There was cooking for Lindsey Vonn.
It was early 2020, the world wasn’t closed yet, and the Olympic downhiller had been retired for less than a year. An HBO documentary about her aired for a few months before earlier, and her memoir, Rise, was due to fall in March. (The impending pandemic would postpone its publication to October 2021.) She had launched her own line of ski clothing with long-time sponsor Head and then founded a production company with a childhood friend. Soon Vonn would be making her own film about the Olympic skier Picabo Street, and Frank Marshall, producer of The Sixth Sense and Seabiscuit, wanted to team up. Vonn was now in the foothills north of San Jose, Costa Rica, sitting in utter bliss on a rock with Lucy, her baby-sized Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and number one travel companion. There, in the Territorio de Zaguates Dog Sanctuary, the ground around them shimmered with hundreds and hundreds of street dogs. “There was a wave of dogs, like 1,500 of them,” says Vonn. “I literally couldn’t see the ground.”
Vonn had come here to work on her latest television project: The Pack, a ten-part reality competition series that launched on Amazon Prime Video on November 20. The show features a dozen dogs and their owners – or “partners” – when Vonn calls them – on a jet-setting journey through North America, Central America and Europe. At each location they run for tasks that are supposed to show what the producers call a deep bond between people and their dogs. But it’s really about which dog can pull, pick, push or paw around an obstacle the fastest. Episode by episode, the field is reduced to a single victorious human-dog team. Along the way, we’ll learn fun facts about dogs (mushing started in the 10th century), see breathtaking landscapes (Switzerland, Costa Rica, Utah) and learn about various puppy-focused charities and causes around the world. Think of it as The Amazing Race, but with more barks.
The competition itself has a prize of $ 500,000 plus an additional $ 500,000 for various charities, including $ 250,000 for the winner’s charity. But takeaway, complemented by emotional backstories and on-camera interviews, is more about how a human’s unconditional love for a dog can bring confidence, patience, and growth to everyone. Fair enough – dozens of new pandemic pet owners stuck at home are sure to relate to this.
The show began as an brainchild of Chris Castallo, Amazon’s head of alternative programs, who recruited Jay Bienstock, an Emmy winner of The Voice and Survivor, to bring the show to life. Bienstock, who is “a doggie” himself, needed a host who had a thirst for adventure but was also obsessed with dogs. “We made up Lindsey Vonn,” he says. “She really loves dogs on a human level.”
The show oscillates between the cool and the fictional depending on your own relationship with travel, adventure, and things you might want to do with your dog. My 11 year old loved watching the pups roll balls and play a giant floor piano, but for non-dog owners (guilty as charged), parts of the series were – like dressing dogs in little hats and outfits for a Paris fashion show – feel lame. The same applies to the moments outdoors. Stand up paddleboarding with your dog? Default. But are you rapping a thundering jungle waterfall with a soaking wet standard poodle dangling from a harness between your legs just because? To OK.
The show works best when we see dogs doing very canine-like things. Dixie, a bluetick coonhound, just can’t shut up at the worst time. One dog runs away to play with the other dogs instead of crossing a finish line and running a close race. Snow, the standard abseiling poodle, gives his owner, um, partner Josh White a burp in the face while White talks to the cameras.
Aside from fun things, we also see dogs use their skills in ways we humans never could. We watch as they find survivors buried in a simulated earthquake disaster zone at a research and training facility in Mexico City, and then we stare in awe as they sniff around a battleship for clues tucked into cupboards and forgotten alcoves are hidden. Some tasks rely less on instincts than on newly learned tricks. People desperately pleading with their dogs for keys to free their owners from a prison cell are pretty funny. On the other hand, watching dogs attempt to deliver fine French food to discerning Parisians looks like a huge waste of food.
(Photo: David Scott Holloway / Amazon Studios)
To make sure the canines didn’t have to do anything that made them anxious, anxious, or stressed out, the producers hired an animal safety team that included everything from designing the tasks to the dogs’ travel. This included chartering an airplane with a grassy “dog toilet area” and prime seating for the pups. Vets traveled with the group and helped keep track of all the gunfire and papers the dogs needed to clear customs quickly. The security team followed the dogs wherever they went. “They were super conservative,” says contestant Mark LeBlanc, partner with Ace, a border collie who does well on the show (no spoilers!). When a dog did not want to do a certain task, the team stepped in. “It was never good, maybe the dog can do it,” says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer on the security team. “It was no, the dog is stressed, we’re not doing it.”
Vonn holds up well as a host, with a combination of folk and glamor. With toy-sized Lucy staring blankly out of her arms, Vonn celebrates and empathizes with the participants, but she’s not afraid of shouting bad form: Vonn gives a participant a real tongue whip before knocking them off the show because he hanged himself from a moving vehicle and later took his dog off a travel belt. “I can say what needs to be said,” she says.
In the end, Vonn hopes this will lead to more dogs coming home and another season of The Pack. And maybe, she says, the limelight will help her start a real acting career. “Maybe rock wants me to be in a movie,” jokes Vonn. “I’ll just throw that out of there.”
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Main Photo: David Scott Holloway / Amazon Studios
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