In the past, “talking” dogs haven’t been given their due in entertainment, often being used for farcical forays.
Michael Killen, one of the executive producers of ABC’s new comedy Downward Dog, knows this all too well: He helped bring the Taco Bell Chihuahua to life during his time working on commercials.
“Talking dogs just seemed low brow,” fellow Downward Dog executive producer Samm Hodges told PEOPLE.
The pair wanted to change that, so they created a web series consisting of one-minute shorts that featured a talking dog speaking not about bacon or tacos, but the complexity of relationships.
This (literal) pet project evolved into the new ABC comedy premiering on Wednesday, May 17, which follows the life of a Pittsburgh millennial, played by Fargo‘s Allison Tolman, through the perspective of her devoted and philosophical dog Martin.
“We just wanted to have an animal be on-screen in an incredible, realistic and emotional way,” Killen explained. “It hadn’t been taken seriously before.”
To find the perfect pooch to play the soul-searching Martin, Downward Dog hosted a nationwide search across America’s shelters, because it was important to both Killen and Hodges that the star be a rescue mutt.
After a whirlwind hunt, they encountered Ned at a Chicago shelter, where he had been waiting for a home for over a year. Ned nailed his tryout with a longing look.
“It was Ned’s eyes, we kept coming back to that dog,” Killen said.
From there, Ned’s life went through a massive overhaul. He was adopted by the show’s trainer Nicole Handley, one of the first people hired by Killen and Hodges, and started his 6 weeks of acting school.
“It’s illuminating that a dog could learn to act in 6 weeks,” Lucas Neff, who plays Jason on the show and admits to years of acting training, said.
Aside from being a very good boy, Ned was able to pick up on the skills needed to play Martin quickly because they are natural dog behaviors.
“The dog is doing real stuff — not riding a skateboard,” Hodges summarized.
The biggest challenge for Ned was embracing his newfound confidence. Stuck in a shelter for so long, the rescue was initially a little skittish about all the attention, but that melted away under Handley’s loving guidance.
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Having a dog on set, in general, added a sense of ease to shooting for everyone.
“You have to have the mindset that you can’t be calcified in your view of what you want them to do on set,” Killen said about working around the natural behaviors of the dog actor. “It’s not going to be perfect. You have to take the gems as they are given to you.”
This openness and acceptance of life’s little curiosities is something the cast believes viewers will feel emanating from the show itself.
“It’s a thoughtful show about what it is like to be a dog and therefore a human,” Neff said. “How ego meets reality.”
“It helps you to remember how important it is to be decent,” Tolman said in agreement.
And, if that isn’t enough, the show has a talking dog. A talking dog like you’ve never seen before.
“If they think that they know what it is because they love talking animals, they should watch the show because it has a lovable talking animal,” Tolman said on why everyone should watch Downward Dog. “If they think it’s dumb because there is a talking animal, they should watch it because it’s smart even with a talking animal.”
Ned makes his big TV premiere on Wednesday May 17 at 9:30 p.m. EST on ABC.