We remember sitting back and watching the audition of Sara Carson & Hero on America’s Got Talent Tuesday night and thinking that this was going to be a no-brainer that she would be put through to the next round. Yet, the decision came down to the wire, and it took Simon Cowell getting up on stage defending the act for Howie Mandel to change his mind. It was a surprisingly emotional end to what was a very fun and lighthearted dog act from a woman whose goal is to get the word out about training using positive reinforcement.
In addition to the audition (which you can see below), we spoke with Sara on Wednesday morning about the audition process, the training that goes into this act, and a whole lot more. We begin with a discussion of how Sara’s travel, which consists of going everywhere from Canada to California, may have helped her become a part of the show.
CarterMatt – Did all of [time spent in California] help to get you into the AGT orbit?
Sara Carson – Yeah. I’ve tried to be on it several times, but you need to a visa to be on the show and I’m Canadian. After I got that last year, they reached out again and I was like ‘I’ll do it! Count me in.’
How long have you been in this space, working with and training dogs?
I’ve been training dogs for 12 years. When I was 15 I opened up by own dog-training facility and I ran that for five years successfully, and that is amongst going to college and all of that fun stuff.
As for performing, I started doing that at around 15, but it was really little stuff with a cocker spaniel. Then I got Hero and I started to do it a little more.
Your Twitter account is called TheSuperCollies. Is there something about collies that you like working with?
Yeah. I think Hero might be a mix of a border collie and a golden retriever, and my other two are rescued border collies. I do have a soft spot for my border collies.
I’m sure you get this a lot. I’m a dog owner and she’s great, but I’m lucky if I just get her to sit. The amount of training that must go into this — how long was the performance, about two minutes?
Yeah, about two minutes.
How many hours went into making those two minutes happen?
I seriously spent months working on that routine. When I typically perform live for people, I just do freestyle and I don’t really have a routine — we’re just playing. In some of my viral videos — the last one had around 30 million views — a lot of people are like ‘that must have taken forever,’ but the reality was that I just played with my dog for two minutes and filmed it.
For America’s Got Talent, I spent months on it, working for hours. Honestly, the dog is trained. He knows all of the behaviors and all of the cues. I have to train myself to know what the hell to tell him (laughs). I spent maybe once a day or may a couple of times a week putting Hero into the mix to work with him, as well.
People think that you spend hours a day [training with the dog], but it’s really just five or ten minutes. The same goes for my other guys. They don’t train all of the time. It’s a lot of hiking and swimming and Frisbee, and the training just happens sometimes.
I’m sure you know this from watching the show over time, but with animal acts there’s often some sort of theme, and you went with the pirate idea with the cool prop of Hero holding the sword on his mouth. What went into that?
I wanted to do something simple and not go overboard at first, which almost hurt me since I almost didn’t get on the show. The pirate theme is something that I hadn’t seen a dog act do on America’s Got Talent as opposed to some other circus-y stuff. I wanted to try to avoid that, so I went with something more like Pirates of the Caribbean.
I saw your act before the show aired and I felt sure you would be fine; then, Howie and Mel didn’t say yes right away and it looked like the audience was about to revolt. At that moment, what was going through your head?
Honestly, I was disappointed in myself. I was just really upset because I grew up being told that what I did was stupid and it wasn’t worth the time and effort I put into it. To have two of the judges say ‘no’ and not make it on the show … I gave up so much to be there at that moment. Just to be in L.A. to audition, I gave up work. I was extremely disappointed and upset and frustrated; I had thought that what we did on the show hadn’t been done before. I thought that would give us a push to make it on easily.
The moment Mel B said ‘no,’ I was just thinking ‘okay, I think I’m going to go back to Canada, guys.’
Did you know going in that Simon Cowell was such a big dog lover?
Yeah, I have several friends who have been on Britain’s Got Talent who have dog acts — it’s really popular out there, and they’ve all been super-successful. This was the first time that a dancing dog act like this had ever been done on the show. I kind of understand why the other judges were lost — they’d never seen it before. They just thought I was running around in a dress with a sword while my dog was barking. They didn’t see through to where the tricks were.
