RANCH TRIANGLE — Ned, a very lucky dog who has landed a starring role in the new ABC TV series "Downward Dog," returned triumphant Wednesday to the place he was discovered, PAWS Chicago.
Of course, Ned doesn't seem to have been certain at first whether he was returning triumphant or just being returned. According to a couple of the PAWS volunteers, he had his tail between his legs at first, as if to say, "What am I doing back here?"
But once he realized his trainer/owner Nicole Handley wasn't leaving him behind, he settled in, and he immediately brightened when he recognized Crystal Dollinger, a PAWS volunteer who fostered him for four months before he was discovered a year and a half ago and shipped off to Hollywood to become a dog star.
"I know exactly that look," Dollinger said, leaning over to give Ned a belly rub on demand.
"I'm so proud of him," Dollinger said. "All right, dude, you're making it!"
"Ned is the quintessential example of what makes PAWS special," said Paula Fasseas, founder of the Pets Are Worth Saving shelter at 1997 N. Clybourn Ave., which has grown from 60 adoptions 20 years ago to 5,500 a year now.
Upon arrival from Mississippi, Ned was an anxious, skittish dog, according to Fasseas.
PAWS Director of Training Joan Harris recalled him being "undersocialized," adding, "He was seeking a lot of attention from people, but then he didn't know how to receive it."
He was adopted, returned and fostered four months with Dollinger, by which time he was becoming more comfortable in his dog skin. Then came his discovery on the order of Lana Turner being seen by a producer while sipping a soda at Schwab's drugstore in Hollywood (or the Top Hat Cafe, as it really happened).
"Downward Dog," described as "a lonely dog navigates the complexity of 21st century relationships" by IMDB, began as a web series of short videos. TV producers seized on its concept of having a dog, Martin, narrate the story of his owner, played in the new ABC series by former Chicago actress Allison Tolman. A year and a half ago, producers got clearance to make a pilot, and set about looking for a rescue dog, as Martin was a rescue dog as well.
They took one look at Ned's photo from PAWS and hired him immediately.
"He has incredible eyes," said Handley, who teamed up with Ned as his trainer/owner. She called them "soulful." It turned out to be the canine epitome of the dog narration supplied by Samm Hodges.
TV being what it is, the pilot was picked up by ABC a year ago, but it's only just now making its way to the screen. It premieres at 8:30 p.m. next Wednesday on ABC7 before switching to Tuesdays as what used to be called a summer replacement series. Expectations will be set low, but if it strikes a chord with viewers it will stick.
In any case, Ned's "homecoming," in part to promote the series debut, was a cause for celebration at PAWS, which presented him with a birthday cake for his fourth birthday on Wednesday (a day early, actually).
PAWS will also waive adoption fees in his honor for all dogs and cats older than a year Wednesday, May 17, when "Downward Dog" premieres, in an initiative sponsored by the show.
"Ned's life is very different now than it was a year and a half ago," Handley said. Comparing notes with Dollinger, they agreed he was a smart dog who loves to learn, but with a stubborn streak. He's also remained a little anxious, which suits the character.
"Ned is definitely the diva on set," Handley said. "Pretty much whatever Ned needs, Ned gets."
In order to keep him from being overstimulated, only actors Tolman and Lucas Neff get to interact with him.
"We like to joke that he's Harrison Ford," Handley said. "Don't look him in the eyes."
But they've struck up a natural rapport, Tolman said, perhaps because they're all three Chicago products, with Tolman having studied at the Second City.
"We're all Chicago rescues," she said.
Handley said Ned enjoys "working" and "being on the set," but also likes to chase jackrabbits. However successful the TV series turns out, it's another successful PAWS adoption.
"Ned will have a forever home with me when he retires from work," Handley said, calling him "a member of the family."