Motion Picture Dogs: The Truth about “The Biz” – By Steven Appelbaum, President and CEO of ABC

Wednesday, December 03, 2008 : 4:56:37 PM
Many trainers, myself included, were drawn to the training business with a half-formed notion of breaking into the motion picture/TV part of it. By this I mean training the next big animal actor, becoming a world renowned animal wrangler, or at the very least working with famous movie trainers. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve had the fortune to see and experience first hand how the business of working with “movie dogs” actually works and offer the following comments.

The motion picture business is the same as many other businesses. This means it is comprised of human beings. These people will typically do business with someone they know, which in the case of animal trainers, usually means the experienced trainers and/or training companies get the work. This should not come as any great surprise since your average producer or director already understands that while animals can be a big draw at the box office, they are also notoriously difficult in an actual filming environment. This is why knowledgeable directors will work with someone they’ve had a good experience with.

If you are looking to gain motion picture animal training experience, you will need to contact working animal trainers specializing in this business and convince them to let you work for them. Please note: this will not be easy as literally thousands of animal lovers and trainers share this dream. Assuming you can get the attention of a bonefied trainer, how can you stand out from the huge numbers of other people clamoring for a chance? There are several ways.

First is perseverance. While I’m certainly not suggesting you harass anyone, you may need to contact and visit your trainer of choice on several occasions.

Second, be ready to donate your time. Many of the most famous trainers on the planet broke into this business by cleaning kennels and hanging around successful trainers for years with little or no pay. I remember the first day (at twenty-three years of age) after nine months worth of letters, phone calls and filling out resumes, that I was finally given the chance to “assist” at a pretty well known motion picture training compound. After a sleepless night I drove to the compound early in the morning. When I got there I was taken to the back and told to wait for a trainer to come out and bring me my equipment. I can still remember my excitement as I waited for one of the trainers to talk with me. After fifteen minutes, a trainer came out, smiled briefly and handed me my equipment…. a broom. My job was to sweep, which I did for almost five and a half months before the other trainers even acknowledged my presence beyond “hello” and “you missed a spot over there.” Of course, this opportunity allowed me to watch trainers for literally hundreds of hours. After a while, I got to know some of them and then the real learning started.

These opportunities exist, but are very difficult to find and even tougher if you don’t live near the trainers.

Another way to get involved is to register with agencies that specialize in providing animals to those interested in casting animal actors. By register I mean register your dog or other animal you’ve trained.

Needless to say, your dog must be very well trained to at least the following minimum standard.
1. Your dog must have a complete understanding of all basic obedience cues. This proficiency must be on and off leash, regardless of distractions. What’s more, your dog must be completely responsive to hand signals. In other words, you should be able to control your dog off leash around dozens of people, lights, large moving objects like cameras and possibly other animals without a word, just by hand signals alone.
2. Your dog should understand and be proficient with the concept of going to and working on a “mark”. This means you can pick a spot in a room, have your dog go to that spot, stay there and respond to other cues while you control the entire performance irrespective of distraction with hand signals from a distance.
3. Your dog must be completely sociable around people and other animals.
4. In addition to the aforementioned basic obedience cues, ideally your dog will also bark and stop barking on cue, put her head down, lift her head up, lie down and put her paws over her eyes, stand and put her feet up on pretty much anything you ask her to, plus stay in that position for a reasonable length of time.
5. There are literally hundreds of “tricks” you can teach your dog, but the real key is for your dog to respond to them regardless of distraction, off leash and with hand signals.

Other things: You will need great head shots, this means nice, close-up photographs of the dog’s face and a few of his body. If you’re serious about breaking into the business and your dog has been trained to the aforementioned level, consider having these professionally done. A résumé listing the dog’s experience (once she gets some) as well as her repertoire of commands will also help. Finally, a short three-to-five-minute DVD of your dog’s outstanding performance will help her stand out from the crowd.

If you have a dog that is actually trained to this level of proficiency, then it’s simply a matter of contacting reputable agencies so that her name can get out there. This is sometimes easier said than done, as numerous companies claim they “can make your dog a star”, but not all of them have the necessary contacts to make this a reality. When looking at an agency, it’s important to check motion picture and TV credits. It’s also a good idea to look for experience. Is this a new company or one that’s been in this business for at least seven to ten years? Finally, remember that unlike many people wishing to register their dogs with an agency, you are a professional dog trainer. You will speak a similar language to that of the motion picture animal trainer and will likely stand out for this reason as well.

As an ABC Certified Trainer, you have a strong foundation of the principles governing how dogs learn. You can utilize this understanding when teaching your dog cues commonly performed by animal actors on motion picture and TV productions. Of course, the more usable cues you can teach the better, provided they can be taught to a high level of proficiency. Those trainers seriously interested in pursuing training in this field are well advised to do some extra research. Here are several books to help you on your quest.

“Star Pet” by Bash Dibra
“101 Dog Tricks, Step by Step Activities to Engage, Challenge and Bond With Your Dog” by Kyra Sundance

Those trainers with additional questions should feel free to e-mail me at topdawg@dawgbiz.net. Remember vision, planning, perseverance, and excellent work will result in success. Good luck and good training.

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