Palo Alto resident Markus Gunderson, 78, couldn’t be blamed for wanting to have a quiet retirement. He served in two wars, raised three children as a single parent and spent time as a volunteer fireman. But instead, he opted to devote his time to teaching his dogs an incredible stunt: eating slices of pizza on command.
“It just sort of started kind of unexpected-like,” says Gunderson at his kennels in Mountain View. “I was sitting around, reclinin’ in my lawn chair, when Gretchen [his 3-year-old English Pointer] just sort of nuzzled my hand, and I realized that there was still time to do amazing work with animals.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done. Gunderson started basic, with cheese pizza, slowly working the dogs up to meatier choices such as pepperoni and sausage. In addition to simply eating the pizza, the dogs are astonishingly capable of adding bits of flair to their trick, drooling on the floor, licking their lips to get the tomato sauce off and wolfing down the pizza so fast that they hiccup. And it’s all thanks to the firm guidance of their trainer.
“Sit. Eat pizza. EAT,” Gunderson tells the dogs in a firm but gentle voice, and like clockwork, they dash over to the pizzas and start eating. “I’m just taking ‘em a little bit at a time,” he said proudly, “but one day I hope to train them to eat more than pizza—hamburgers and hot dogs and French fries, maybe. I know it may sound far-fetched or what have you, but there are a lot of people who said we wouldn’t be able to even make it this far.”
And Gunderson has been taking his dogs on tour to local elementary schools and community centers to show that his dogs’ talents, while amazing, are more than just tricks.
“Ya know, people say,” he told a group of fifth graders, “Mark, how could something this flashy have any sort of practical application? And so I tell ‘em. These dogs can be trained to help eat the blind’s pizza for them. Because, like I say, a Seeing Eye dog can do some things, but he can’t do everything.”
He ended the presentation with a few words of caution: Don’t try this at home. Or don’t expect it to work at home, anyway.
“These dogs come from champion stock,” he said, stroking the ear of a 4-year-old male named Sebastian. “It ain’t just any dog you can throw into the ring and expect to be a pizza eater. But ya know, Sebastian here, I’ll be finding him a nice mate sometime soon now, and if any of you young people think you can handle the responsibility of training a dog like this, just let me know. I might have you fixed up with a little pizza-eatin’ puppy.”