Episode 66 | Lassie's Boy Sidekick: Meet Jon Provost, aka Timmy | School For The Dogs
jon provost and lassie

Episode 66 | Lassie’s Boy Sidekick: Meet Jon Provost, aka Timmy

Jon Provost was the boy sidekick to the 20th Century's most-loved dog: Lassie. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a third of American households tuned in each week to watch Lassie, a whip-smart Collie, help Timmy get out of countless pickles. Lassie came to define the "perfect" dog. In this episode Provost, who is now 70, talks about working with a dog star, and about what he learned from Lassie's rather progressive trainer/owner, the famous Hollywood dog trainer Rudd Weatherwax. He and Annie also discuss his early exposure to the notion of a "therapy" dog, and his more recent work to bring attention to rescue dogs, Army dogs, and more. Annie ends the episode by reflecting on how Lassie impacted our cultural notions about dogs, perhaps not for the better, and reads from Jean Donaldson's book Culture Clash, about the Disney-fication of dogs and how a desire to anthropomorphize "man's best friend" has led to some huge errors in the way people attempt to train and understand the dogs who live with us.

Transcript:

 

Annie:

60 years ago, there was a TV show that was so popular, it’s estimated it was watched in a third of American households each week. Its star, whose name was Baby, was a guy playing the role of a girl — a nonhuman girl. That girl was, of course, Lassie

 

[Whistling – Lassie theme]

 

Baby has long since left us. The show is only on in reruns.  And today, most people have not heard of Lassie’s famous trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, who was responsible for many of the 20th century’s most famous dog actors, but last year, his best friend is still around and still hanging out with dogs like it’s his job.  Today, I have for you an interview with Jon Provost who played Timmy on the show Lassie for most of his childhood.  He spoke to me about Weatherwax’s progressive and positive reinforcement based training methods, what it was like to grow up off camera with Lassie, and about his continued work with dogs. Fun fact, did you know there was actually never an episode where Timmy fell in a well, can you believe that?

Before we get started, I just wanted to suggest that you go check out my brand new one hour long master class. It’s called “Three simple things every dog owner needs to know to teach a dog quickly and easily without, force, pain, a major time investment or fancy equipment.”  It’s a presentation where I talk about how I got into dog training, how it kind of revolutionized how I see the world. You’ll learn to think about the way your dog learns, specifically wow to think about the way in which your dog is learning thanks to classical conditioning all the time. I talk about how to use food appropriately in training, and I will show you how to train the single most important behavior that we teach to our dog students at School for the Dogs. And you’ll learn about School for the Dogs’ is new online courses.  Just for registering, I will send you my ebook on the Dog Training Triad called Three Keys to Dog Training Success. You can find all this and more at Anniegrossman.com/masterclass.

 

[Intro]

 

Annie:

Thank you for joining me. I am really excited to be here talking with Jon Provost who played the iconic character, Timmy, in the show Lassie.  Just a little bit of background, I reached out to Jon maybe 10 years ago when I was working on the show, Too Cute: Puppies and Kittens, because I needed a photo from the show Lassie. And I was trying, I was an associate producer, and I was trying to find one that I could use copyright wise. And I got the idea that I bet the guy who played Timmy on Lassie would have some, and we emailed a little bit back then and I thought you were really interesting, Jon, why don’t, you introduce yourself and just talk a little bit about what you’re doing these days.

 

Jon Provost:

You know, everybody remembers Lassie and you know, it was a great thing to have been involved with. I mean, who doesn’t like Lassie? I mean, nobody has ever come up to me in the last, should I say, 60 years and said, “Oh, Lassie, we hated Lassie.”  It would never happen. That has stayed with me my entire life.  Did Lassie for seven years, and had always loved animals, was raised around animals. And so it was a natural thing.

But after Lassie, my experience with Lassie, you know, led me throughout my life to be involved with animals. Gosh, I’ve been a crusader for animal rights and regulations for animals and fundraisers for no kill pet shelters and free spay and neuter, and, you know, responsible pet ownership.  Was on the board of governors of Canine Companions for Independence. We supplied service dogs to people that had disabilities other than blindness for free.  And when I was involved with the organization, I did this, you know, I wasn’t getting any compensation or anything. I just did it because it was the right thing to do.

One thing is, you know, I came out with my autobiography Timmy’s in the Well, which of course, I guess we all know that Timmy never did fall in a well.  Everybody has used that phrase for years. I mean, Johnny Carson, on his show would use it at least once a week, and you know, Leno, Colbert. I mean, it’s just out there.  And people even come up to me and say it all the time, “Oh, my cat comes up and purrs at me, I go, ‘What is it? Timmy’s in the well?’”  Well, it never happened. So my wife, Lori Jacobson, and I, we wrote my autobiography and it came out in 2008, Timmy’s in the Well.  But you know, it starts from way before Lassie because my career started before and after Lassie. But we are working on not quite a sequel, but something special with that Timmy’s in the Well. So we’ve been working on that and excited about that.

