Discovering the Next Big (Animal) Actor
At the Palace Theatre in New York City around 10:30 PM, the costar of Legally Blonde: The Musical has just finished a successful opening performance and is awaiting his curtain call. The audience roars with applause in a standing ovation as Chico, a five-pound Chihuahua, runs onstage. Still wearing his Bruiser Woods costume— a fitted pink peacoat—Chico takes a bow and jumps into the arms of his costar, Laura Bell Bundy, while enjoying the glow of the limelight.
Life, however, was not always as glamorous for the pint-sized Broadway star. A little over two years ago, theatrical animal trainer Bill Berloni found Chico at a shelter in Newark, New Jersey. Chico had been neglected by owners who kept him tied in the backyard during the winter. The experience turned the otherwise lovable pup into an aggressive dog who distrusted humans. But when Chico was spotted by Berloni, the dog’s intelligence and sassy attitude shined through his hostile manners. Berloni adopted Chico, determined to train him for one of the most challenging Broadway roles a dog has ever taken on.
While Chico’s story of rags to riches is inspiring, it is not uncommon in the realm of acting dogs. According to Jone Bouman, head of communications at American Humane’s Film and Television Unit, a nonprofit organization that monitors the use of animals on television and movie sets, about 75% to 80% of the dogs and cats employed in filmed media have been rescued from shelters. Dogs like Chico frequently undergo positive behavioral training and socialization in order to deliver Oscar-worthy performances. The Cinderella story may seem charming, but the process of turning a tramp into a leading lady can be a long and complicated one.
Any type of smart, high-energy dog usually does really well in the movie-making business.
THE “IT” FACTOR
When searching for the next canine Hollywood star, often it’s the difficult dogs who are the pick of the litter. “Rescue dogs usually make wonderful movie dogs—they’re typically dogs who didn’t fit in at a home because they’re extremely smart or have tons of energy,” says Jennifer Henderson, the East Coast operations manager of Birds and Animals Unlimited, a company that adopts and trains animals for acting roles. “We look for that trouble-making personality that we know we can harvest and turn into something really positive.”
Berloni has trained theater dogs for more than 32 years and only uses rescued animals. “When I go to a shelter, I look for an animal who can deal with a good amount of stress and not be upset by it,” he says. Before Berloni found Chico, the small dog had terrorized the shelter—biting everyone who dared approach him. He shivered with fear in his cage, but while out with Berloni, he walked as confidently as a Great Dane, attacking tractor-trailer wheels as if they were mere chew toys. Berloni knew immediately that the fearless pooch had potential.
Once the future star has been identified, the work has just begun for both trainer and dog. Producers may allow as little as only a few months for the dog to learn his “lines” and be able to perform. The dog spends at least several weeks undergoing socialization and learning to trust both the trainer and the actors who will be working with the dog. “During the first six months that a trainer has a dog, he creates a solid foundation of good behaviors,” says Henderson. “But training is an ongoing process that continues for the rest of the dog’s life.”
“Being a dog trainer isn’t just about giving commands,” Berloni says. “It’s about learning to reward or correct command behaviors as well as building respect.”
Some unique behaviors that acting dogs are typically taught include:
- Work away—The dog performs standard behaviors, such as sit and stay, but does so while facing away from the trainer.
- Go with—Using this command, the trainer instructs the dog to heel with an actor.
- Sad dog—The dog places his head on the ground between his front paws to demonstrate a “sad” appearance.
In his role as Bruiser Woods, Chico has to perform some of the most difficult commands ever expected of a dog in a live performance. In the opening number of the show, Chico makes his grand entrance by running onstage and having a “conversation” with an actor. Through hand signals and advanced behavior techniques, Berloni trained Chico to speak on command so he would bark five times in response to the actor’s questions. “Dogs don’t understand English, so it doesn’t matter what sound or hand signal you use, as long as they understand the stimulus for the command that you want,” says Berloni.
ON THE SET
While the lifestyle of an acting dog may seem stressful, film and television producers have strict guidelines to abide by while having an animal on set. The Screen Actors Guild requires that representatives from American Humane, which gives the “No Animals Were Harmed” tagline, are present at every filming that involves animals. American Humane’s guidelines are more than 80 pages long, making canine costars more high maintenance than Hollywood’s most demanding divas. The guidelines dictate that animals must get rest time equal to or greater than the time they spend performing. All animals must have access to water and food, and they must be allowed to rest if they show any signs of anxiety or discontent. In addition, an available veterinarian must be in close proximity to the filming area in case an animal is injured or becomes ill.
Unfortunately, at this time, theater performances are not monitored by a third party. Therefore, Berloni urges the public to contact the theater if they see something that they do not feel is appropriate for an animal’s well-being.
PROS OF GOING PRO
Fame and fortune may seem enough for most, but for acting dogs, the rewards go far beyond the glory. The dogs who are rescued from shelters with severe behavior problems find relief in the intense training that film work offers them. “We train a dog who’s been relinquished from several homes, and within a couple of months, this dog is confident and trusting. Training benefits the dog’s psyche in such a wonderful way,” says Henderson. Berloni agrees. “Our lives revolve around keeping the dogs happy and healthy,” he says. “My dogs are getting 24-hour attention, stimulation, training, and affection. They just seem to love it.”
In the two years since Chico bit his future trainer on the arm in the New Jersey shelter, he has gone on to thrive on Broadway. He’s slowly become more comfortable with strangers and has learned to trust humans again. In addition to consistently delivering show-stopping, flawless performances eight times a week, he has formed a close bond with Laura, who plays Elle Woods in the musical. “Chico has completely blossomed,” says Bundy. “He went from having been abandoned and afraid of people to being loved by everyone at the theater. His story is a testament to the fact that dogs who get a lot of love and the right kind of training can change.”
Rescue Dogs Make Good
Some of the most famous canine faces found their big break after leaving a shelter:
This mixed-breed dog became one of the most beloved canine movie stars for his title role in the 1974 movie Benji. He was discovered at a shelter in Burbank, California, by trainer Frank Inn.
The Jack Russell terrier known for his role as “Eddie” in Frasier had been relinquished several times before being discovered by Birds and Animals Unlimited.
In 1976, Bill Berloni rescued this scruffy “mutt” from his hard-knock life at a shelter in Connecticut. Sandy thanked his owner by flawlessly performing in Broadway’s Annie for seven years. Recommended Reading: To learn more about Sandy and other rescued dogs who made their debut on Broadway, check out Broadway Tails by Bill Berloni.