Is Your Dog Ready for His Close-Up, Mr. DeMille?

Posted by  on June 14, 2010

Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji, Wishbone.  We’ve all seen those movies where a dog is featured doing amazing tricks or even just lying around being cute.  Have you ever wondered if your dog has what it takes to be a movie star?

What’s most important?

Before you even consider sending your dog on an acting audition, do him or her a favor and train the dog for basic obedience.  If your dog doesn’t know the basic commands of sit, down, stay, and leave it, he or she will have a terribly hard time doing other tricks on command.

Dog trainers use a variety of methods to train dogs for the special tricks required in a script, but they cannot work with poor raw materials.  Your dog simply must be able to learn commands and follow them reliably.  Use positive training methods including praise and treats, as this is the most productive way to train a dog.  Make training sessions fun, including lots of play in order to get the best results.

Advanced training

Once your dog has mastered basic obedience, you should begin more specific training for things that are often required of dog actors.  The most important ones are go to, speak, and quiet.  You will not be able to lead your dog to the proper place on the set while the cameras are rolling, so you must be able to direct your dog verbally.  You may want to train him or her to go to an “X” taped on the floor, as this will likely be an acceptable method during the shoot.

You could also train the dog to go to a treat which has been strategically placed where you want him or her to sit.  However, you will also have to train the dog not to root around for the treat until you give permission.  For example, if the script calls for the dog to walk over to a couch, jump up on it and lie down, you may put a treat behind the cushions, but you will want your dog to complete the scene before he or she knocks all the cushions to the floor in a frantic attempt to get the cookie.

You probably shouldn’t waste time training “go to the couch”, “go to the kitchen”, or “go to the bed”, as there are an endless number of places your dog may be required to approach in any given movie.  The chances of his or her learning all the names of the furniture and props are slim to none.  Simply find a way to mark the items to match how you have trained your dog, such as with the “X” method described above, and your dog will go to whatever item carries the designated mark.

Speak and quiet are also important commands, as no human actor wants to be upstaged by a dog.  Your dog actor must be able to speak on command (i.e. when no one else is talking) and to be quiet at all other times.

Keep in mind that through the wonders of cinematography, you will be able to give your dog verbal commands that won’t be heard in the final film.  You don’t need to create fancy hand signals for each command that your dog will follow, although you might want to for some of the basic stuff.

Where to train

Some folks in the show business industry recommend that you have your dog trained in the Los Angeles area, utilizing trainers who specialize in training dogs for Hollywood.  This option, although expensive, may open some doors for you.  For example, if a casting director has worked with a particular trainer before, they may have developed a comfortable relationship that could work to your advantage.  Before you shell out lots of money to a trainer, check on his or her past successes.  Ask to see the trainer’s resume, and then do some fact checking to make sure he or she isn’t stretching the truth.

Specialty tricks

Many roles will require your dog to do something other than follow basic commands, so you as the trainer must be capable of thinking of creative ways to get your dog to learn new tricks quickly.  For example, if you want your dog to lick someone’s neck, you might put a little bit of peanut butter behind the person’s ear.

You aren’t likely to know ahead of time all of the tricks your dog will be required to do for a part when you go for an audition, so you must showcase your dog’s flexibility at learning.  The best way to do this is to show the wide variety of commands to which your dog responds.  If you have taught him or her to roll over and play dead, or to give high fives, be sure you give the casting director a chance to see these moves.

Dealing with distractions

Movie sets are terribly busy places.  Once your dog has mastered the tricks you want him or her to do while you are alone, make it a point to practice the tricks and obedience commands in public, busy places.  Go to the dog park, and make your dog sit and stay, even though the other dogs are having fun.  Only once the dog has successfully run through all of your commands a couple of times should he or she be allowed to romp with friends.

Socialize your dog even when you are not formally running through training commands by taking the dog everywhere you go when possible.  Expose the dog to lots of different people, sounds, and sights so nothing throws the animal off his or her game.

The American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Program certifies dogs who have displayed all the attributes of a great pet, which coincidentally are just about the same skills required of a dog actor.  In order to receive certification, your dog must follow basic obedience commands, meet new people in a friendly way, and deal with distractions without coming unglued.  Having this certification for your dog before you go out on auditions will show casting directors that your dog will not cause problems on the set.

The Look

In truth, there is no one look for which casting directors are looking.  Different parts require different dogs; it’s as simple as that.  However, all directors want dogs that put their best feet forward.  Your dog should be clean and properly groomed before going out on auditions.

Some parts call for downright cuteness, but others require a certain gruffness.  Think about the dogs in the movie Cats and Dogs. There was the sweet, innocent Beagle who wanted his secret agent name to be “Toto Annihilation” and the sarcastic, jaded dog who was in charge of the secret operation.  Although some of the personality is given to the dog by the “lines” he or she is given, part of the distinction is based on the actual personality of the actor.

Can you picture David Hyde Pierce (Frasier‘s brother) playing the role of Dirty Harry?  Of course not!  The same is true of dog actors, which means that all types of dogs are needed because there are all types of roles.  As your dog’s chief promoter, you must pay attention to the kind of dog a casting director is looking for.  Don’t waste his or her time looking at your David Hyde Pierce if the role calls for Clint Eastwood – it will totally blow your credibility for future roles.

In addition, make sure your dog is a good reflection of the breed standard if he or she is a purebred.  You may have originally picked the runt of the litter because he or she was so cute, but if the role calls for an intimidating Doberman and you show up with a dog who looks more like a Mini Pin, you will likely be laughed out of the studio.

Breed standards are also important in that many roles are played by several canine actors.  For example, Lassie was played by many different dogs over the course of the years.  If your dog doesn’t look like the breed standard, chances are a director will not risk having his or her options limited because substitutions can’t be made in the event of injury, personality conflicts, or even for specific tricks that one dog does better than another.

Your dog’s portfolio

Yes, your dog does need a resume as well as photos when he or she goes to auditions.  The resume should list any competitions the dog has previously won such as agility, lure coursing, or conformation dog shows.  In addition, you should include the fact that your dog has achieved certification through the AKC Good Citizenship Program, and any other awards that he or she has earned.

Don’t overlook the value of modeling as a way to break into television and movies.  You may have an easier time getting your dog cast in a print ad than breaking directly into stardom.  If you can’t get a modeling gig right away, trying having your pet perform at charity events.  Take pictures that showcase the dog’s abilities and add them to the shots you already have in your dog’s portfolio.

References should be included from your veterinarian, any trainers you may have used, and people involved in your dog’s previous body of work.

How do I get started?

Assuming you have already trained and socialized your dog, your next step is to find an agent to handle your dog’s talent.  Do an Internet search for dog talent agencies, and you will find many options.  Research to find the agency that most closely matches the kinds of roles you have in mind for your dog.  Check to see how many dog actors they have successfully placed and what services they agree to provide.

Most online agencies have a database in which you can list your dog for a fee of about $25 to $50.  If an agency is asking for more money than this, find out what benefits your extra payment will bring.  Beware that there are many agents who are more interested in your money than in your dog.  Make sure they will find jobs for your dog where the producers adhere to the standards of the American Humane Association Film and Television Unit, which sets standards for humane set conditions and working hours.

To find an agent in person, you must wear out some shoe leather!  Arm yourself with several copies of your dog’s portfolio, and start calling on agencies that handle canines.  Good luck ~ we’ll see you in the movies!