 

Annie:

So for those who are listening, who don’t know about Lassie — there might be people alive today who don’t know about Lassie, or aliens who fell to earth. I mean, I grew up with Lassie on Nickelodeon.

 

Jon:

There you go. Well, you know, Annie, do you realize that Lassie is still on in reruns in over 50 countries? On my website, you know, Jonprovost.com, I get emails from all over the world. We’re really big in Europe and the Scandinavian countries and Germany and stuff. They like big dogs, you know? So they love Lassie.  But just, I mean, everywhere, it’s amazing. And then in the US, we’re probably at least a dozen cable networks, you know, and like you said, Nickelodeon.

 

Annie:

But if someone’s listening or watching this and they didn’t know what Lassie was, I’m curious how you, Timmy, would describe the show.

 

Jon:

Oh, well it was a story about a mythical American family in a mythical town. It was pretty much left up to the audience where they were. I mean, in one scene we would have desert in the backyard and the next scene redwoods, so figure that one out. But you know, it was about a boy and his dog, and growing up and learning. And Timmy made mistakes, but he learned from his mistakes.  And Lassie and Timmy helped people, they helped animals. I think the main thing was just the relationship between a boy and a dog and how important that is and how it carries over into everything that we do. And it’s not just, I shouldn’t say a boy and his dog. I should say, you know, a child and his dog, doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing, or an adult.  It was a very, wholesome American family show, like Leave it to Beaver, or Mayberry RFD or the Andy Griffith Show.  However you want to call it, you know, in that genre.

It’s amazing because we didn’t know.  It was early television. There were only three networks. I mean, we didn’t have DVRs, you know, you couldn’t — it was on once.  The family had to sit down together when the TV show was on and watch it.  We didn’t have a clue that people would be watching these shows 10 years later, 50 years later, whatever.  Black and white! I did 249 half hour episodes, only five in color. We did it just as color was starting to come into the television industry. So, Lassie, when it was on, it was about a third of the country was watching it every Sunday evening. Pretty impressive.

 

Annie

So, Lassie predates the TV show even, as a character?

 

Jon:

Well actually, the original Lassie was the movie or the novel by Eric Knight, Lassie Come-Home. And that was originally a movie 1944 with Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor. They were like, you know, 12 years old.  Subsequently, I think they did five or six Lassie movies. Then a few years back, they actually did a live Lassie radio show, before television.  That lasted a short period of time. And then they started the first Lassie series in 1954 with Tommy Reddick. And he played Jeff, and he owned Lassie. Tommy did the show for three years. He outgrew the part. They brought in Timmy, total different family. And then Timmy had Lassie. Did the show for seven years

 

Annie:

Was Lassie always a collie?

 

Jon:

Always a Collie, and always played — obviously Lassie is a female, if it was a male would be Laddie — always played by a male, from the original Lassie, whose name was Pal in the movie Lassie Come-Home, to the Lassie today, who is the 12th generation direct descendant from the original Lassie.

 

Annie:

Really!

 

Jon:
Who is owned by Bob Weatherwax, the son of Rudd Weatherwax.

 

Annie:

Who I would really like to talk to you about.  Just funny anecdote though, about genders and dogs on TV. When I was working on the show Too Cute, at one point I had to go in, you know, they would have these storylines about like, you know, Gypsy or whatever the dog, “Bella is in trouble today,” but Bella was actually a boy dog, but it fit to the storyline. And I had to go through at one point and point out all the instances where you could see that like “Bella” or whoever actually had a “peepee” that they had to then airbrush out.

 

Jon:

Well, now, Lassie being a collie,you know, they have very long hair in that region. Well, their whole body. So it was never an issue. And he was, all the Lassies were always intact males, but the most amazing part was, every year Lassie would have puppies on the show. You got a male dog laying down there with a half a dozen little puppies all snugglin’ up, and this dog’s going, “When is this scene gonna be over!” 

 

Annie:

Every year Lassie had puppies. I didn’t know that. 

 

Jon:

Well, we always did an episode where Lassie had puppies.  But a lot of people wondered why Rudd Weatherwax decided to use the male instead of a female dog. He told me the males were — and this is true. The males were larger, more colorful in the animal kingdom, right? The males are always the birds, whatever. They’re the colorful ones, the guys are. So, the dogs are bigger, more colorful, more heroic looking. Lassie was a hero. And he said, Rudd said this, that the males were smarter and easier to train than the female. I always get in trouble on that. But he said it, I didn’t. Okay.

