At a press conference on a sunny day in May, Ned curls his legs underneath him and gets comfortable on the plush ottoman, ready for another round of interviews and photographs. He seems exhausted, probably because his newfound celebrity status has come with a lot of travel: He recently relocated to LA for training, then jetted to Pittsburgh for filming. It’s a glamorous life, but a tiring one.
See, Ned is a dog — a mixed-breed hound — plucked from Chicago’s largest no-kill shelter to play the starring role of Martin in ABC’s talking-dog sitcom, “Downward Dog,” which premiered to 4.7 million viewers May 17. (Back in January, it also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the first-ever network comedy to do so.) The show — a comedy with serious undertones — is based on a web series of the same name and showcases the relationship between a dog and his female owner, as seen from the pet’s perspective. Creators Samm Hodges and Michael Killen knew from the get-go they wanted a rescue in the role.
“America has a really dark thing happening with pets and treating them like items to buy and consume,” says Hodges, who also voices Martin for the show (see sidebar). “We’re passionate about standing against the way dogs are treated.”
Killen adds that there’s also an artistic benefit: While there are stereotypes that come with purebreds — poodles are pretentious, Labradors are loyal — a shelter dog comes without predefined traits; viewers have no assumptions as to what Martin might say or do.
So, why Ned? His rags-to-riches story starts in July 2014, when he was transferred to PAWS from a partner shelter in rural Mississippi. He had heartworm and underwent multiple treatments; he was skittish and undersocialized. “We noticed that he was seeking attention from people, but then he didn’t know how to receive it; if you went to pet him, he would freeze up,” said Joan Harris, director of training and canine behavior at PAWS and Ned’s initial trainer. “We were starting at the ground floor with him. … He needed to be socialized before he could respond to training.”
He was adopted in June 2015, but returned a few weeks later, because he was “not a good fit” for the family; he spent some time in a foster home, as well. Then, in late 2015, the “Downward Dog” creators and trainers were doing an extensive online search for their show’s star when they came across Ned’s picture. “His eyes were so tremendous,” Killen says. “He came into the mix early, but he felt too good-looking, like a Hollywood version of what we were trying to portray. … But we just kept [coming back to him].” Ned had found his big break.
As is typical in Hollywood, though, his good looks came at a price: “Ned is definitely the diva,” laughed Nicole Handley, his current on-set trainer and owner. “There’s a special rule on our set that has never existed on any set in my 20-some years doing this: Do not look at the dog. Do not pet, touch, interact with the dog, unless you are the talent. And it’s pretty well respected.”
Ned’s co-star, Allison Tolman — who got her start at Second City and most recently starred in “Fargo” — agrees: “[With too much attention,] he would just get overwhelmed, because of his history. … But we joke that he’s like Harrison Ford — don’t look him in the eyes, get everything ready and then he’ll come to set.”
Ned’s new life is a far cry from the unstable condition he was in just a few years ago. Off set, he lives with Handley and her family on a sprawling ranch with many other pets.
At the PAWS press conference this month, his former trainers noticed the change. He’s less foggy as a result of being taken off his anti-anxiety medications; he warmed up to the crowd and even curled up at someone’s feet in the front row. And — on that particular day — he celebrated his fourth birthday, doggie cake from Sweet Mandy B’s and all.
“Ned is the quintessential model of what makes PAWS special,” said the nonprofit’s founder Paula Fasseas. “Here is a dog that would have been euthanized. He had several bites, he had a lot of anxiety, he tore up his room. … But after a year and a half with us, he found a home.” And, as it turns out, more than a few adoring fans.
Watch “Downward Dog” on ABC Tuesdays at 7 p.m.
“Downward Dog” co-creator Samm Hodges was pursuing a career in the ministry at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute before he went into commercial directing and eventually TV. His approach is matter-of-fact, offset in the show by co-creator Michael Killen, whose resume includes such silly bits as the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” chihuahua.
Even so, Hodges never planned to voice the brooding, philosophical pooch he created. He had a stutter in high school and wasn’t always confident about his speech. “I’m the most reluctant voice actor ever,” he laughs. “When we [started] the web series, I would write monologues and when people were reading them back, they weren’t getting the intonation or the cadence I had in mind right. So we recorded an [example] track to show them what we were going for.” Killen plugged the track into the video, and it was just right.
“In [my] history of working with a dog, [example] tracks seem to win out in the end most often,” Killen says. “There’s something about the realistic-ness of people who aren’t voice actors that works well.”
As for what the dog says, the writers aren’t making puns or banking on the expected gags. “We had this Venn diagram of dog experience and human experience, and where they overlap,” Hodges says. “[For instance], dogs have dreams, they have a sense of awe and beauty. We’re putting human language around the dog’s experience.”