America’s Got Talent winners show that caring for dogs is not just an act
By Dustin Fitzharris
It’s a late summer day and the Olate family is on the move. After being crowned the winners of the seventh season of America’s Got Talent with their father/son, high-energy dog act, they have packed up their lives in New Jersey and are heading to Las Vegas. The first non-musical winners of NBC’s top-rated summer series, the Olates were awarded $1 million and a deal to headline a show at the Palazzo Las Vegas.
Family patriarch Richard Olate is leading the way in a pick-up truck with a trailer attached carrying all 22 of their dogs. His wife, Rebecca, is following behind driving the family’s tour bus with the prop trailer hinged to the back. And bringing up the rear is their son, Nicholas, riding solo in his Toyota. En-route to Vegas, about 24 hours away, they stop to tell their story to TAILS in Amarillo, Texas.
As Richard and Rebecca Olate tend to the dogs, Nicholas, 19, who has worked with his dad since he was 5 years old, expresses his surprise at winning the competition. He shares what was going through his mind while he stood beside his father and comedian Tom Cotter (who took second place) before the winner was announced.
“When the commercials were going on, Tom and I hugged it out. Everybody in the audience was chanting his name. So, about 10 seconds before we went back on the air, I said to my dad, ‘I don’t think we are going to win this,’” Nicholas recalls. To his surprise, when it came time to announce the winner, host Nick Cannon proudly shouted, “OLATE DOGS!” and the crowd went crazy with excitement.
Once the celebration began, Nicholas says he didn’t know how to process the news. He never believed they would get as far as they did in the competition, let alone take home first prize. In fact, his father wasn’t even sure they should audition. They were in the Orlando area when they heard auditions were taking place, and a few friends mentioned they should give it a try. Richard thought it would be a hassle. But with some encouraging from his son, they auditioned. The rest is history.
Now, after having some time to think about their success, Nicholas says he feels so proud of his father because he knows how hard he worked to get to this moment. Richard Olate, 55, grew up in Santiago, Chile. He is the second youngest of 22 children and was raised in an extremely poor family that had to struggle daily to survive. His life changed when one day he came across a stray puppy on the stree —he rescued the dog and began teaching him tricks. Then he found two more dogs, cleaned them up, and trained them as well.
He created a small dog act and began performing in school shows and fairs. By the time he was 12, he was supporting his entire family with his dog act. His brother, Jose, eventually joined him, and they caught the eye of circus promoters. But it wasn’t until 1989, when Richard was 32, that the Olate brothers landed their first contract in the United States. He never looked back.
Richard became an American citizen, got married and had three children—Nicholas being the youngest. His other children have returned to Chile, where his daughter runs a circus with her fiancé, and his son is a chef.
Raised in a family of circus performers, Nicholas never knew any other type of life, and never questioned why there were close to two dozen dogs running around. “I always loved it,” he says. “Whenever I didn’t have friends around, I had 22 dogs to hang out with!”
Often times, the dogs came from individuals who weren’t treating them properly and wanted to get rid of them. The family also rescued dogs from ads posted in newspapers. They weren’t just pets, though; these dogs were performers. They had to be in tip-top shape, which meant that the Olate children had to keep casual play to a minimum. To fill the void, the Olates rescued a Labrador/Dalmatian mix from shelter so the family could have a pet dog just to “love on.”
As a self-professed hyperactive kid, Nicholas was tumbling at 3, dancing at 7, and playing guitar at 15. While some may question the difficulty of growing up in an environment that is always changing, Nicholas wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“The thing with [the] circus is that it’s such a good community. It’s like a neighborhood, but on a smaller scale,” he explains. “Everybody is so loving. When my mom had to work and couldn’t watch me, the next mom would. There are so many families in the circus, and they all take care of each other. It’s also very educational because you get exposed to a lot of different cultures. I know three languages.”
In addition to performing with his father in Las Vegas, Nicholas is laying the foundation for a career in music. He’s training with a vocal coach and dreams of becoming a recording artist.
The Las Vegas act—which ran through November 17—gave the Olates the chance to expand their act and include various five-minute routines with 10 dogs; something they couldn’t do on America’s Got Talent due to time constraints. Their other 12 dogs are either too young to train or have retired.
“You can tell when a dog is starting to get old, but the dog retires himself. You’ll put him down to do a trick, and he will just stand there. You learn the difference between a dog being lazy and being too old,” Nicholas says. He says that the key to getting the dogs to do a trick is to be patient and let them learn at their own pace. Some may wonder how many opportunities the dogs have to just be dogs, but Nicholas stresses that the training is not vigorous, and they have chances to be normal and just play around.
While Nicholas won’t divulge all of the tricks of the trade, he did reveal one technique: When Richard wants to teach the dogs something, he’ll just play with them. For instance, if he wants them to stand up on two legs and jump around, he will put them in position and then he will start jumping around. The dogs become excited and start imitating him, and that’s how they begin to develop their skill-set. Of course, that is a long way from what Nicholas calls the hardest trick: The back flip their dog Bella performs.
With their newfound recognition, Nicholas says he and his family would like to bring attention to what he calls an “infestation of dogs” in Chile. Packs of dogs still roam the country, just as they did when his father was a boy. In 2009, Chile had a total canine population of 3 million, with 1.5 million dogs wandering the streets.
“Dogs are dogs. If they are aggressive in any way, it’s because people have been mean to them and made them that way. The dog is just protecting itself,” he says. “I wish people would just take in a dog and clean him up. It could be the best dog ever.”
Considering that’s exactly what Richard Olate did, it’s hard to disagree.