The real reason, Annie, when the females come into heat, they lose their coat, and they don’t want to work. We’re making movies, you know, you got to work. So it really had nothing to do with the intelligence of the dog, but it had to do with that. And the truth that the males were more photogenic.

 

Annie:

Tell me about Weatherwax, it’s a name I’ve heard many times and I’d love to know more.

 

Jon:

He was an incredible man. He was an incredible trainer. I started the show when I was seven years old. I was very impressionable. I did not have a grandfather in my life. I never did. They were both dead. Rudd became my surrogate grandfather. He looked after me on the set like he looked after his dogs. We worked with every animal, you name it. We worked with it. I saw every other kind of trainer in the business. You know, I saw all the other famous dog trainers, cat trainers, whatever. And I never saw anybody that trained and used the methods that Rudd did. Rudd was always praise and reward. His dogs were treated better than his wife.

 

Annie:

How did he end up a Hollywood dog trainer?

 

Jon:

Oh, Rudd started back, goes way back. He and his brother Frank actually started training dogs, and Rudd really just started out as a dog trainer, not specifically for the business.  Got into the early film industry, and then actually had a dog training school, I guess you might call it, in Hollywood for quite a long time.

And then again, Rudd, people think just Lassie. Old Yeller? Old Yeller was one of Rudd’s dogs, and Old Yeller was a rescue.  A pound, we called it.  Back in the day, they weren’t called shelters. They were called dog pounds. They were called pounds. Rudd would go to the local pounds in the San Fernando Valley and look for the dogs that were going to be euthanized. And he’d look at a dog and he’d go, “Wait a minute. I want that dog.” So there was Old Yeller.  Also, Asta from The Thin Man, the series and the movies, a wirehaired terrier. Toto from The Wizard of Oz, a Weatherwax dog.

What I learned from him was respect, respect for the animal. He was a very tough man. He had issues. He drank a lot, but he was a wonderful man and an incredible trainer. And I, like I said, I think the main thing — I grew up around animals, I loved animals, animals were always a part of my life — but I learned the respect.  The respect.  And his dogs were so incredibly smart. They weren’t just trained. They were smart. They knew what they were doing. It was a great experience. 

 

Annie:

He always had treats on him, I believe —

 

Jon:

Oh yeah, no. Like I said, t was praise and reward.  On weekends, on Friday, sometimes I would go home with Rudd and Lassie, go to his home. He had a ranch outside of LA and about 60 acres, and so we’d go out there on the weekends just to get away from Hollywood. I’d play, you know, fish in his pond. And also it was a great way for me and the dogs to bond, to be together more.

 

Annie:

Something you told me last time we spoke about him rewarding you with points. 

 

Jon:

Oh yeah! Oh, oh! The treats and the points. Yeah, the treats. So he always had treats after every shot. After every time the dog did something, he would give the dog a treat, a morsel. And I would also do that with Lassie. And I would eat up eating Lassie’s food because it was beef. His wife would, you know, cook a roast and it was real beef. It was great.

When I first started this show, like I said, I was seven.  Rudd didn’t know how I was going to work with Lassie. I mean, we got along great. But he said, “Look, kid.” He said, “Don’t bug Lassie.” He said, “Don’t pull his tail. Don’t tease him. Don’t sit on him. Don’t ride him. Let’s just be good.” He said, “and if you are, then for your eighth birthday, I’ll give you a Lassie puppy.”

 

[laughing]

 

Yeah! How about that? He said, “But you have to earn a hundred points.” So at work, you know, during the day go, “Okay, that’s good that you get two points,” whatever. “Oh, you shouldn’t have touched — okay. So you lose a point.” I got my hundred points, I got my dog. He was a male. I named him Rudd after Rudd Weatherwax and yeah, he was a great dog. He wasn’t trained or anything like that. And I’ve always had dogs, always raised them from puppies — until recently, we started rescuing.  But he was the only Collie I ever owned. I’ve downsized cause I do a lot of traveling, or I used to more.  But so we downsized, I go for smaller breeds, and now rescues.

 

Annie:

Tell me about some of the work you’ve done with lobbying.

 

Jon:

Well, in California, we’ve worked on just different animal rights laws. One big one that I worked on, it was actually called Susie’s Law. And there was a movie made about it called Susie’s Law. And I have a small part in that movie. And about maybe 10 years ago, basically it was about an incident that happened, where the law states, the dog’s a dog, you can do whatever you want.  Tie him up 24/7 outside on a train with no protection, you know, that’s fine.  But that’s not fine. And so there was an incident, a very sad, tragic thing that happened, and heard about it and was asked to get involved, and did, and we got some laws changed. So it’s an ongoing thing.

 

Annie:

Laws about not letting dogs be left outside?

