Rick Caran knows he had better play his cards right if he expects to win against Ruby, his high-stakes opponent with the most adorable poker face.
Their very un-Vegas-like No Peek Poker showdown is taking place in the living room of Caran’s Centerport home, where he’s just dealt three cards each for him and Ruby. After Caran turns over the nine of hearts, Ruby picks her first card, a jack. She then pulls a $1 bill from her betting pile and places it in the pot. Caran matches and raises her another dollar. Ruby sees his bet, and then they play two more cards — a queen for Caran and a king for her. More bets are placed before the final cards are revealed. Ruby takes the kitty — a whopping $12 — with a pair of jacks, then spins around on the table to celebrate her victory.
The game is anything but conventional, especially since Ruby, the ace at cards, is a 7-year-old Yorkshire terrier and, as Caran bills her, “the world’s only poker-playing dog.”
Poker is just one of many skills she’s learned from Caran, 71, a master at teaching Ruby and his three other dogs — a Chihuahua named Spidey, 13, and Yorkies Coco, 6, and Jakey, 5 — everything from bowling to ballet. And while both Caran and his pooches have fun, they’re also seasoned performers who entertain at charity events, nursing homes, corporate parties, trade shows and on television. Caran’s greatest claim to fame, however, is training Jilli Dog, Ruby’s predecessor, who became an internet sensation after a video of her playing poker went viral.
The poker game came about nine years ago after noted dog trainer Kyra Sundance contacted Caran about using Jilli in a video. Caran taught Jilli to pick a specific card from a deck. Amazed at how well Jilli handled the cards, Caran decided to teach her poker. “I trained Jilli and a friend of mine put it on YouTube,” he says. “At the time I didn’t know what YouTube was, but it took off.” The video has been viewed nearly 300,000 times.
From there, Jilli became a celebrity playing poker on several television shows, including Animal Planet’s “Dogs 101” and “Live With Regis & Kelly,” in which she won against Kelly Ripa and Bette Midler. Not bad for a dog with a rough beginning. Judy Donnenfeld, Caran’s life partner of 20 years, found the pup one day on her way to class at law school. “I called Rick and asked him to come and get her,” Donnenfeld, 63, says. “By the time I got home, he had given her a bath and they just bonded. She was his dog.”
Though they attempted to find Jilli’s owners, no one came for her.
“I kind of think she came just from heaven. She was a miracle dog, and she just touched people’s hearts,” says Caran, who still gets emotional talking about her. Jilli was 17 when she died in 2014.
A gem named Ruby
Ruby, whom Caran has had since she was 3 months old, has that same sort of capacity for learning as Jilli did, Caran says. “Ruby was a gift from a national Yorkie rescue group that we’ve done a lot of charity work for,” he says. “They gave us Ruby in Nashville when we were performing there. Jilli was a very special dog, but Ruby is as close to a clone as you can get.”
And Ruby clearly knows her master’s voice. She responds quickly when Caran asks her to do a pirouette. And when Caran sneezes, Ruby on cue grabs a tissue for him from a Kleenex box, a trick that Caran, who likes to work slowly with his dogs, says Ruby learned in a week. For each trick, Ruby moves gleefully with her tail wagging, especially when she gets a treat for her efforts.
Caran, who usually trains his dogs for about 15 minutes each day, always rewards them with bits of chicken or a mild cheese when they do something well. The rest of the time, he says, his canines are typical family dogs who like long walks around the neighborhood or curling up on the couch.
Though some of his dogs have been quicker studies than others, Caran says every dog is capable of being trained.
“The first thing you look for in a dog is if they look in your eyes,” Caran says. “Dogs that look in your eyes are the easiest ones to train. Even at 10, you can teach a dog to look into your eyes.”
Though Ruby is clearly the star of Caran’s canine troupe, the other dogs have their skills. Spidey and Coco, for example, are always up for a game of basketball with Ruby in which they not only sink baskets into the doggie-height net, but do moves like pick and roll, in which one dog takes the ball and then passes it to another. Caran has also taught Ruby and Spidey to play their own “original compositions” on the keyboard that could rival a toddler’s plunking. He’s also started teaching Coco how to play poker. Jakey, however, is learning at a slower pace than the others — when Caran has them all going through “the tunnel” (that is, through his legs), Jakey goes around. “But you can see in his eyes, he wants to learn,” Caran says.
The key, he adds, is that the dogs should enjoy doing the tricks.
“Rick really makes the shows fun,” says Caran’s assistant, Urszula Tomaszczyk, 32, of Huntington. “He makes jokes and everyone has a good time.”
A trainer in the making
Growing up in Smithtown, Caran was not only surrounded by dogs, but his pets also included cats, rabbits, a rooster and a squirrel.
The family had a Great Dane, but it was when they got a smaller mutt named Candy that Caran started teaching the dog tricks. “I didn’t do nearly the kind of tricks I do now,” he says. “I had him spinning around, sit, shake hands, lie down, pretty much the basics,” he says. “I’d go to little old ladies in my neighborhood and entertain them. And they would give me cookies.”
As he got older, Caran began taking his dog to parties and then nursing homes. “It would make people smile,” he says.
Despite his gift, training dogs was only a hobby the whole time he ran his business Caran Silk Floral Design in Huntington. Then when he retired five years ago, he turned his hobby into a successful business. During the holidays, he and the dogs mostly work private events. In warmer months, they have bookings nearly every weekend at fairs, car shows and special events such as the annual “Dog Day” at Old Westbury Gardens in October. Caran also writes a column for Italy-based Yorky Club Magazine and he penned and illustrated the children’s book “Jilli Dog — The Little Dog That Made Mr. Kranby Smile” in 2011. Now he wants to do a similar book about Ruby.
With all of the tricks he’s taught his dogs, they’ve also taught Caran a lot, especially about doing what you love.
“My training method is, I make it fun,” he says. “If you’re having fun, and the dog is having fun, that’s what it’s all about.”