By Gina Harkins
Cute, warm and cuddly, available in enough sizes, quirks and personalities to fit any potential “master,” dogs have held their reign as man’s best friend for centuries. Whether it’s Lassie’s devotion to Timmy, Marley’s uncanny way of bonding a family while being a troublemaker, Bruiser’s compliance to Elle Woods’ idea of fashion, or the First Family’s new dog, throughout history canines continue to be a source of friendship, camaraderie and family. But for Perry native Travis Brorsen, 30, and his counterpart Presley, a 3-year-old boxer, the road to being crowned “America’s Greatest Dog” duo wasn’t always a smooth one.
“I had wanted a dog to watch football with, not one that would eat the football,” Brorsen recalls. When his sister’s boxer had puppies, Brorsen jumped at the chance to have his own four-legged friend to hang out with and just be a guy around.
“There are so many people in L.A. that have little dogs that fit in a purse, and I wanted to be the opposite of that, the rebel,” Brorsen laughed. “The guy and his dog.”
Just three weeks after taking Presley back to his home in Los Angeles, Brorsen found himself begging his sister to take him back.
“When I first saw Presley, he was the one that was quiet, just chilling off to the side,” Brorsen said. “The next thing I knew, he was bouncing off the walls, chewing stuff up and tearing into the trash. I didn’t know a thing about basic training; it was just too much.”
A graduate of Oklahoma State University, Brorsen moved to L.A. in 2002 to pursue an acting career. Growing up on a ranch in Perry, Brorsen had learned to distance himself from forming any bond or relationship with animals, and planned to keep it that way.
“In the eighth grade I got very attached to our pigs, and then we had to sell them,” Brorsen recalled. “Here I was in the eighth grade, crying about some pigs. I thought, ‘Never again will I get this attached to an animal.’”
For the next several years, Brorsen found it possible to do just that. Once he graduated from college, he soon moved on to acting school, and spent any free time working as a waiter and bartender to help maintain his dream. Two years after arriving in L.A., Brorsen had established a credible acting career, with gigs including guest appearances on Desperate Housewives, Bones and JAG, along with several national commercials for Rooms To Go and Zales Jewelry. Brorsen had given up stints as a part-time bartender to take on acting full-time, but it was during a lack of work due to the writer’s strike that he finally found himself agreeing to take on a new companion. However, while walking his new sidekick, and contemplating ways to convince his sister to take him back, he was approached with a new idea for a reality TV show, a gig that couldn’t have been offered at a better time.
“I was walking Presley in a canyon by my house, and he just took off, maniac-style,” Brorsen said. “When I caught up to him, a lady asked if he was my dog. I instantly cringed, expecting the worst.” But instead of reprimanding Brorsen for his poor ability to control his dog, she pitched him an idea for an upcoming show on CBS, a show that would pair a dog and his/her owner against 11 other contestants while living together in a house for seven weeks.
Though the timing was perfect and the opportunity seemed too good to be true – the winner would take home $250,000, the most prize money ever won by a dog – Brorsen wasn’t immediately convinced. “I was thinking, ‘I love where I’m from in Oklahoma, and I love my family, who supports me,’” Brorsen said. “I wasn’t in the market to go off and do some crazy reality show.”
But this wasn’t your typical reality show. Greatest American Dog would promote family-oriented entertainment, with a primary focus on building a relationship between owner and dog. Realizing he had nothing to lose, Brorsen agreed to audition, and in one week had Presley trained well enough to convince the judges to make him the 12th and final contestant on the show – sort of.
“I met with the dog trainer five days before the audition to train me on how to train Presley, which just wasn’t enough time to work with him,” Brorsen said. “So to get Presley on his best behavior, I took him to the park for two hours and wore the crazy out of him. He ended up falling asleep immediately, and we got on the show.”
Through seven weeks of competitions, training, and most of all bonding, the duo transformed from “Travis Brorsen and his out-of-control boxer” to “Travis and Presley.”
“We represented a guy who really knew nothing about dog training, and his dog,” Brorsen said. “We didn’t have much of a relationship – he was only a year and a half, and the other dogs were five to nine years old.”
Despite being the underdog, Presley outshined the competition with dogged determination, and a newfound friendship with Brorsen.
“It was the time we spent together that made me realize that’s what you have to do, not only with animals and people, but with anything at which you want to excel,” Brorsen said.
But how did Brorsen’s once unwanted, unmanageable dog turn into America’s Greatest Dog? “My advice for all dog owners is: the more time you spend with your beloved pet, the better your relationship will be,” Brorsen said. Once this relationship is established, Brorsen explained that it’s best to use positive reward-based training, such as hugs, food and attention, to reinforce an action. In turn, negative behavior is best addressed by ignoring the action, because the dog is usually seeking attention by acting out.
In addition to helping others establish a relationship and raise a well-mannered, happy dog, Travis and Presley soon found themselves making weekly appearances across the country, often speaking at elementary schools.
“When we went out to schools, you could hear a pin drop,” Brorsen said. “I realized I could say anything and they would listen. I thought there had to be something productive and educational that we could teach while we had kids’ attention like that.”
After extensive research, including meeting with teachers and principals at schools across the country, Brorsen found that the biggest problem area for young students today is having good manners. While teachers were busy building up the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, and reprimanding those who were acting up during the lessons, they had little or no time left for enforcing the root of the issues – establishing proper manners. Making this their focal point, Travis and Presley set to work creating an eight-part Good Manners Series called Adventures of Travis & Presley, a matching book and DVD set aimed at an audience of 2- to 6-year-olds.
“We looked at the success of Blues Clues, and thought, ‘Why can’t we be Blues Clues, but with a real dog?’”
Staying close to his roots, Brorsen chose a production company in Enid, filmed his DVD in Oklahoma, and released the first of the Good Manners Series, Adventures with Travis & Presley: Please and Thank You, in December 2009 during two book signings in Stillwater and Enid. The response was overwhelming, and the 1,000 printed copies were quickly snatched up with demand for more by bookstores, teachers and parents looking for a way to teach their children in a fun, unique way.
“It’s so rewarding for me because we are teaching a message, it’s educational and kids love it,” Brorsen said. Though he’s is still working out the business aspects of his new venture, his enthusiasm for educating children and working with Presley is clear.
“This is the first opportunity I’ve had to feel like I’m actually giving back in some way,” Brorsen said. “We plan to develop software that matches the SMART board, and want to match manners with words. Then we’d like to go out to schools and make appearances; we look forward to that because the kids’ reactions are what got us into this in the first place. Our ultimate goal is to make a bigger impact in a positive way.”
As Brorsen’s job title continues to expand to include actor, reality star, Greatest American Dog champion, writer, entrepreneur, public speaker and animal rescue advocate (check out his line of t-shirts at www.TravisandPresley.com), one thing remains the same – his loyal companion and best friend Presley won’t be far behind.
“Who else has a job where they get to spend all their time with their dog?” Brorsen remarked. “Animals have a way of healing humans if just given the chance.”