 

Jon:

You know, I mean, there are states where you can leave a dog outside and when it’s 10 below zero and there’s no a shed or anything for that dog to be in.  They’re chained up to a tree, is that right? No, that’s not. So that’s cruelty right in my eyes, it is. And a lot is for no kill shelters and free spay and neuter. I mean, we have to be responsible. That’s the kind of things that we have to do. And, it’s unfortunately, because our big organizations in the US that profess to do things like that but don’t.

So what people need to do if they want to donate? Donate locally, donate to your local shelters, donate to the ones that are no kill and offer spay and neuter. That’s what people need to do.

 

Annie:

You’ve also worked with child abuse victims. Is that right? Or child labor laws.

 

Jon:

Well, yes, not specifically child. Yes. A lot of that has to do with the film industry. Paul Peterson, you might remember from the Donna Reed Show, Paul started years ago and I was the original group with him, an organization called A Minor Consideration, minorconsideration.org. And what it does is in all states, works to strengthen child labor laws from not specifically, but leaning toward children in, in the industry, in all the forms of entertainment, show business and other things.

But yeah, that’s important. In California, we’ve always had really good child labor laws. When I was working, I was covered.  I mean, they tried to get by laws and do certain things, but you know, they protected us as children. Unfortunately, a lot of states don’t. You can work a kid 12 hours, 15 hours when he’s five years old? I don’t think so. So yeah, I work on things like that also.

 

Annie:

And I believe that during the time that Lassie was on was a time where a lot more people in America were getting dogs as family pets. And I have to guess that Lassie either reflected this or helped cause this, but I’m curious what you think about the fact that it probably also encouraged people to feel like they had to have a dog of a specific breed and a specific look, which I think it can, can be.

 

Jon:

I mean that, and it doesn’t matter. It can be the color of your tennis shoes. I mean, people go, you know, it’s like when the movie, the latest remake of 1,001 Dalmatians came out, all of a sudden everybody’s got to buy a Dalmatian. Well —

 

Annie:

Right, but there’s a bigger problem with people buying Dalmatians than with buying tennis shoes.

 

Jon:

Well, yeah, exactly. No, exactly. But what I’m saying is, you know, why is that? I don’t know, is that the fault of the people that make the tennis shoes?  Is that the fault of the people that made the movie? No, it’s people watching them. And then the sad part is, people, they see that dog or that cat or that horse, whatever it happens to be, and they see how it’s performing on that movie or on television, they go, “Oh, well that’s, Oh, I liked that, that’s what I want.” without researching the temperament, or really what that animal is like. And so then they buy that animal or whatever, and then find out, “Whoa, it’s not what I thought it was going to be.” And then you’ve got issues. 

But I’m sure when anything becomes popular, and people want it or that or whatever — so yeah, when Lassie was on and real popular all the time, people had a lot more collies. You don’t see a lot of collies now, yet there are a lot of collies in the world.  Every year, not this year, but in the past, every year they have the Collie Convention. People come from all over the world. I’ve been a few — when I go, it’s kind of crazy, I’m like the Pope, you know — 

 

Annie:
[Laughs]  At the Collie Convention?

 

Jon:

Yes! I’m there and there’s like 400 collies, and you know, Annie, it’s super.  I mean, people come up to me and say, “Jon, you are the reason that I’ve been raising and breeding collies for the last 40 years.”  That’s great. That’s a great feeling.  But no, collies are still popular, but you know, whatever kind of dog anybody is thinking about getting or wants to get, research it, you know.  Don’t take a neighbor’s, somebody other’s opinion.  Research, find out what their temperaments are, find out what they need. You don’t want a border collie, you know, in a one bedroom apartment on the 50th floor, in New York City. Right?

 

Annie:

Although I know, I know some people with border collies in apartments in New York City, but it takes a lot of commitment.

 

Jon:

My wife and I were in Panama a couple of years ago in the summer. And here’s somebody walking on the street with a malamute.  No!  You know, get a grip on it. So, you know, people need to research the animals and know what they need before they get them.

 

Annie:

Right. Well, and I always encourage people to consider the individual rather than the breed, because every animal’s different.

 

Jon:

When we did our first rescue, we were told that he was this mixed breed. We had our suspicions and we ended up, about six months later, he was having some issues. So we took him to our vet who had been going to for 25 years, trusted him. And he said, “What do you think about this dog? Tell me about–”  I said, “Well, they told us this,” and he goes, “Hmm, I got, I have — leave me here, come back in an hour.”  Came back in an hour. He said, well, for one thing, this dog is not three and a half years old. He’s more like eight years old. And just, you know, a lot of different things. So we did a DNA on him. Boy was that enlightening. You know, we had this little rescue, about a nine pounder, and found out he had like seven different breeds in there. One of which was border Collie.

