Pam Leighton has a bone to pick with Beethoven.
No, not Ludwig van. Beethoven the Saint Bernard--that ham of a hound who claims top billing in the current motion picture of the same name and climbs all over the furnishings of the movie family’s suburban home.
Leighton, a 35-year-old Palmdale resident, has owned and bred Saint Bernards--affectionately known as Saints among their owners--since she was practically a pup herself. And she’ll be doggoned if either of her two Saints, Commanchero and Callie, would dare swipe a drumstick from the dinner table, shake water across the bedroom or wipe muddy paws all over her new suit, as Beethoven does in the film.
“Saint Bernards are not the climbers and jumpers of dogs,” Leighton said. “The first thing I tell people about them when they ask is that they don’t eat a lot and they don’t need a lot of room to run around. They don’t even play fetch. They look at you like, ‘You threw the ball, why don’t you go get it?’ ”
Yet Leighton admits that she and her Saints have never been more popular.
“Especially with little kids,” Leighton said. “I was at a dog show the other day, and 10 to 12 kids came running up and said, ‘Look! There’s Beethoven.’ ”
All of which makes the movie “Beethoven” a bit of a mixed blessing for Saint Bernard owners.
The Universal film portrays the shaggy, oversized, red-and-white canine as a rambunctious, perpetually hungry, hard-to-handle beast that no leash can hold and not even animal lovers would welcome into their homes.
On the other hand, because of the movie’s popularity, Saint Bernards, historically known for rescuing lost travelers during snowstorms in the Swiss Alps, are enjoying, perhaps, an unprecedented popularity, much to the delight of their owners.
Such hasn’t always been the case.
Remember “Cujo,” the 1983 movie based on the Stephen King horror novel about a rabid Saint Bernard?
Harry and Cindee Welch, both English instructors at Canyon High School in Canyon Country, recall reactions of cold stares and references to “Cujo” whenever the couple took their two Saint Bernards, Maggie and Joshua, for a drive to the local supermarket.
“There was a little more than a healthy respect and quite a bit of fear,” said Harry Welch, also Canyon’s football coach. “Now, we have strangers come up to the van, put their hand in the window and say, ‘Ah, Beethoven.’ ”
The dogs in “Beethoven” and “Cujo” share another tie. Both were trained by Karl Miller, an Arleta resident who for three decades has been training animals for television and motion pictures. Miller, 51, said both canine stars were lovable pets who were “trained to act untrained” before the camera in distinctly different ways.
“When ‘Cujo’ came out, I wasn’t exactly the most popular dog trainer in the world among Saint Bernard owners,” Miller said. “But ‘Cujo’ was not a story about a rabid Saint Bernard. It was a story about a rabid dog that happened to be a Saint Bernard.”
When Miller was contacted about training another Saint Bernard for “Beethoven,” he jumped at the opportunity to paint a brighter portrait. However, a qualified canine wasn’t easy to find.
Miller spent two months screening about two dozen Saint Bernards and even considered suggesting that another breed be cast for the role. Finally, Miller acquired Beethoven, whose real name is Kris, in June, 1990.
Miller said they had a problem with Beethoven for the first two days of filming, “before the writers and director realized we were dealing with a Saint Bernard.”
“The problem was the script was written with a golden retriever trick here, an Afghanian hound action there,” Miller said. “They wrote doggie action, but they never wrote how a Saint Bernard would do it.”
Which probably would be to just skip it.
“Once in a while, my dogs get up and run to the back fence, and then come back and lie down,” Leighton said. “They don’t really run around. My son has a Dalmatian, and that dog drives me crazy with its running around all the time. But Saints just want to lie there and be with you.”
Because of their size--Saint Bernards typically weigh as much as 170 pounds and stand 25-30 inches tall--agility is not among their selling points. “A Saint Bernard will run up a flight of stairs,” Miller said, “but not as gracefully as a Doberman.”
And as for their appetites, “they’re really not the chowhounds everybody thinks they are,” Miller said. “They’re pretty dainty eaters.”
Shedding and drooling are indeed concerns of Saint Bernard owners on a regular basis.
“They do slobber,” Cindee Welch said. “But they’re not as slimy as people think they are.”
The comic aspect of the movie, she said, is that the family “is not in control. But I am in control. I can take Josh for a walk, and he will do what I say. So much of it is just training and discipline.”
And so it is with Beethoven and the antics he performs on-screen. Miller concedes the movie might make Saint Bernards out to be a bit, well, unsaintly. For instance, the 185-pound Beethoven is portrayed by a 156-pound dog. To give the dog a Gargantuan appearance, many scenes in “Beethoven” were shot with the dog in the foreground, Miller said.
But box-office success requires a little imagination.
“Keep in mind that of all the people who own Saint Bernards, none of them were in the position Beethoven was,” Miller said. “People say, ‘I’ve had my dog for 17 years. He would never do that.’ Believe me, the dog is capable of doing it. Beethoven could have been anyone’s Saint Bernard.”
With, of course, a good bit of training.