On the first episode of the Amazon reality series [“The Pack,”](
It takes a certain kind of dog to be that comfortable in new and unfamiliar situations and Amazon did a particularly good job casting the show with this in mind. The dogs come in a variety of breeds, including an 8-year-old black Labrador named Duchess, who competes alongside her owner, Chicago native Lucy Riles.
A couple of things stand out about the pair from the start. As each competitor introduces themselves to the camera and talks about what they hope to get out of this experience, their focus is mostly inward. Riles, by contrast, says: “I’m really looking forward to getting to know all of these people and all of their dogs.” It’s the antithesis of the “I’m not here to make friends” line that someone inevitably doles out on these types of competition shows. The desire to do the opposite? “That’s the Chicagoan in me for sure,” Riles said by phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and four children.
And then there’s Duchess. The show divides the competitors into two teams; Lucy and Duchess are on the blue team and they all clamber into a limousine to make their way to their first challenge. Despite being surrounded by dogs and humans in a moving car, Duchess so relaxed that she falls asleep on Riles’ lap. She’s the only dog we see doing that.
“As long as she’s got my thigh to rest her chin on, she’s good to go,” Riles said. “She fell asleep in the helicopter. She fell asleep in the gondola and the trains and planes.”
“The Pack” is a show that will prompt all kinds of questions about the logistics involved, and the producers are smart to explain a lot of it on camera. Amazon chartered an airplane for all those long flights where the dogs make themselves comfortable on the seats or the floor. And though we don’t see it, we’re told the plane includes an artificial turf puppy pad area. In each episode, a member of the “dog safety team” explains the training that occurred ahead of time (a monthlong process that took place several weeks before filming began) to ensure the dogs were comfortable with each challenge. I don’t think the show would work without these kinds of explainers; some of these tasks look like they’d be too much for your average dog and it helps to understand why the dogs here aren’t freaked out by ziplining or paddleboarding.
“My dog went from shaking in an elevator on the first day of training to ziplining and rappelling down a waterfall,” said Riles. Her home has a large backyard and while Duchess loves to play fetch, she didn’t know any tricks and had only traveled by car up to that point.
“So in training, we practiced all of that with the dogs,” Riles said. “We learned how to hold them when we were ziplining to ensure that they were not flopping around, and we learned how to carry their weight when we were rappelling. And the veterinarian cardiologist would check the dog’s heart rate as soon as we landed.”
Riles also has another dog, a 2-year-old 170 pound Saint Bernard named Duke. So how did she know which dog would be right for the show?
“It was a no-brainer because at the time Duke was very much still a puppy. Whereas Duchess is my ride-or-die. I can walk her without a leash because she literally stays by my side the whole time. She’s just a good, well-behaved dog. I adopted her from a rescue shelter when she was 4 months old and at the time I had a 4-month-old baby and a toddler and I thought, why not get a puppy? My house is already being torn apart, let me get a puppy.
“And I became very bonded to her. We were raising these babies together, she was looking out for them and looking out for me, she’s just such a calming and soothing presence. This is a dog who has given me so much, and I’ve relied on her for so many hard things in my life and I’m constantly dividing my attention and because she’s so well-behaved, she’s probably getting the least amount of it, right? I thought, to be able to give her this experience with just me and her was a gift for her too. So for those couple of months it was just mom and her, and it was probably refreshing for her.”
Filming began last January and wrapped in early March, just ahead of the pandemic shutdowns.
“My favorite days were the travel days and the rest days because I could hang out with my new best friends,” Riles said. “I adored the other contestants, every single one of them. We all came from vastly different backgrounds and I think our love for dogs was a common thread that linked us all together and really carried over week after week. We could compete with each other and as soon as we crossed the finished line, we were hugging and encouraging each other or soothing each other. And I don’t know if that would have happened if we didn’t have dogs by our side. I watch a lot of reality TV and I don’t see that happening as much. So I do think the dog element really brought us together.”
Dogs have always been a part of Riles’ life and she told me a funny story about that. She’s the youngest of 12 (before getting married her name was Lucy Bansley) and her 11 siblings still live within a two-miles of one another on the South Side in Beverly, where she grew up. [Her mother](
“It’s not like Chicago’s a small town, but we’ll be driving from the airport to my dad’s house and we’ll be at a stoplight and it’s like, oh, there’s my brother-in-law or there’s my nephew.”
When Riles said she was born at home, she means that literally.
“My mom had her first 11 children in hospitals. She was pregnant at 42 with sister and she went to three different hospitals, and back in the mid-70s a woman at 42 having a baby was considered too risky, so these hospitals wouldn’t deliver my sister. She finally found Mercy Hospital, which delivered her.
“So five years later she’s pregnant with me at 48 and she knew was she was getting into, so she did her research and she’d been having kids for 25 years and she knew her body really well, so she hired a midwife and she had me on a cold January day. I was weighed on a fish scale.”
Here’s the dog portion of the story.
“My dad, God love him, at my wedding reception as everyone is getting their entrees, he starts telling the story of my birth, which includes our Saint Bernard licking me clean. She licked me like her puppy. All my afterbirth.
“Because having 12 kids wasn’t enough, my parents always had two to three dogs at a time. And particularly during my childhood, it was always a black Lab and something else. So when I started a family, I needed a black Lab because I saw how successful it was throughout my childhood.”
All 10 episodes of “The Pack” are available to stream on Amazon Prime.
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