How to get your dog into modeling and acting
It seems like a crazy proposition, that your dog or any dog could not just be a dog, but also play one on TV. But when you live in Los Angeles like Maggie, Rossi and myself, this is our normal. Maggie and Rossi (and even our horse Cali) love to do production work, I enjoy training on sets and in studios, so the showbiz life is another way we can have fun together.
I do get asked quite frequently about our work and how we got into it, so I thought it was time to do a post that explains the ins and outs of media work for canines.
What is ‘production work’?
Production work is a fancy term for being trained to work on photo shoots and movie/TV sets. This can encompass anything from web ads to print ads to video ads and TV commercials as well as television shows and feature films. Maggie’s images have graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Petco, Travel & Leisure, and she even died in a Stephen King film.
There is special training required – lots of it – and I wouldn’t take just any dog to a movie set but it’s also true that anyone – yes, even you – can train your dog to be production-ready.
Will my dog enjoy production work?
This is the key question: is this something your dog will really enjoy? We only do production jobs because Maggie absolutely loves to do them but the minute she isn’t interested in working anymore is the minute that we retire from the business. If you know Maggie, then you probably know her favorite words include num-nums, cheese, dad, In-n-Out, and work.
Seriously, the word that makes most of us cringe makes her leap for the sky and prance around the room. Like any enthusiastic employee, she knows when it’s working time. She sees that her crate and set bag are packed up and she’ll be waiting at the door to go. Maggie reminds me of me – I grew up on sets, doing acting and modeling, which I loved, so I’m doubly happy that we can do this together.
However, set work is not for everyone and not for every dog. The hours are long, the repetition can be tedious, the set can be noisy and chaotic and it’s never about the money. You and your dog really have to want to be there because you both love the work.
Maybe it’s best to think of production work not as a get-rich or even a make-a-living plan but rather as an activity that you and your dog can do together. Think of it like agility or obedience or scent work or training as a therapy dog – it’s just one of a range of activities that you might explore and enjoy.
I don’t want to discourage you if you think that your dog might be the ham of all time. Why not give it a try?
But my dog is seriously the cutest ever. That could work and get him a modeling job right?
Just like actors, looks are only a part of this. And for dogs, having the correct training plays the biggest part. On jobs, dogs are, technically, a prop. Each minute the crew is working is costing money. It’s not cheap to make movies and when hiring a dog, they expect the dog to be fully prepared and to get the take on the first or second attempt. But that also means if they decide to adjust lightening, change the script, or a human actor flubs their lines, your dog has to be as excited and expressive on the two-hundredth take as on the first take. It’s really a passion job for our pets – not every dog is going to want to keep working on endless repeat.
Our check list to get started in animal acting:
There are a few qualities that make a great studio dog. Does your dog have what it takes?
1. Food-motivated – Dogs work for treats. The more they want those treats, the longer and harder they’ll work. After hours on set, the food-motivated dogs are the ones that really help get the shot at the end of the day when everyone’s tired and wants to go home. Food-motivated dogs are also usually quicker to learn new behaviors.
2. Confident – A dog working on a set must be confident. Studio work can put you in peculiar situations. People are moving around with all sorts of strange equipment, there’s strange noises and unpredictable action. It’s my job as the trainer to make sure the working environment is safe for my dog. I won’t ever let her work if there’s the possibility that she could be harmed. Even so, something still might happen – a loud noise, people yelling, trucks moving – and even a confident dog will shut down and not work. Put another way, just because your dog will ‘sit’ in your living room, doesn’t mean they will sit on a platform with a total stranger, floating in water thirty feet away from you while thousands of balloons fall on them – and stay calm.
(Yes, that is a real job Maggie did.)
3. Loves to work – Your dog must absolutely love learning new things, doing those tricks and behaviors on command, no matter the location or time or day or what else is going on. If your dog prefers lying on the couch to coming when called and asked to sit and shake, perhaps he is more suited to watching dog movies then acting in them.
We are ready! Get my dog an agent!
Well, not quite, there’s a lot more to understand. A studio dog is trained to act like a dog but on cue. Confused? Let’s say your golden retriever is booked on a tv show to play a family pet. When you see the show, you’ll see the dog enter the living room, jump on the couch and rest his head on someone’s lap. Like a normal family dog. But each of these simple actions is done on cue.
Here is the breakdown of the commands you’d use to get that sequence.
- Your dog starts out of camera view, perhaps over ten feet away from you and the couch
- On command, he needs to walk calmly to the couch, and precisely on cue as the dog’s action needs to fit with the actors’ dialogue or other actions in the scene.