And it was crazy, cause I was watching him as we were getting to understand him, and I’d seen him do something. And when I had that DNA, I said, Oh wait, there’s the border Collie. There’s the dachshund. And I could see little things he would do. And I knew, you know, what that breed does. I could see those traits in him. And that was great. Turned out to be one of the best dogs. Unfortunately, he’s gone now, but it turned out to be one of the best dogs ever had.

 

Annie:

Well, it’s interesting that you’ve gone on to do so much work with rescues, and having worked so closely and sort of been the main person belonging to this pedigree dog.

 

Jon:

Yeah. Well, you know, and we’re on our third rescue. This guy we’ve got now, he’s 11. We’re his third house. And yeah, he’s been through some crazy stuff, too. But you know, when somebody comes into your life and they won’t let you hold them for about three or four months, and then all of a sudden they let you hold them? That’s really an incredible, incredible feeling.

 

Annie:

I’m curious what Pal the dog was like on set.  Was he as perfect when the cameras weren’t rolling, because Lassie has come to be the epitome of what the perfect dog should be. And actually, I was interested, you used the word mythical when referring to the town.

 

Jon:

Well yeah, the town.. You know, Calverton in the US, we don’t know where it was, not a clue. Well, I, yeah, I know it was stage nine at Desilu Studios on the corner of Gower and Melrose in Hollywood is where it was.  But we only used one Lassie at a time. Rudd didn’t have four different dogs to do different things. His whole thing was Lassie is Lassie. We did have a double. That was Lassie’s stand-in. I had a stand-in, everybody, when they setting up the scene, they need people and things to stand there for the lights and all that. So, the double was Lassie’s stand in and did the fighting. Lassie had to run over a mountain. You know, why wear out Lassie? So he would do it. Or if Lassie had to get in mud, or swim.  We didn’t have portable hairdryers.  It’d take a week to dry a Collie.

Okay. So that’s what the double was used for. But always one Lassie. In my seven years, I worked with three main Lassies. First year was Tommy’s dog. He was the son of the original. I worked with him. He was called, we called him the Old Man. He was old. And so he was retired after my first year.  His son, I said, they’re all direct descendants. His son took over my second year. Son wasn’t working out too well. So Rudd had to rush in the grandson. Now the grandson, they all had different names. They had names before they became Lassie. Once they started working, then they were called Lassie, not their own name. The third dog that I worked with, his name was Baby.  Baby and I, we worked together for five years. I loved that dog, that we grew up together. I learned from him, he learned from me, we slept together. We ate together. 

You know, they had different personalities. They were all incredible. Like I said, they weren’t trained, like Sit, Stay, Bark. It was much more than that. Baby was incredible. I started working when I was three. I grew up on a soundstage.  I started working when I was three. I stopped for a while when I was 18. So I worked for 15 years growing up.  Baby worked that way, you know, in his five years, that was how many years in dog life. He was a baby when he started.  He was incredible. He learned, as I did growing up in the business.  He knew when he did it right. When you’re filming and we have a scene, and somebody blows a line or whatever, the dogs hardly ever made a mistake. The actors, we, June Lockhart, you know, we’d screw up all the time. Dogs were hardly ever screw up.

When baby would get it right? He’d leave the set! He’d go. He’d say, okay, it’s done.  I did it right. We’re out of here. And it was incredible.

 

Annie:

[Laughs]

 

Jon:

It was, no, it was kind of spooky, because when the scene’s correct, the director says, “Cut, print.” Print means that’s the one I’m keeping. It was like Baby knew he was going to say print. It was weird. It didn’t happen all the time. It happened sometimes.

 

Annie:

What were some of the more impressive things that Baby did as Lassie, then? I mean, as far as like specific things that the dog was asked to do in the show?

 

Jon:

Well, you know, specific is, that’s really hard. It was just, I mean, he just knew, okay. Here’s a perfect example. If you remember, we have the little barnyard and the back door with the screen door that Timmy would always come in and out of when mom would be standing there, blah, blah, blah. Well, Lassie could open that screen door. It had a latch. For some reason — I worked Monday through Friday, they worked on Saturdays. For some reason, over that weekend, somebody broke the latch, whatever, they replaced it with a different latch.

So Monday we come to work. The first scene shows Lassie running up, barking, barking. Nobody comes to the front door. He has to open the front door, blah, blah, blah. The director says, “Okay, Rudd, here’s what we gotta do. Do you want to rehearse it?”  “Lassie’s done it a hundred times. We don’t need to rehearse it. Just roll camera. We’ll do it. And we’re outta here.”  

Roll camera. Lassie runs up, goes up to the stops. Turns around, looks at Rudd and says, they switched the latch on me. I can’t open this. Rudd goes, Oh, who did that? So nobody knows. So the director’s going, “Oh, now what do we do?” Rudd says, “Give me a minute.”  He takes Lassie, goes over to the door.  In about two minutes, he goes, “Okay, we’re ready to go! Okay. Lassie, do it.” Lassie goes up, opens the door like he’s done it a thousand times. Boom, goes in.

