how he operates.
Neff: His need for validation isn’t as desperate as ours.
Tolman: Yes, oh for sure. He does it for himself.
Neff: He’s a purist.
Q: How does he let you know he’s done for the day?
Tolman: He walks off set. Like a diva.