Jilli Dog, the Yorkshire terrier from Huntington who delighted audiences worldwide for more than a decade playing basketball and poker, died Friday at her owner's home. A stray when she was found on a street 16 years ago, she was at least 17.
"Her last two days she couldn't stand well," a heartbroken Rick Caran said. After confirming with Jilli's veterinarian that the Yorkie was not in pain, he made the decision to take her home. Jilli was with him at his computer the next morning when she died around 11 a.m. of natural causes.
Jilli had been retired for two years, passing the baton to Caran's other Yorkie, Ruby Dog, now 4. Despite having gone blind due to cataracts, Jilli "still loved to do the tricks," Caran said. "I practice about 20 minutes a night -- they're family dogs, not circus dogs that practice four hours a day -- and she couldn't do her old stuff but she'd try."
Caran, 69, was raised in Smithtown and has lived in Huntington for 45 years, where he ran Caran Silk Floral Design until his retirement.
He began performing with Jilli by chance, while visiting his mother, the late acting coach Lillian Caran, in a nursing home, and showing off Jilli's tricks to the delight of other residents and staff. Eventually, he said, friends and relatives of other nursing home residents started asking him to put on shows.
Jilli became a star after a video of her playing poker went viral. She performed overseas and in Las Vegas, did modeling and TV commercials, and appeared on "Good Morning America," "Today," "Live! With Regis and Kelly" and other shows.
A much-played clip from Animal Planet's "Dogs 101" spread her renown. "We went to Italy, we went to Sweden, and people would come out and say, 'Jilli Dog! Jilli Dog!' " Caran recalled.
"Jilli was just an angel," he said.
"Even though she wasn't a movie star like Rin Tin Tin, she had a following of people around the world because of the stuff she does and the way she does it," Caran said.
"The word people use most of the time is 'touching' -- she touched people."