I’ve read some of the comments online, and some people are saying that because I made it so easy, the judges didn’t think it wasn’t difficult. My cues are [subtle] — I just talk to my dog. We have a very strong bond and we communicate very easily. I just tell him what to do; I don’t have to show him. I think that kind of made it difficult for them to see how difficult it actually was!
I want to circle back to what you said about Britain’s Got Talent, because I’ve watched that show the past several years and remember some of the dog acts like Ashleigh & Pudsey and Jules O’Dwyer & Matisse. Did they or anyone else have some advice for you?
They just told me to have fun, and if my dog needs a potty break to just take him. They mostly just wished me a lot of luck. I actually had one of the recent Britain’s Got Talent dog acts, Trip Hazard, message me this morning and say that she couldn’t believe what the judges said. She loved the routine and thought it was really cute. So yeah, I’ve been getting a lot of support from that community, which is nice.
It’s a weird thing that you could’ve gotten sent straight through, and maybe not have been featured as much on the show. Yet, because of what you went through and with Simon pleading to save you, you had this big emotional moment that was super-memorable. Is that a good silver lining?
I think so. I think it all really worked out. It’s like you said earlier; you watched before it aired thinking ‘oh yeah, it will go on without a problem.’ But it was really dramatic!
I know it goes by so quick, but after that moment did you have a chance to thank Simon?
I didn’t. I did on stage but that’s about it. I would’ve loved to have told him how much it actually meant to me. But yea, it goes by extremely quick.
Let’s pretend for a moment that the show happened in real-time, even though I realize that’s not the case. Next up you will have the Judge Cuts round. Where did you want to go with Hero following the audition?
At the moment it was over, I was thinking about all of the work I had to do to impress all of the judges. My goal now is literally to get all four of them to say ‘that was amazing.’
The first thought was to add another dog, but at the same time my other dogs are not ready for that kind of environment. People don’t understand how hard it is to have a dog like that perform on that kind of stage with the lights, the cameras, the people. I’m hoping that if I make it to [the live shows], I’ll be able to add another dog. Training-wise, I may be able to do that.
It’s also interesting that you’ve now almost been branded as Sara & Hero, and so there’s this expectation now that it is you two. There was that thing with Jules O’Dwyer on Britain’s Got Talent where she used another dog and people had a real stink over it.
If I was to add another dog, I wouldn’t turn it into Sara Carson & Hero & Friends. If I have another dog, they would just come out, do a few tricks, and leave. I wouldn’t use a stunt double or anything; it’d be more of a guest appearance.
I wouldn’t want to turn it into Sara & Friends because Hero is literally my heart dog; I mean, we’ve done Letterman and Ellen together. He’s my heart. This is something I wanted to do specifically with him. He’s five now, and in a couple more years he won’t be in tip-top shape anymore. I really wanted to showcase him to America because he’s a really special dog.
I don’t know if you saw it, but I just posted a video of him watching it air with me. He’s so human that he tilts his head and watches everything. He’s a really special dog.
As we start to wrap up, is there a specific goal that you have in mind at the end of this? I know you talked about educating people on positive reinforcement, but is there a Vegas show or a tour you want to do?
We’re doing a tour right now. I’m in Calgary right now for the Calgary Stampede, and then I go to Washington State, Indiana, and eventually I’m teaching more in LA. I would love to perform more with my dog, but with performing, people don’t go home and teach that to their dog because they don’t know how. My goal is honestly to teach more workshops and to make it more affordable. If I won a million dollars I wouldn’t charge mileage (laughs). I wouldn’t care about mileage, I’d just fly myself there! I just want to be able to show people how trick-training can help people form a bond with their dog, and help identity behavior. Like, if your dog is constantly barking if you’re not home, it’s because your dog is bored! If you work with it mentally, it wouldn’t be bored. [I want to teach] stuff like that.
Plus, a lot of people think trick dogs are taught with negative reinforcement. I’m also trying to [change that perception], because with Hero it’s 100% positive. It’s all treat training, it’s a lot of patience, and it’s a lot of time.
If I won I’d love to do a Vegas show — everybody would — but after the Vegas show, I would really love to just show people how to teach their dogs tricks and build a better connection with them.
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Also, be sure to visit the link here to read our America’s Got Talent review from Tuesday night and further coverage. (Photo: NBC.)