Your Dog Can Be a Professional Actor
By Kim Boatman
Their names may not draw Brangelina-level attention, but plenty of dogs find regular work in Hollywood, on Broadway, in TV commercials, on fashion shoots and more.
What does it take to be a star? First, as with human stars, looks count. Demand for certain breeds follows trends, says Diane Haithman, whose German shepherd, Heidi, has appeared in “Desperate Housewives” and the Web series “Glen of Glenwood.” For instance, the “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” movies increased interest in Chihuahuas. “Pets get typecast too,” says Jim Leske, a Hollywood-based trainer whose 11-year-old German shepherd, Bear, appears often in police shows.
German shepherds are sought after for “tough dog” or “mean dog” roles, Haithman has found. Golden retrievers win parts for family dogs. Cute mutts also find roles. Some casting is a matter of practicality. A dog with light coloring, for example, will be easier to light on camera.
However, your dog also needs to, well, act. Behavior is a critical element in casting parts for tail-wagging actors, say the experts. Before you begin knocking on doors with 8-by-10 glossies of your best friend, consider this checklist:
- Temperament “Evaluate your little star’s temperament before subjecting it to the limelight,” says Colleen Safford, a trainer based in New York City. “If your dog is easily startled, not overly interested in mingling with strangers, or spooks easily with different sounds, it’s unfair -- not to mention it can be dangerous -- to put him in this position. Sets are busy, unpredictable places.”
- Obedience Your dog must have basic obedience skills. It should be able to walk gently on a leash, sit and stay, says Leske. Your dog also will be asked to hit a mark, meaning move to a location on cue. This can be taught with clicker training, offering a food treat, and sounding a clicker when your dog successfully places his front paws on the mark. “Most casting calls only require that dogs do very simple things, but they must be able to do them repetitively, reliably and among the distractions of a busy set,” explains Safford.
- Time It is not just about your dog’s potential star-power, but it’s about the time you’re willing to invest. “Most pets you see in commercials either belong to a trainer or to a family who can afford to have a trainer on the payroll,” says Leske. For instance, Haithman did pay for some training sessions for Heidi. Also, someone needs to stay on the set or the shoot with your dog, explains Safford. You need to make sure your dog is working in short bursts, taking regular breaks.
You can find casting calls on websites such as Craigslist, says Safford. You can approach talent agencies, but be wary about investing thousands in training on the promise of roles that might not come.
Working with a legitimate trainer can be helpful, though. Casting directors often approach trainers in big media markets, such as New York City and Los Angeles, says Safford. Networking helps. Heidi landed work through someone Haithman’s husband knew at the gym where he works out.
Most importantly, think about whether your dog will enjoy the experience. “Is it for you or for the animal?” asks Haithman. “It’s a hard life, but there are certain dogs who really take to it. Heidi enjoyed our training sessions immensely, learning to hit a mark. It makes her happy to learn something.”
Kim Boatman is a journalist based in Northern California. She is also the managing editor of ExceptionalCanine.com. Boatman's work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals, and a frequent contributor to The Dog Daily.