I mean, Rudd smoked, chainsmoked.  Throw a cigarette down on the concrete.  Lassie’d put it out. Lassie’d walk over, take his paw, [tap tap tap] put out the cigarette. You know, I mean, the dog was Baby.  And that was Baby.

And I must say of all the dogs that Rudd owned.  Pal, his first dog I kne Pal. When I knew Pal. Pal was deaf, dumb and blind. He lived with Rudd. He lived on the ranch. He knew the ranch. He was fine, you know, unless you moved something. But when he passed, Rudd wrapped him up in his favorite blanket and took him and buried him in the backyard. The only other one of his dogs that really, really hit him was when Baby died. Yeah. Baby was a special dog. He was really.

 

Annie:

And you were an early therapy dog handler. Isn’t that right?

 

Jon:

Well I didn’t train, that all had to do well with Canine Companions for Independence. But when you mentioned therapy, yes, every year we would work nine months out of the year filming Lassie.  One month that we were off, Lassie and I would travel the country, go to, you know, the big cities, the markets, New York, Chicago, Dallas, blah, blah, Atlanta.  

Rudd insisted — and this is, you know, ‘57, ‘62, ‘63. He said, if there’s a children’s hospital in that city, Jon and Lassie are going and seeing the kids.  There was no such thing as the service dog. Well,  guide dogs for the blind. That was it. They didn’t let dogs in the hospitals back then, but they would let Timmy and Lassie in.  We would go in, there would be kids in there, um, with polio.  In traction, cause they’d been in an auto accident.  You know, wrapped up in gauze and stuff because they’d been in a fire.

And when we would walk in that room, you know, they’d forget where they were. And the kids were my age, you know, blew me away as a little kid to see.  You didn’t see kids with polio and stuff on the street.  Back then if people had disabilities, they hid them. You know, they were at home or whatever. So that really had a lasting impression on me.  I think it really influenced some of the things that I got involved with later on. I know it did have to,

 

Annie:

I was looking at, um, your IMDB page and there was a movie that you did that sounded really interesting.  The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?

 

Jon:

Yeah, yeah!  Oh, that was great!

 

Annie:

What a great title. Tell me about that.

 

Jon:

Well, I thought you were going to talk about the one I did before that, which was called Secret of the Sacred Forest, which I did when I was, well, both of them, I was like 17. I turned 18 with the computer, but Oh no, we won’t even talk about Secret of the Sacred Forest

 

Annie:

[Laughs] Now I want to know.

 

Jon:

Worst movie. Everybody makes a dog go, well, wait, that’s not the right word, a bomb. Okay. Whatever. It was  horrible, we filmed it in the Philippines. I had a ball doing it. I was 17. The actor, Gary Morrow, who is passed now a long time. He a very famous long time American actor, a dramatic actor. He was married to the actress, Betty Davis. Anyway, it was his last film, terrible movie, but we have a lot of fun.  But came back to the States and got this movie with Kurt Russell from Walt Disney called The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. We had a great time. It was fun. You know, I had my 18th birthday, Kurt had his 17th birthday. And then —

 

Annie:

Is it a movie about a computer who wears sneakers?

 

Jon:

It’s this crazy Disney movie about these college kids. And, you know, it’s just when computers were coming out, this was 1967, ‘68. And, you know, with Disney, he touches something and he becomes the computer, Kurt Russell, you know, and I’m one of the guys with them and stuff. And yeah, like I said, we had a ball. It was a lot of fun.

 

Annie:

Well, I think of you as a little boy on Lassie, but you were actually really a teenager for much of that time.

 

Jon:

Oh yeah. Well, you know, I quit Lassie when I was 14. Tommy did the same thing. He quit when he was 14. Or he was 17. He started when he was 14, but I was 14. I was, you know, starting to grow up, my hormones were going. I was like looking at the girls more. But everybody was looking at me like little Timmy with Lassie.  And my contract was up, but the studio wanted to extend it for three more years for a total of 10.  

Luckily my parents said, you know, what do you want to do? Because you don’t have to go on for three more years. It’s up to you. You can say yes or no. And I said, you know, I want to continue acting, which I did. I did — my next movie right after Lassie was with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. And I wanted to do that, but I was tired of being Timmy. I wanted to move on. So same thing happened with Computer. Did the movie. I just turned18. And, and as I mentioned earlier, I started when I was three. And I said, you know what? You’ve been working for 15 years. Maybe it’s time to take a break.

 

Annie:

Nancy says, “Tell us about your 16 Magazine days. What did it feel like knowing you were lusted after by a hoard of teenagers?”  What was 16 Magazine? I don’t know what that was.

