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Dog and Pony Show

At Gresham's Be Bop farm, it's about training, respect and diligence, but most of all, it's about having a blast with your animal
by: Carole Archer, “Hold your horses,” says Sue Roake, as she picks up a 3-week-old mini horse, who has yet to be named.

At Gresham's Be Bop USA, Sue and Tom Roake and Jane Fortny have put the fun back into the farm.

Between the three of them, they have miniature horses that do the hokey pokey and dogs that scamper through tunnels. They scout and train animals to perform in movies and commercials.

Sue Roake makes harnesses, leashes and collars for dogs. Fortny instructs dog owners in coaxing their furry friends up and down ladders, through suspended rings and up and over see-saws.

An all-natural garden and nursery yields enough produce to fill a booth at the Gresham Farmers' Market every Saturday. Tom Roake is in charge of that, something he does when he's not working his 'real' job in facility maintenance. Beyond that, the Roakes have time for their five children.

'It's a crazy life,' Sue Roake says, shaking her head. 'But it's a lot of fun.'

On a recent weekday, Roake is watering her garden just before she feeds her five miniature horses. Then she's off to fill an order for dog harnesses. If she has time leftover in her busy day, perhaps she'll deconstruct a few old cowboy boots to create her wildly popular cowgirl purses, made from old leather belts, boots and buckles.

'That's just something I do for a creative outlet,' she says. 'The collars and leashes, it's just the same thing over and over. The purses I get pretty excited about.'

A safe dog is a happy dog

But the dog products are close to her heart, too. For years, Roake worked for veterinary clinics, seeing her fair share of pups with head and spine injuries because they were loose in a vehicle when it crashed. Some of the dog seatbelts on the market went around the dogs' necks, which can bruise or break a dog's trachea, leading to a long painful recovery process for both dog and owner.

'All they have there is cartilage,' she says. 'It's really a fragile area, just like our throats.'

For the same reason, Roake doesn't care for choke or pinch collars. And nothing makes her crazier than seeing a dog running free in a car, windows down, with its head hanging out the window.

'If people can just visualize their dog as a little child,' she says.

If you wouldn't let your toddler run about in the car and hang his or her head out the window, she says, you shouldn't put your dog in the same position.

A year and a half ago, she set out to do something about the problem. With the help of eight veterinarian friends, including two orthopedic surgeons, she designed Be Bop USA's Secure Fit harnesses and seatbelt systems. Her fifth prototype was the charm, and she turned one of the buildings on her 5.5-acre farm into a manufacturing facility.

She had been stitching bridles and leads for her horses already, so when it came creating dog harnesses, she was well equipped with industrial sewing machines.

She now sells her products wholesale to the Oregon Humane Society, Green Dog Pet Supply, in Portland off Northeast 46th Avenue and Fremont Street, and to pet stores across the nation.

Buyers like them, Roake says, because they are designed to fit across the dog's chest, not neck. The seatbelt harness allows dogs to sit, stand and lay down, so pups don't feel trapped. A swivel hook means dogs can't get tangled.

Tricks are for kids

Beyond pet safety, the Roakes and their business partner, Fortny, have another goal: having fun with your animal. It's something the Roakes started about 20 years ago, when Sue Roake fell in love with miniature horses, or 'minis.'

Personality wise, she likens minis to dogs and large horses to cats.

'The minis just seem to understand what you're thinking. They'll wag their tails when you pet them,' she says.

The Roakes breed and show their minis. It's a world in which the horses are showpieces and performers. Owners paint their coats with bright colors, often painting their hooves to match. The minis prance into the ring and the music starts.

Sue Roake says their mini stallion, Legacy, is a three-time national champion. He particularly likes Jerry Lee Lewis and rears up on cue when Lewis belts out, 'Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!'

The horses also go on the road with Roake, who takes them to local libraries and community centers to educate children about animals.

'We'll talk about what it means when a dog wags his tail,' she says. 'It means he's feeling friendly. When a horse wags his tail, something's usually bothering him.'

The visits end with Legacy playing games with the children, like hokey pokey or red light green light. If the event is outside, he'll do some jumping and prancing.

'My hope is by educating kids, we can avoid neglect and abuse to animals,' she says. 'We teach them how to respect animals and also that when you get an animal, to understand that you'll have the pet in your home forever.'

Good doggie

Horses aren't the only ones having fun at Be Bop. Fortny, a longtime dog trainer, runs agility training classes similar to the ones you'll see on TV, where dogs compete in courses that include ladders, rings, tunnels, see-saws and jumps.

Fortny uses a similar course at Be Bop for about 50 owner/dog pairs. She will teach any dog, she says, no matter the breed or age.

'I've had a mastiff, a Saint Bernard and a Great Dane do this,' Fortny says. 'Of course the Great Dane is going through the tunnel crawling on his elbows.'

The training is a thrill for both dog and owner because it's not about strict obedience and it's not a beauty contest.

'This isn't Best of Show and it isn't about never being able to sit perfectly enough,' Fortny says. 'I make this fun. By the time I'm done with (my students), they're in a different frame of mind. I don't let them be crabby with their dogs.'

It usually takes about a year for a dog to get down the basics of agility training. Her students are mostly from Southeast and Northeast Portland, but a few travel from as far as Salem.

'It's addictive,' Fortny says. 'I've never known a student to enter a trial and not be hooked.'

Fortny has been competing on the national level for almost nine years with her dog, Jamaica.

'She's the athlete,' she says. 'I just show her where to go.'

The activity bonds dog and owner.

'It really builds their confidence because they're doing something brand new and getting lots of praise for it,' Fortny says. 'And it builds the dog's trust with their owner. People who do this are very close with their dogs.'

And, thanks to her contacts in the animal world, Fortny has the Roakes adding one more feather in their cap - training animals to be movie stars.

Fortny's dogs have been in Purina and Eukanuba commercials. The Roakes' chickens recently were in a movie called 'The Music Within,' shot in Portland. Workshops this fall will allow the general public to bring their pets to Be Bop for workshops in animal entertainment.

'That was really fun,' Sue Roake says. 'I was known as the chicken wrangler.'

With all that's going on at Be Bop USA, Roake says it may seem overwhelming to some, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

'If I can teach people to be caring, responsible and loving to your dog, you're naturally going to develop those characteristics toward the people in your life,' she says.

'It becomes who you are, and I hope to go beyond you and your dog, to impacting how you relate with the world. It's about caring for each other and being kind and respectful. It's about creating a better future.'