Lights, camera, canine action!

Bamboozle, my 10-pound trick dog, sat poised off camera, awaiting his signal. As I steadied my outstretched palm – his signal to stay – I waited for the director’s cue.  In sequence, the cameraman gave a thumbs up, the director pointed to me and I to Boozle (his nickname). A blur of white arched onto the green screen and faced me, as I maneuvered below the camera’s lens. As if by wizardry, he stopped dead center and shook as if he’d just emerged from a swimming pool. Cut. It was an Oscar-worthy performance, captured in just under three seconds.

Eyes bounced from one to another. “It looked good. Was it good? I think it was good. It was really good” – typical reaction on a commercial shoot, or so I was told. Back to one … take two.

Thirteen takes later, and although the shot is “in the can” as they say, the jury is still out as to whether the director will use Boozle’s clip, versus another slightly larger dog’s rendition.

The bottom line?  There’s far more glamour in the pet entertainment industry than money or fame. Our Brooklyn adventure involved a full day of shooting – not to mention three hours travel time – and a film crew of 20-plus to capture what amounted to 39 seconds of footage.

Have I piqued your interest? Are you envisioning your dog’s image blazoned across a big marquee?

While most people’s training goals begin and end with “come,” others strive for a more elaborate repertoire of learned behaviors.  Many of these enthusiasts are clients. In my book “Dog Tricks and Agility for Dummies,” I outline more than 100 tricks – known in professional circles as behaviors – that can be easily taught once a dog has learned some basic skills, such as “down,” which can lead to “roll over,” “crawl” and “play dead.” Holding skills can be expanded to “carry,” “fetch” and “deliver,” while jumping maneuvers, can be directed through a hoop or window frame, over a hurdle, or into someone’s arms.  Next time you’re watching a dog on the big screen, look through the eyes of a trainer and trace the dog’s gaze.

Is the dog focused on the action? Not really. He’s clueless as to the story line.  Is the dog trying to please the director? No, no. The dog could live without the director. How about the victim in the plot? Anything else anthropomorphic going on with the dog there? Afraid not.  It’s not always a given that the dog has socialized with the “talent” on set. The dog is watching one person only, and that is his handler, who is strategically positioned out of the frame but hopefully in the proper eye line to make it look real. For their part, dogs are probably the most welcome cast members on set, drawing lots of attention and affection but never demanding anything more than their fair share of kibble and a comfy pillow at the end of the day.

For his part, Boozle had to run to a target square (I used a business card-sized cut of green screen to condition him), angle 90 degrees to face the camera and offer a full body shake. In the editing room, he’ll be superimposed on a stack of towels. What is the goal of this accomplishment, which took eight training days to perfect? To touch American hearts with his puppy dog enthusiasm and, ultimately, to improve laundry detergent sales.

Think one of your pets might have the mojo to carve out an acting or modeling career?  Here are a few secrets.  You’ll need to engage a good animal agent. No advertising client will hire your pet directly from you.  Good photos are essential but do not have to be professionally taken. A reputable animal talent agency should carry insurance, and their principals should have established relationships in the industry with the key players. You will want to choose one with a good reputation, long history and hands-on experience with animals (not a broker who only does placements).

Sitting down with my pet’s agent over coffee – Cathryn Long, herself a Westchester native and principal of All Creatures Great & Small – I hounded her for more sage wisdom.

“Cute and clever dogs are everywhere,” she says. “People are right to think they would shine in front of a camera. Many do. But to be considered for stardom, any pet – be it a dog, a cat, a chicken or even a lizard – has to be steady around distractions. …Some still projects (print work) – for a Kohl’s catalog, for example – may have as few as three to four assistants supporting the  photographer, while other high profile shoots with Keira Knightley and Vogue, for example, have a swarm of people working hair, makeup, wardrobe, set styling, props, etc. – inside, outside, through a wheat field, you name it. Before I agree to represent a pet, we conduct an interview, to not only meet the pet but also the owner. They both need to be professional, perform well on set and handle distractions well.

“I’m always looking for fresh new faces of all types – which can be quirky-looking mix-breed dogs (those are especially in these days) or an exquisite pure breed. Even rabbits, hamsters and lizards – as long as they’ve been well handled and socialized to all kinds of sounds and stimulations. You cannot anticipate everything, but that type of calm and steady disposition usually does very well in an unfamiliar environment like a set.

“Dogs should be steady with what we call our Four Ds of Animal Modeling and Acting – it is a term I shared on the ‘Today’ show when I was asked to talk about getting one’s pet into show business.” (This helpful clip can be found on her website, animalagent.com.)

Discipline – “Even print modeling dogs must be trained to have the basics.  All-day shoots can be tiring even if there is little activity, so a strong foundation of schooling and training is key.”

Distraction – “Commercial shoots and TV or movie sets are full of all kinds of people, equipment and commotion…so staying focused on the handler is essential.”

Distance – “While trick training is fanciful and fun, a dog needs to learn targeting.  Sarah has helped me to teach dogs this skill, where they stand on a disc, eventually at a distance of 20 feet, to perform a specific behavior. I always suggest teaching hand signals.”

Duration – “Two things can derail even a well-mannered dog, and that is duration and repetition. On set, a dog may have to hold a given position – say lying on a couch with its head between its paws, for long periods of time and through the multitude of takes. Of course, there are breaks, but they have to repeat the pose or action over and over until the director says, ‘Moving on.’  This is why Border Collies make wonderful actors. A Border Collie will repeat a behavior all day if I ask them to. Mildly compulsive, they never get tired or bored.”

Think your dog has what it takes to be the next Lassie? I know a great agent.

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