If that dog could talk

Marvin, a Jack Russell terrier hailing from Reno, wins Jay Leno’s ‘American Fido’ contest

John Tiedjens and Marvin, freshly famous Jack Russell terrier, who won American Fido.

John Tiedjens and Marvin, freshly famous Jack Russell terrier, who won American Fido.

Photo by David Robert

Heading north toward Red Rock to meet trainer John Tiedjens and Marvin, the freshly famous Jack Russell terrier who’s made it all the way to the finals of “American Fido” on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I consider the limitations of interviewing a dog.

If he could talk, perhaps Marvin would indicate his intentions to remain humble in the face of celebrity, now that he’s gotten 57 percent of the online votes in Round 2 of the canine competition. Having achieved national exposure on network television, will he demand an agent—or just another Milk Bone? And are feature films a likely transition for the most famous dog ever to come out of Reno?

I’d seen the clip of Marvin and Tiedjens, the dog’s trainer and self-proclaimed “Pop,” strutting their stuff on Leno. Now I’m about to meet them in person.

“It’s gone to his head,” says Diana Sebestyen of the attention Marvin is getting from media traipsing through all day. Sebestyen assists Tiedjens with the training and care of Marvin, who comes barreling into the room, barking and conducting a cursory check of the strangers. When it’s time to perform, though, Marvin’s like an athlete: focused, disciplined, high-energy.

“Hi there, Marvin,” I say, and we search each other’s eyes for some universal sign of trust. He doesn’t speak.

Forget fetch and other namby-pamby, run-of-the-mill routines like shake, sit and stay. Marvin runs circles around those stunts, beating out “American Fido” participant Archie, a 5-year-old Pekinese from San Bernardino whose “special talent” is walking across two parallel ropes, then going down a slide.

“He was a cute dog,” Tiedjens allows, “but I don’t think he’s the ball of talent that Marvin is.”

Marvin—nickname Noodle—is the thinking man’s companion, a veritable acrobat of the canine community. The loyal connection between dog and man is palpable and powerful.

“Marvin and I met about eight years ago, when a friend of mine came to me and said she wanted a Jack Russell,” explains Tiedjens, who cautioned her that the breed is “very high-maintenance.

“But she always liked mine and how they behaved. She went to the pound in Florida and rescued Marvin. She had him about a month, and, lo and behold, she came banging on my door and said, ‘Please, for the love of God, take him.’ Me and Marvin got together. It was kismet. We’ve bonded. He’s never given me an ounce of problems. He was real young and abandoned, as many Jack Russells are.”

To know Marvin, though, is to love him. With his sweet, expressive face, big dark eyes, wiry white coat and caramel-colored patch on his left ear, Marvin exudes energy, personality and heart. Seeing him seamlessly execute the paces Tiedjens puts him through, it’s obvious Marvin is well-adjusted, secure, loved—not some poster pup for delinquent dogs.

They begin their repertoire with a handstand. As Tiedjens moves across the floor, Marvin runs figure eights between his arms. Then Tiedjens does backward somersaults while Marvin trots across him as though he’s on a beach ball. Then, a dramatic big finish: Tiedjens raises Marvin into the air, and the dog does a front paw-stand in his master’s hand and holds it—as unwaveringly as any Olympic gymnast—for about 15 seconds.

Balancing cuteness and capability, Marvin provides comic relief in sketches reminiscent of Red Skelton. He sits atop a pedestal, watching Tiedjens’ every move. Tiedjens is across the room getting into a cartoon-sized pirate ship he’s crafted. With a rod and reel in hand, Tiedjens casts his line toward Marvin, who’s barking like crazy until he gets the command to chase the bone-shaped fleece toy tied to the hook. Tiedjens gives him a little slack, then Marvin reels in an audience every time, tugging on the toy until he finally pulls Tiedjens’ “boat” back to the pedestal.

This endearing entertainment is the heart of a show Tiedjens has created. “Doggone Silly” is full of canine capers and dazzling dog tricks that include a dainty dame in a dress and hat, tottering on her hind feet, with a handbag in one front paw and a leash in the other, walking another dog. Tiedjens has worked at Circus Circus casinos in both Las Vegas and Reno, and his target audience is local schoolchildren and seniors at family-oriented matinees. “It’s funny, visual and timeless.”

For now, the two focus on making Marvin top dog on The Tonight Show during the “American Fido” finals, where he’ll compete against the winners of rounds one and three: Jalapeno, a 7-year-old border collie from Texas, and 9-year-old Chanda-Leah, a poodle that bowls, plays ring-toss and the piano.

Not to ruin the surprise, but their efforts paid off, and Marvin won Leno’s competition, becoming the most famous canine ever to hang his collar in Reno.

Marvin’s talent has been honed here at home for years, and with his triumph in the “American Fido” finals, Tiedjens has new insight into the game itself.

“I hadn’t realized,” he admits, “that when you put competition in front of something, all of a sudden it puts a whole different angle on it. It took something that was really fun and turned it into a neurosis. All week long, I’m looking at the [online voting results], the percentages, and obsessing. [Archie and handler] started gaining on me, and then I’m getting these anxiety attacks, ‘Oh I’m not gonna go back to the finals,’ and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell are you thinking? Just go on and perform and enjoy the moment.’ Marvin’s a one-take wonder.”

Although Marvin isn’t intimidated by Leno‘s bright lights and loud studio audience, Tiedjens points out that the dog isn’t as gregarious as he looks, adding that Marvin set his teeth around the pant leg of hotel room service personnel during their first trip to Burbank. “It’s quite fortunate that Marvin is as great of a performer as he is,” says Tiedjens, “because coming from where he came, he might have had an early, uneasy upbringing. He’s very anxious about stuff, strangers—he doesn’t trust people. For him to actually go out and perform nicely onstage in front of thousands of people, it’s an amazing thing.”

Tiedjens plops into the sofa, and as he speaks, Marvin reclines on his lap, gazing affectionately at the man who knows who the true master of the house is. Then the dog dozes off.

I’m still thinking Marvin has something to say, and just then he lifts his head, comes over and crawls up on my lap, imprinting me with his affection and surprising his trainers. The message is clear: "When all this is over, I’ll still be Marvin. Pet me."