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J. Palsa Photography.
American Kennel Club 2021 Trick Dog competition winner Miniature Poodle Eli, owned by Leslie Gelesh, of Akron, Ohio.

To borrow a popular phrase, Eli isn’t a one-trick Poodle, nor does he hide a thing. Right now, the Miniature Poodle and his 68-year-old owner, Leslie Gelesh, of Akron, Ohio, are at the top of their game after winning the 2021 American Kennel Club Trick Dog Competition with a dazzling six-minute routine called “Batman Furever.”

The virtual competition drew 143 Elite Performer competitors from 31 states, Canada, and Turkey, and was judged by four AKC Trick Dog judges.

Five Months and 31 Tricks

Entrants were required to perform a minimum of 10 tricks – Eli dazzled with 31. Routines were judged on creativity, fluency (accuracy and difficulty of tricks), flow, handling skills, and entertainment value.

The “Batman Furever” showcase had the adroit Eli maneuvering through a comic-book scene, intent on defeating The Riddler. The product was five months in the making, between fine-tuning the tricks, writing a script, music, and building the set in a nearby training facility. Gelesh’s other Miniature Poodle, 3-year-old Chip, was an extra (as Robin) in the presentation, lifting a leg to extinguish a fire set by a villain.

Gelesh received a $500 cash prize for the win, which she will donate to Pay It Forward for Pets, an Akron agency. When Eli first came to live with Gelesh and her husband, Gary, he attended doggy daycare there to help burn off some adolescent energy. Pay It Forward offers six programs benefitting the public and local rescue organizations.

Eli was awarded a trophy and ribbon. For dessert, Gelesh offered a serving of ground steak. “He earned it,” she says with a smile. “That little guy never ceases to amaze me.”

Eli’s spirited story is one of those rags-to-riches journeys. Both resilient and resourceful, he is the template for a fluid Trick Dog competitor. Throughout “Batman Furever,” Gelesh and Eli bond with skill and gusto, always exhibiting that can-do spirit.

Leslie Gelesh and her Miniature Poodle Eli pose in front of the poster of their video, “Batman Furever.” Photo courtesy J. Palsa Photography

Creating the Storyline

Their endeavor didn’t happen overnight and was far from linear.

“I came up with the concept, wrote the script, imagined and created many of the props, and worked with Eli daily on the tricks,” says Gelesh. The owner spent considerable time reviewing the characteristics of Batman stories that might translate into a dog trick – answering the phone, the bat symbol in the sky, entrance to the Batcave via a secret bookcase, playing the piano, etc.

Sometimes she would consider how to create a prop and teach a trick first. Other times, she’d flip the order.

“I thought about the video in scenes – Wayne Manor, The Crime Scene, Gotham University, etc., and targeted several tricks for each locale. My garage became a virtual prop shop. I spent the summer gluing, painting, stapling, and scrounging interesting shaped boxes from neighbors. Once the prop was created we would incorporate the trick. As the routine started to grow, we would chain several tricks together in a sequence I thought we might use for video.”

Gelesh acknowledges it takes a village to pull together a project like this. Her husband, Gary, extensively researched “Batman” movies, TV shows, and comic books, and performed the filming. Andrew Kovac, a video editor and recent graduate of the University of Akron, created the special effects, graphics, and titles, instilling the comic-book atmosphere she envisioned. And there were several others on Team Eli who performed key roles from building props, narration, and fine-tuning tricks throughout the months-long process.

But “Batman Furever” is only part of the nimble 6-year-old dog’s feel-good story.

“Sometimes a trick doesn’t work and you are forced to come up with an alternate plan. It’s a brain game for me. It’s a brain game for him,” Gelesh emphasizes. Photo courtesy J. Palsa Photography.

The Perfect Poodle

After Charlie Brown, her 16-year-old Poodle passed away in 2016, Gelesh contacted the dog’s breeder, Susan Burge, in Brecksville, Ohio, to inquire about obtaining another dog. Burge had no puppies, but fortuitously Gelesh wasn’t looking for one, anyway.

“I thought an adult dog would be more fitting for me. Maybe a one-year-old who needed a home?” she says. Her response, Gelesh recalls, was “I have a one-year-old! Do you have a fenced yard?” The answer was yes, and the rest is history.

Eli had spent his first year in Chicago for a career in conformation but circumstances intervened and he was returned to Burge for a new placement.

It was love at first sight when Gelesh cast eyes on 1-1/2-year-old Eli on a cold January day in 2017. Enhancing his appeal, the little dynamo was housebroken, crate-trained, and walked brilliantly on a leash. But like any teenager, he had tons of unleashed energy.

To disperse some of that vigor, that spring Gelesh walked Eli through the neighborhood on a regular basis. Those walks produced plenty of smiles and positive remarks from passers-by.

Obedience training classes followed. Eli passed his Canine Good Citizen test in December 2017, less than a year after Gelesh brought him home.

When they’re not in the midst of a Tricks routine, Gelesh and the Miniature Poodle are like Velcro mates at home. Photo courtesy J. Palsa Photography.

Tricks, Tricks, Tricks

That’s when Tricks caught her attention. A CGC title plus five tricks earns an AKC Novice title. With no experience in teaching dog tricks, she picked five from the Novice list and began practicing. “While I had never done anything like this before, I had an exceptional partner. Bing! Bang! Boom! Five tricks done and paperwork signed,” she says.

They were on a roll and within months they earned Intermediate and Advanced Trick titles.

In September 2019, the entertaining duo visited a nursing home in Tallmadge, Ohio, to participate in a “Memory Day” for a 100-year-old resident who had raised Poodles years earlier. Eli performed several tricks for the residents and then charmed his way around the room. “When I saw what joy he brought to everyone, I decided to explore Therapy Dog certification. When our club offered a Therapy Dog preparation class and evaluation, we enrolled and were certified by Therapy Dog International four months later.”

Eli and Gelesh followed with visits to senior facilities in Tallmadge and Green, Ohio, spreading goodwill and eliciting smiles from onlookers and staff.

Eli earned his AKC Canine Good Citizen Advance and AKC Trick Dog Performer titles in January 2020. He also added Elite Performer to his resume, making him eligible to compete in AKC’s 2020 Trick Dog competition, for which they put together a “Pink Panther” routine in about six weeks.

Eli’s Future

What’s ahead? Gelesh plans to continue Therapy Dog visits with Eli and will embark on an entirely new pursuit this year – Obedience.

The two are practicing at the Akron All-Breed Training Club in preparation for their first outing in May. “He’s very connected to me in the preparation classes and is showing good leash work and turns.  It’s very encouraging. Even some of the seasoned handlers comment on how much they enjoy watching him work for me. This new adventure should be rewarding for both of us.”

Related article: How to Teach Your Dog to Talk Using Buttons
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