 

Jon:

That’s not bad, yeah. You know, why not? And, you know, people like David Cassidy and, you know, just we were all in the same thing. It was fun. They even had me try, you know, everybody was doing a record and all of this.  They had me try out for that, and oh boy, that was a mistake. You know, the acting part was okay, but not, not, not the singing part, no.  But yeah, that was fine. That was great. Don’t believe everything you read. But other than that, that was great.

 

Annie:

Do you have any ideas about how dogs have changed in entertainment and popular entertainment? Do you think we see dogs on the screen now in a different way than we did in the days of Lassie, or?  Part of what interests me about Lassie is I think the idea of Lassie has shaped how people think of dogs, like full stop.

 

Jon:

Oh yeah. No, what I, I do notice is you see less animal. You see less.  My wife and I are bingeing, like a lot of people now that are home.  And we’re watching a great series, and we’re in year four, and we have not seen one dog.  What’s up, where’s the dog? And I don’t know.  What was that w the animation out a couple of years ago, that was all dogs. That was funny. I liked that. You know, I haven’t seen anything negative, you know, not a Cujo lately.

 

Annie:

Do people expect you to be good with dogs, do you think, because you were Timmy?

 

Jon:

I think so. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, my name’s associated, you know, with dogs with, with a dog. Sure. That’s, that’s all good. And there’s nothing negative about that at all. You know?

 

Annie:

Well, thank so much for your time, Jon. I really appreciate talking to you. I think people will be interested to hear what you’ve been up to, and thank you to everybody who has joined us.

 

Jon:

Good — and one thing that I really missed that I didn’t say was that I’m the spokesperson for the National War Dog association for the West Coast division. And, you know, we forget about those dogs.  And I live near an Air Force base where most of the dogs return to either alive or dead. And don’t forget those dogs.

 

Annie:

What is the work that you do with them?

 

Jon:

Well, I’m just the spokesperson, you know, to let people know.  And to support, you know, we support our troops. Our dogs are troops. When a patrol goes out and they have a dog, the first person to drop is that dog, the sniper goes for the dog first because the dog’s the biggest threat, because he’s protecting our guys. So, sorry.

 

Annie:

It’s an emotional topic. I do think the dogs in the military are probably not honored enough.

 

Jon:

No, they’re not. And fortunately, now we’ve actually been able — you know, the guys or the gals that were out there, you know, they sleep, eat, they live with their dogs. And after they’d been together through hell, they were separated and they couldn’t bring them home. They couldn’t be together. Even when those dogs were retired — well, that’s been changed.  Now, if a handler, once that dog’s been retired, you know, wants to keep him or her, you know, bring it home, they can do that now. You know, they have to go through a lot of hoops, but we worked on that. 

 

Annie:

Thank you, Jon.

 

You know, if you’ve never seen the show Lassie, you might not appreciate what a super dog and I mean, super like Superman, Superdog Lassie was on that show. In nearly every episode, Lassie is either rescuing some small animal, other dogs, puppies, Timmy, Timmy’s friends. He really is like a superhero.

 

After talking to Jon, I started to reflect on how Lassie has affected the way that we all think about dogs, whether or not we even ever watched the show Lassie. And it made me wonder what would have happened if we might’ve seen some of the training that went into creating this dog character that remains so beloved. I guess what I mean is that I think that Lassie might’ve set the bar really high in the average American household for what a family dog should or could be. And what was left out was all the behind the scenes work that got this dog to do such incredible feats, with, of course, the help of some good editing, I’m sure. 

 

Maybe if people could have seen Rudd Weatherwax at work, a movement towards positive reinforcement based training maybe would have become more popular.  Instead, I think what happened was that dogs got punished for not being Lassie. Jean Donaldson in her book, Culture Clash talks kind of about this. I went back to reread the first chapter the other day, and I wanted to share a little bit of it with you. I was surprised to see the book is actually dedicated to Lassie.

 

The first chapter is called “Getting the Dog’s Perspective”:

 

Walt Disney versus BF Skinner


A book published in the early 1990s refers to the moral code of dogs. It became a bestseller. It seems that most people still buy into the Walt Disney dog. He is very intelligent. Has morals is capable of planning and executing revenge, solves complex problems and understands the value of the artifacts in Walt’s home. Nobody wants BF Skinner’s dog: the input-output black box who is so obviously not the furry member of our family. It’s been marketed all wrong. I think Skinner was right, but has gotten bad press. The truth must be presented in a way that people will start to buy into. They have to, because not getting it has led to the death of countless dogs. Here is an example to illustrate the difference.

A dog has been reprimanded every time he was caught chewing furniture. Now the dog refrains from doing furniture when the owner is home, but becomes destructive when left alone. When the owner comes home and discovers the damage, the dog slinks around ears back and head down.

