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When Christian Stoinev was 10, he was gripped by a yearning that is common among boys of that age. “I wanted a pet, really bad,” he recalls.
But Stoinev’s life was not like that of most little boys. He was a child of the circus, the youngest member of a big-top family that stretched back five generations. His father was an acrobat for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and his mom was an aerialist from one of the most renowned circus families in Mexico.
Travel was a big part of their lives, so his parents opted for a portable pet—a Chihuahua. There was no way to predict where this tiny being would lead their son.
Two decades later, Stoinev is famous for his hand balancing talents. He can balance on practically anything—one palm on a block, sometimes one finger in a bottle, the rest of him as solid and still as a plank, his feet straight up to the sky. It seems effortless, but it took decades of careful conditioning and practice to make it look so natural.
His skill has brought him international acclaim—winner of Germany’s “Das Supertalent,” a top-12 finalist on “America’s Got Talent,” and a regular at NBA halftime shows, which allows him to indulge his passion for basketball.
But his sidekick—a light tan Chihuahua, always nicknamed “Scooby” for the act—steals the spotlight.
All Scooby has to do to get wild applause is strike a pose, sitting upright on his haunches, his paws held out in front of him. Lots of dogs do this trick, but Scooby performs it perched on Stoinev’s back or the soles of his shoes as his human partner is upside down. The act—“Christian and Scooby”—looks like the work of a master trainer with decades of experience and schooling in canine behavior.
Stoinev insists that’s not the case. “I never think of myself as a dog trainer just because of, I guess, how everything got started,” he says.
A Tiny Spark
Stoinev learned his three Rs through his mother’s homeschooling and classes held in circus wagons. At the same time, he was mastering skills that would bring him into the family business—unicycling, juggling, and acrobatics. At 5, he made his performance debut, balancing on his father’s shoulders.
But it was something the original Scooby did naturally that brought the dog into the act. One afternoon, Stoinev was relaxing at home, lying on the floor on his stomach. Scooby was walking on the boy’s back, doing this “little paw thing.” It sparked an idea.
Stoinev’s father suggested they bring Scooby to the next practice to see if he would repeat the paw dance while Stoinev was doing a horizontal handstand.
“And sure enough, he did it,” Stoinev says. An act was born.
The routine opens with Stoinev performing daring moves on his own, like balancing his 185-pound, 6-foot frame with just one finger in a bottle. Then it’s the Chihuahua’s turn. The opening is a series of tricks—Scooby jumping through hoops, weaving through Stoinev’s legs, or slithering around his neck. Then they progress to slow, controlled acrobatics, like a somersault, in which Scooby rolls along, walking from his partner’s back to front.
Then, Stoinev gracefully unfolds into his handstand, with Scooby climbing up on his owner’s body as he moves through each phase. The dog ends up perched in a sit pretty on Stoinev’s back or the soles of his feet.
Through it all, the dog remains calm and focused, paying no attention to the lights, spectators, or any of the distracting sights and sounds of a basketball arena.
Stoinev’s dog has a poise and serenity that flies in the face of the Chihuahua stereotype—yappy, pointy-eared Napoleons. They are “the most recognizable, yet least understood of all dog breeds,” laments the Chihuahua Club of America in its club flyer.
To their fans, what they lack in pounds, they make up in pluck and personality. It’s not a noisy, nippy, pushy character, but an upbeat, willing, brave soul. No matter what their people want to try, they’re ready to rise to the challenge.
Another thing: They dance. Without coaching, many will rear up on their hind legs and do what the internet has labeled Chihuahua flamenco, tiny side-to-side stomps.
Spanish bandleader Xavier Cugat, who popularized the breed in the 1940s and ’50s, advertised his “dancing Chihuahuas” as a lure to his shows. In 1968, Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” brought “Pablo and his Dancing Chihuahua,” a story about an orphan boy and the stray Chihuahua who saved him, into living rooms all over America.
Today, cyberspace is loaded with photos, GIFs, and videos of these tiny dogs, sometimes in tutus, often with a little girl or ballerina by their sides, twirling on their hind legs. ChaCha Chihuahua is a board game celebrating dancing dogs.
In Switzerland, Karin Baumann has taken the notion of a dancing Chihuahua to a new level. She and her 5 1/2-pound fuzzy partner, Joya, have become known around the world for their interpretation of “Swan Lake.”
On Their Toes
Like Stoinev’s family, Baumann’s decision to choose this breed was based on practicality. She often travels by bicycle or with her family in a camper van. “I wanted a small dog that I could easily take with me everywhere,” she recalls. “I immediately liked the character traits and the looks of these little [dogs].”
About a decade ago, Kira, a 4 1/2-pound black and tan long-coat, came into Baumann’s life, followed two years later by Joya, a tan and white smooth-coat.
Sometime after she got her two dogs, Baumann saw an exhibition of doggie dancing. “I knew immediately that I wanted to try it too,” says the willowy blonde, who was a ballet dancer in her youth. “It is probably the dream of many dancers to dance to ‘Swan Lake.’ With dog dance, I was able to fulfill this dream.”
And her little dogs are perfect partners. “Chihuahuas are very intelligent, making them ideal for learning tricks,” says Baumann, who teaches tricks training and DogDance in Bern. “They are simply great dogs that I love more than anything.”
Since 2018, Baumann, Kira, and Joya have performed in several international competitions and, as a trio, in Germany’s “Das Supertalent.” This past March, Baumann and Joya performed “Swan Lake,” representing Switzerland, at the world’s largest dog show, Crufts. “I am so proud of my dancing little mouse,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
Baumann, in a white leotard and tutu, starts with a delicate bourrée en couru. Joya mirrors the tiny side steps, circles backward around her partner’s feet, and then continues with some impressive moves, in which the little dog balances on Baumann’s back, legs, or palms. She has choreographed several different dances for her tiny partners.
“The dogs learn specific tricks,” Baumann says. “These tricks are put together in such a way that there is a flow, which gives the impression that they are dancing.” They learn these complicated routines with only two or three training and conditioning sessions a week, a regimen that Baumann has maintained for nine years. “Over the years, we have grown into well-established teams.”
Through it all, their tails never stop wagging.
The canine partners in “Christian and Scooby” perform with serene precision, as if they are copying their human’s style. In 2011, Stoinev’s parents brought him another Chihuahua, Percy, from Mexico. Stoinev is now training a new “Scooby,” 3-year-old Milo.
Stoinev’s approach to dog training reflects the disciplined way he learned his balancing skills. He teaches and conditions his dogs slowly and in increments, so the movement patterns become ingrained. It’s all done with a joy that is evident in both the boy and his dog.
Stoinev also observes his partners carefully when they are not practicing or performing, and these moments often pay off big for the act. He noticed that Milo loved carrying a tiny basketball-shaped stuffy. It was easy to turn this natural tendency into a crowd-pleasing trick—Milo dunks the ball into a tiny basketball hoop.
“They really train me,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the award-winning AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today!