- On command, the dog must halt, then jump onto the couch
- On command, the dog must lie down on the couch.
- On command, he must put his head on a stranger’s lap.
- Stay with his head down while the actors converse and move around. Equipment like cameras and the boom microphone will be moving around as well so the dog will have to totally ignore all this while resting his head in a stranger’s lap.
And all that needs to be done without you speaking because the studio audience and viewers at home want to hear the actors and not you. By the way, what I’ve just described is considered a simple sequence of behaviors in production work!
Photo shoots can be easier but you can never count on anything being easy in production work. Photo shoots come with lots of loud noises, bright flashes, odd items. Since photo shoots doesn’t usually roll sound you can sometimes talk, but that also means the rest of the crew can be noisy as well.
Basic behaviors to know for production work:
There isn’t a organized list of basic behaviors for studio work but there are some commands that your dog will be expected to know.
Off the top of my head, here’s a short but not formal list:
Mark: an object you can tell the dog to go to and stand with his/her front paws on it, so the animal knows where in the shot to be. This is usually some inconspicuous item such as a leaf or a rock depending on the shooting location. It needs to blend in so the viewers won’t see it. Your dog should be able to go to that mark take after take and perform any and all behaviors on it.
Stay: A very solid stay. Think actors walking in and out, people run, kids laughing and bouncing a ball, actors eating, microphones moving – throughout all this, your dog should remain where he’s placed on set.
Go with: Ability to follow a stranger/actor on set, leaving your side, often pretending to be that character’s pet
Carry objects: Everything from paper to purses.
Tug: Tugging an object, could be a pant leg or even an zipper.
Sit/Down: Simple, but should be performed the first time asked, every time, the instant you ask.
Paw/dig: Ability to paw or dig at an item or the ground
Head up/down: Having your dog put his/her head up and down
Feet up: Feet up on an object such as a table or counter top
Watch it: Ability to watch an item, even when moving. This helps create the illusion of watching another animal, a cat, a car passing by, or even following a human conversation.
On feet: Having the dog rise from a sit or down to a standing position
From there, it can get more complicated, like jumping in someone’s lap or backing up in a straight line, which is not easy for dogs.
There are some behaviors that will be specific to a job and you’ll be expected to have trained your dog to do these specific things. For example, in this Radio Flyer commercial, Maggie learned to ride their special bike in just a few days so that she was able to ride it down the Venice boardwalk full of spectators.
Want some tips for training any of these?
Studio work comes with distractions, it’s extremely rare that we work a job that doesn’t have at least a few distractions. Your dog needs to be absolutely solid with screening out distractions. Work on this everywhere and anywhere. Take your dog out to work in a park, on a trail, by a pool, with runners, other animals, bags, toys, crowds, etc.
There is no substitute for a real working set, but it’s still a good idea to practice for the real thing. Set up a camera, borrow a friend’s pop flashes, set a schedule and a list of commands for yourself and see how it goes. The pressure will be a lot less but you can get an insight if you are on the right path.
Finding work. Do you need an doggy agent?
When your pet is ready for his or her first job there are multiple places you can look. Yes, dog agents do exist. A quick google search will tell you of agencies in your area. There are some I would not trust my own dogs with – wondering if you’re with one? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me and ask. Fortunately, unlike with people, expensive headshots are not needed.
Even without an agent, you can book jobs on your own. That’s a great way to start in the industry. For one, check out the TV/Film/Video section on your local Craigslist. There are often people looking for dogs for a film or tv or video project. Also, if you are located near a college, check their local paper/website as often they are doing student productions and need trained dogs. This is a great way to get some set experience on a smaller scale. Make sure to create accounts for your dog on social media sites and post videos of them performing. If you have friends in the entertainment industry, follow them on social media, they can be great connections as well – thanks to Facebook and Instagram, I’ve been able to book many of Maggie and Rossi’s very talented friends for jobs.
It’s important to note that majority of jobs are not booked straight with a normal house pet dog but instead booked through animal movie rental companies. These are companies that have a lot of dogs under their company umbrella (not owned by others)- usually living with their own payroll studio trainers or in their own kennel set up’s – these dogs are trained specifically for production work.
These companies have insurance for studio jobs, so for some jobs, the production companies will go straight to animal rental companies to ensure the jobs will get done. After all that’s what these dogs do every day and are training to do their whole lives. We are seeing a shift to more house family dogs booking jobs but when watching a major motion picture most of the animals come from this sort of company.
We hope this helps you and your dog get started in show business. We look forward to seeing your training adventures together!