Walt’s view: The dog learns from the reprimand that chewing furniture is wrong and that the owner hates it. The dog resents being left alone and to get back at the owner chews the furniture when the owner leaves.  He deliberately, in other words, engages in an act he knows to be wrong. When the owner comes home, the dog feels guilty about what he has done. 

BF’s view: The dog learns that chewing furniture is dangerous when the owner is present, but safe when the owner is gone.  The dog is slightly anxious when left alone and feels better when he chews.  It also helps pass the time.  Later when the owner comes home, the dog behaves appeasingly in an attempt to avoid or turn off the harsh treatment he has learned often happens at this time.  The owner’s arrival home and/or pre-punishment, demeanor have become a predictor: the dog knows he’s about to be punished. He doesn’t know why.

There is no question whatsoever that the second view is the accurate one. The question is not which interpretation is the truth, but rather why anyone still argues the point? The medical equivalent would be a significant percentage of the American public thinking disease was caused by imbalance in humors rather than microorganisms.

The accurate information has been around for decades. Yet most people who own dogs, haven’t learned it yet. One reason for our astonishingly poor understanding of dogs is extremely slow trickle down from the experts: those in applied behavior educating one owner or one class at a time, rather than something on the scale of public service announcements or spots on Oprah.  Not only is this missing fantastically inaccurate information about dog behavior, it’s actively disseminated on reality TV.

But I think there’s a second reason for the slow acceptance of realistic interpretations of dog behavior: simple reluctance to let go of anthropomorphism.  Behaviorism made famous by Skinner has suffered some serious backlash since its assault on the world of psychology in the mid 20th century, largely because it could be successfully argued that hardcore behaviorism comes up short for understanding humans in all their mega brain complexity. When it comes to animal training and behavior modification, however, the fit is incredibly good.  But so far, no amount of evidence makes the behavior as model palatable to the average dog owner. The implications of this are really important. 

The impressive staying power of Walt’s warm-hearted but distorted view of dogs is a perverse measure of how much we like them. We want them to be smart, morally good.  Many cynics, see dogs as superior to people in their loyalty and trustworthiness. By contrast, the behaviorist model hasn’t caught on in the mainstream because it seems to reduce dogs to input output machines.  Our fear is that if we accept this viewpoint, we stripped dogs of their status as honorary humans with a logical extension of negative ramifications for their welfare. 

In other words, humans are tribal. Our compassion and consideration for other beings is strongly aligned with our perception of how similar they are to us. And a strong measure of that similarity intelligence. IQ is still and acceptable prejudice.  Heated ethical discussions ensued when the question of language acquisition in great apes was raised.  Without a possible capacity for language, it had somehow seemed more okay to accept a utilitarian attitude towards them. No one much questioned the premise of intelligence as criteria for being considered for compassionate treatment.

Our species and the long history of incredible violence and horror perpetrated, essentially because the victims were too far outside our perceived tribe.  Our current tribal boundaries have a lot to do with species, IQ and moral integrity. Our bond with dogs is obviously strong.  But they are the wrong species.  To explain the bond, we compensate by exaggerating how much they resemble us in the areas of intelligence and morality. This is a typical example of a bias or attitude coming first and then edifices of explanatory facts or fictions being built in support of it. 

 

This is from the first chapter of Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash. I highly suggest you check out this book. I will put a link to it in the show notes.

[music]


Annie:

So I feel I need to make a quick addendum to this episode. After I published it, Libby Sills, who’s worked for School for the Dogs on and off for years and helps me sometimes with the podcast, sent me some videos of Rudd Weatherwax with his suggestions on how to train a dog. And, I really shouldn’t have said that he was progressive and that all of his training was rooted in positive reinforcement. I didn’t do enough research about him clearly, because the videos, which we’ve now added to the show notes, show that his methods were actually pretty old school.  A lot of choke chains, and “mean talk” is one thing that he suggests. I mean, stuff that today, I think looks kind of comical.  So maybe I’ll talk more about Rudd Weatherwax in future episodes after I educate myself a little bit more about him, but didn’t want to let this episode stand as it was without mentioning that further research is needed on the topic of this very famous Hollywood trainer. So stay tuned.

 

[Outro]


Links:

JonProvost.com

Timmy’s In The Well: The Jon Provost Story

You can find some old episodes of Lassie on Youtube

Rudd Weatherwax on “How to Have a Happy Dog – The Lassie Method” – short video from 1971 – “A trained dog is a happy dog!”

Three Simple Things Masterclass

The original Lassie: Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight

United States War Dogs

Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson

Related Podcasts:  Episode 37 – Dog Training Pet Peeves: The word “energy” and the misuse of the word “positive”

Annie Grossman
annie@schoolforthedogs.com