On a beautiful, sun-lit day in Costa Rica, new reality show contestants step into harnesses and prepare to rappel down a waterfall, with their teammate strapped to them. But should their teammate be too nervous to partake in the challenge, they will be allowed to perform an alternate instead because health and safety, including mental health and stress levels, come first over competition. This isn’t any reality show, after all, it is Amazon Prime Video’s “The Pack” and those teammates are four-legged and furry.
Hosted by Lindsey Vonn (and her dog Lucy), “The Pack” travels 12 teams, each consisting of one human and one dog, to nine different countries over 10 episodes. In each, they perform inspiring but at times nail-biting challenges that involve common canine behaviors and tricks such as digging, tugging and pulling, to more specialized skills including scent work, as well as elements that require the humans to do the heavy lifting — from the aforementioned rappelling to paddleboarding, white water rafting and driving ATVs. Even the challenges were designed so that when a team would be eliminated, it would be “because of human error; we didn’t want to see dogs struggling,” executive producer Jay Bienstock tells Variety. “We didn’t want the dog [to] feel like it failed anybody.”
After all, on the line for the winning duo is a total of $750,000: $500,000 goes directly to the winning team and $250,000 goes to an animal charity of the winning team’s choice. In addition, the show donated an additional $250,000 during production to multiple animal charities and rescue organizations in the countries in which they filmed.
“I think I underestimate how much dogs are capable of,” says Vonn. “I wasn’t expecting [them] to do certain tricks and certain challenges, and they just got better and better as time went on. We can live vicariously through the show and experience different cities through the show that we aren’t able to travel to now, and we can share a bit of adventure. It’s meant to be a positive and uplifting show. It’s not really about the competition, it’s more about the bond that we have with our animals.”
The first step to creating a show that would set dogs of (almost) all breeds and sizes up for success was in casting, which Bienstock says was a “two-fold process” because they needed both humans and dogs who were interesting individually, but also had a really great relationship because they would be training together for a few weeks in orientation and then filming for about two months after that.
“The show is really not about watching dogs do cool tricks; it’s really more about their bond together. So as long as the dog knew the basics, which is, can they sit? Who is in control? it was just about how fast a dog could pick up some new skills,” Bienstock says.
There were certain breed restrictions put upon casting, Bienstock admits, in part because of the countries the show would be visiting. For example, Switzerland has banned terriers including the American Staffordshire Terrier, English Bull Terrier and American Pitbull Terrier, while Italy considers breeds such as Rottweilers, pitbulls and shepherd dogs dangerous.
The health and safety of the dogs also were taken into consideration while casting, though. Veterinarian consultants on the series advised that dogs with pug noses would not be well-suited to many of the challenges, which were being created simultaneously, or even climates and altitudes the show to which the show would introduce them. Dog trainers Nick Benger and Nicole Ellis were brought in to not only to teach the dogs skills they would need for the challenges, but they also weighed in on the challenge development itself. Some of their work, such as a 22-page dog safety document created for the show, remains strictly behind-the-scenes, but much of it, from interviews on-site at certain challenge locations to working with the contestants to safely gear up for challenges, became a part of the on-screen narrative.
“I think it’s important for everyone at home to see that training so you’re not like, ‘Oh wow, they just took that dog and did this crazy adventure.’ No, we broke it down for even the most simple steps,” Ellis explains. “All of the dog ride in crash-tested harnesses or carriers, and we didn’t just put the harnesses on the dogs; we really broke it down: showed them a harness, [they] got a treat; showed them a harness, [they] got a treat. It was multiple steps before they even wore a harness. And that went for safety goggles, booties, equipment.”
The dog safety team had “absolute power,” according to Bienstock. “If dog safety said, ‘Stop this,’ we would stop. We gave them a pass at everything because, what are we missing here? Like in the first show in Los Angeles on the beach, I’ve gone to the beach with my dog a zillion times without a leash, but they said if there’s no leash, you need a fence, so we built a fence. Their input was so valuable.”
Vonn shares that she, too, was allowed to give input into challenges, and she and Lucy even got to test them out. Some of her favorites were rappelling down the waterfall (the goggles, she notes, looked “hilarious” on Lucy), climbing a mountain in Switzerland (even though she doesn’t like the cold — which she knows is ironic considering her World Cup skiing career) and zip lining. “I love going fast, it’s the adventure thing,” she says. But, “Lucy was sleeping when we were zip lining, so there’s that.”
In building the challenges, Bienstock says, it was important to consider the size and breeds of the dogs and find ways to provide “fair” options for all to compete: “For instance, when they go to Costa Rica and they pull the coffee carts, if you’re a small dog, you have a small cart with less beams and if you’re a big dog, you have a bigger cart with more beams.” The intention was not to give any dog a leg up (no pun intended) over any of its competition, but instead to allow for growth in skill and self-confidence over the course of the season. And some challenges were designed to truly level the playing field by asking all of the dogs — and even the trainers — to undertake something they had never attempted before.
“My favorite challenge and one of the most difficult ones to do on paper and gave us the most headaches until we figured it out was teaching the dogs to play piano,” says Benger. “We had a short period of time and you can’t find any tutorials on YouTube so we really had to get inventive about how we taught the dogs to do that.”
Teaching took place during orientation, during which all teams received the same tips and amount of time to practice and pick up new skills, regardless of what level of knowledge with which they came in, Ellis says. It was all done through positive reinforcement training so the dogs learned the skills in a way that everyone involved in production hoped would be an enjoyable experience.
“We didn’t want these dogs to do things they weren’t enjoying,” Bienstock says. “If your dog is feeling stress, they don’t want to do anything and they’re miserable, and nobody on Earth could say that’s interesting to watch. So instead we had to create this environment that would be fun for everybody.”
This meant making sure the teams felt camaraderie with each other, not just competition. Since dogs are pack animals, the format of the show is structured so that the individual teams work together for group challenges, which encourages bonding between the dogs. The challenge elements were also limited to specific environments; traveling was not a race to arrive first and get an advantage for the next task.
“In cracking the format, it was a ‘go from country A to country B’ but if one team was in Germany racing to the train to Berlin and another team was already on the train and another team already in Berlin, where are the vets? That model didn’t work. We had to create a series of challenges that were self-contained. That was the safest way for the dogs [so] there was someone from dog safety within eyeshot of them at all times,” says Bienstock.
And when it came to leaving one country for another, all of the teams traveled together on a private plane and were granted a day of “down time” upon landing to allow for acclimating to new time zones.
“A lot of those recommendations were based on cortisol, which is the dog’s stress level. When you look at scientific studies, 24 to 48 hours is where you start to see the cortisol leave the dogs’ bodies, which is really important because that tells us that is when the dogs are starting to relax and adjust to their situations,” says Benger.
During that down time, Ellis adds, the dogs were encourages to “just be dogs,” including playing with each other or running through a park. These moments are also captured in the show because, as Bienstock puts it, “one of the most joyous things” is just to watch dogs in their natural states.
“When I was in edit and I’d meet with all of the editors chatting about the show, the spirit, I’d pull my dog up and everybody stopped in their tracks. And I’d say, ‘You guys see that feeling by having my dog Jack here? That’s the show. Whatever chemical is firing in your brain at that point, that’s what we’re trying to make here,’” he says.
“The Pack” premieres Nov. 20 on Amazon.