Can My Dog Be An Actor?
Their names may not draw Brangelina-level attention, but plenty of dogs find regular work in Hollywood, on Broadway, in TV commercials, fashion shoots, and more. Sure, Lassie has the looks. She’s got long, silky hair, good teeth, and a svelte figure. But what made that dog a star, and does my dog have what it takes to be an actor? What do Lassie and Benji and Beethoven have that the average Biscuit doesn’t?
Those dogs have “star” quality. They were born to perform.
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, often appears 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 more natural to light on camera.
“Many people think looks make a ‘star,'” says Carol Riggins, the official trainer of Lassie, who is still making movies and other appearances. “Well, the truth is, looks play a secondary role to the ‘personality’ of the individual dog. That’s what makes or breaks their stardom.”
Those personality traits may also be in your pet. Does your dog need to be on center stage? Is it more extroverted than other canines? Can it master new tricks quickly? Your natural-born performer may have potential as a dog actor on the silver screen, in volunteer work, or just as a neighborhood crowd pleaser.
How Do I Get My Dog Into Acting?
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 wannabe dog actor friend, consider this checklist:
Your Dog’s 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.” To make it in pictures, a dog must be energetic, curious, playful, and confident, Riggins says. They have to enjoy social interaction with humans. The relationship between dog and trainer will get them to perform at a higher level. Some dogs master 60 to 70 different behaviors to become a star. Riggins suggests the following test: “Take your dog out away from home, place him or her down and walk in the opposite direction than where you came. Verbally coax your dog to come to you while clapping your hands and kneeling. You want the dog to come to you, tail up readily.”
Your Dog’s Obedience Skills
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 the mark, meaning move to a location on cue. Hitting the mark 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 straightforward things, but they must be able to do them repetitively, reliably, and among the distractions of a busy set,” explains Safford.
How Does Your Dog Handle Stress?
Life as a film star, like any job, brings demands with it. “There are a lot of cute dogs out there, but that doesn’t mean they can handle life on a movie set,” says Heather Long, a trainer with Hollywood Animals, of Los Angeles, an animal talent agency that has supplied dogs for parts in such television shows as “Monk.” “There are a lot of things moving around, lights and flashes and activity. That’s what takes a lot of adjustment time.” Long says her agency looks for dogs with the temperament not to be overly distracted — or cowed by — loud noises or movement. A dog actor needs to concentrate on its trainer and follow commands when it hears, “Action!”
Is Your Dog Willing to Work?
Teaching a dog tricks requires patience, repetition, and lots of encouragement. But your dog also has to have an esprit de corps. Your dog must be willing to go along with the trainer and crew and to work hard. Certain breeds tend to be more easily trained, such as Collies, Shepherds, and Sheepdogs, which have been bred for centuries to herd animals. “That doesn’t mean that other dogs cannot be trained,” Long points out. Riggins suggests testing your pet to see if it has a work ethic. “Crumple a piece of paper into a ball,” she says. “Once you have his or her attention, throw the paper a few feet ahead of you. Your dog should chase after the paper ball, pick it up and run away with it or bring it back.” If your dog doesn’t flinch, it’ll never get off the casting couch.
Do You Have the Time?
It is not just about your dog’s potential star-power, but 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.
Some Hollywood Tricks To Learn At Home
It’s best to master the basics, such as “sit,” “down,” and “stay” before moving on to this star material:
How Do You Teach a Dog To Speak?
Lassie is a pro at this, but Riggins suggests starting your training at dinner time. “Get the dog excited about the food so that it barks,” she says. Say, “Good, speak!” and give it a couple of kibble pieces out of the bowl. Do this three times and put down the dish. “Repeat this training every day until your dog starts to respond to your verbal cue without the bowl,” Riggins says. “Your dog should eventually learn to speak when you give it its cue.”
How Do You Teach a Dog To Play Dead?
You’ve seen it in pictures; now master it at home. Start your pup sitting or standing. Say, “Play dead,” while giving the hand signal for the dog to go down. Master this before adding the next step, teaching the dog to roll on its side. While the dog is down, wave a snack in front of your dog’s face to turn its head and body to the side. Reward with the treat.
How Do You Teach a Dog To Cover It’s Eyes?
Movie audiences love this one. Begin with the dog in the down position. The object is for your dog to hide its eyes with a paw. Start by lifting your dog’s paw over its snout and then reward with a treat. Repeat until your dog makes the connection between the yummy treat and the action of putting its paw over its muzzle.
If your dog tires of learning movie tricks, don’t push it, Riggins says. Know when to say, “That’s a wrap!”
Getting Your Dog Started As An Actor
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 of being a dog actor. “Is it for you or the animal?” asks Haithman. “It’s a hard life, but there are certain dogs who take to it. Heidi enjoyed our training sessions immensely, learning to hit the mark. It makes her happy to learn something.”