An Interview With the Trainers: How Movie Dogs Are Made!

An Interview With the Trainers: How Movie Dogs Are Made!
October 2, 2020 sdcdesign

From the cutest puppies, to talking dogs, to training bad behaviors, Ursula Brauner joins several other industry animal trainers to talk about the different aspects of movie training.


I say this without animosity, but there’s just no getting around it: The dog who lives in your house is a loafer, a freeloader, and a layabout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most dogs, after all, don’t have jobs, much less ones that see them schmooze with the stars and on occasion even walk the red carpet.

Then there are dog actors.

The animal actor business is a world unto itself. And so we wondered: How does it work? How do you get a Very Good Boy to snarl? Where does said V.G.B. go potty? And wait—what’s that about three days on a barge with Robert Downey Jr. and 30 cats?

Below, a variety of people who work within the industry—as trainers, educators, or, as Gloria Winship, the longtime proprietor of All Animal Actors, puts it, “a talent agent for dogs—and cats and lions and tigers and bears”—explain what really goes into getting a pup into showbiz. Together, they’ve worked on some of Hollywood’s biggest animal-starring movies, TV, and ads.

Lesson one: Just make sure you’ve got a pocket full of cookies.

Are there specific things you’re looking for when you pick a dog to train?

Mathilde De Cagny, trainer with Birds & Animals Unlimited: Ninety-five percent of the time, my dogs come from shelters or rescues. The way I pick them is I get the dogs who, in a way, no one wants. I like them to be very energetic and a little bit out of control. Those are dogs that don’t really get adopted because they’re what I call too much of a dog as a regular pet, but I utilize all that energy toward training and channel the behavior toward keeping them busy. And for movie purposes, I like them to be really outgoing and friendly. They’re anywhere from eight months old to two years old [when they’re adopted]—then I know their true personality. As puppies you can never tell.

Melissa Millett, head trainer and founder of The Ultimutts: Digby is a rescue dog who is one of the three doubles for Krypto on Titans. His owner worked at the animal shelter and watched him get passed over due to his high energy. After adopting Digby, she found he was a visual match for Krypto and his talents that might have caused him to be overlooked were suddenly celebrated. He also had extensive training to calm down, which is something that he took into his life at home. I hope he doesn’t leap out of car windows or onto random people at home for takedowns, although I know he would enjoy it immensely!

One of the strange things about seeing animals in ads is that it sometimes seems like they’re not paying much attention to the actors on camera with them—like they might be looking to their trainer off-camera instead. Is that actually what’s going on?

Ursula Brauner, co-owner of Animals for Hollywood: This is one of our biggest challenges and we have various tools and tricks to achieve the most natural eyeline. Sometimes the trainer stands directly behind the actor and a little higher. We can have the dog or cat start by looking at the trainer and then “throw” the look to the Look Stick. We always start training this with a treat on the end but they eventually learn to look at the end and know a treat is coming after the trick is done.

Bonnie Judd, animal coordinator and trainer: You teach a dog in small pieces what you want. If you don’t want the dog to look at people, you start when the dog’s a puppy. I’ll teach it to sit and look at me. Then you teach it to sit for someone else and give them a cookie, and I’ll say before you give them the cookie you ask the dog to sit, and I’ll say OK. The dog understands the pattern: “Oh, I have to listen to what she says.”

It sounds like you’re also training the actor to train the dog.

Judd: A little bit. If I do that thing [with the cookie] three times and we’re on set, half the time they don’t know I’m training them. I just say, “Hey, could you give the dog a cookie? Every time I say ‘OK’ you give them a cookie.” And pretty soon the dog is just doing whatever the actor is saying. I make sure—as soon as you hear me say ‘OK’ you give the dog a cookie so it stays close to them. Then they’ll start looking around for me.

Gloria Winship, co–head trainer and owner of Animal Actors International Animal Talent Agency: My favorite job was working with Robert Downey Jr. [on The Gingerbread Man] and having cats on him all day long. We were on a barge in the middle of the Savannah River in the engine room, and he was dead and wrapped in plastic and chains. I had to put cats on top of him. I did that for three days—what can I say? Working with Patrick Swayze, Robert Redford, Keanu Reeves—it’s lovely what I do. And 99 percent of the time the actors are lovely to work with. There’s that 1 percent that are too big for their britches.

Gary Mui, instructional lab technician at America’s Teaching Zoo and retired trainer: I’ve had very rewarding experiences where the actors treated the dogs like genuine coworkers and spent the time to establish a relationship so that the dog genuinely cares about the actor. To name drop, the actors that were most generous to the dogs that I’ve worked with are Diane Keaton, Jason Bateman, and Eric Winter.

Millett: Joshua Orpin plays Conner (a.k.a. Superboy) and is an incredible dog trainer! Once the actor learns to communicate with the dogs, the bond really comes across the screen. We wanted to offer him a job on our training team, but his acting career is really taking off.

How do you train a dog to do a “bad” behavior?

Brauner: Often any aggression you see is carefully planned between the production and the trainers and it ends up being an edited series of shots. We teach rapid barking, feet up on people, and grabbing a pant leg, for example, and certain dogs we teach to snarl over a bone. It all ends up being a big game for them.

Judd: They don’t know it as a bad thing, they just know it as a way to get praise or a cookie. It’s kind of like this: You ask your boyfriend to take the garbage out. He does it and you tell him thank you for taking the garbage out. But if you didn’t tell him he wouldn’t take the garbage out.

Winship: A dog’s not trained to growl unless we’re looking at a Rottweiler or something along those lines. They have a bite—not dentures, but close—in their mouth that makes them look like they’re growling, so we train them to wear that.

Mui: In terms of urination and defecation, although professional courtesy prevents me from being too specific on how we train these, I can say that we train the animals to take on the positioning of say, urination or defecation, but not train the act itself. We train the male dog to lift his back leg on cue. In the olden days, we would also train the dog to tolerate wearing some clear tubing through which a specific effects person could pass the “urine.” Nowadays that is added in post. For defecation, we train the dog to squat on command. If you pay attention to the way it’s edited, you’ll usually see a dog start to squat, cut to a reaction from a person, and cut back to a dog squatting over fake feces. It’s in the cut that a prop person can place the fake feces into the shot.

Winship: A dog lifting its leg like it’s peeing is one of the more difficult ones. Very, very, very, very few dogs are trained to do that.

Brauner: Sometimes we actually scent the area and give it a whirl to see if anything comes naturally.

Winship: There is a trainer trick. If the dog has a real good stay—a stand stay—it depends on the lighting and how it’s set up, but the trainer would have a string on the leg and lift the leg.

De Cagny: The funniest one that I was on was Marley & Me. In one of the scenes, Owen [Wilson] is talking to Jennifer [Aniston] in the living room of a house. All of a sudden Clyde [a.k.a. Marley] very naturally goes and lifts his leg on Owen’s pants and starts peeing on him. I was like, “Oh my god!” But then the director goes, “No, no—let him be! This is great!”

Do dogs keep doing the specific trained behavior they learned for a job after the fact?

Brauner: Not really. They’re just dogs doing dog things. Sometimes if there are treats involved they’ll throw something out there that they know in the hopes of a snack. Usually a speak.

Judd: When people have pets, when they go up to their fridge, their dog will sit, lie down, and roll over—they’ll do a whole barrage of tricks. You’re not asking them to, it’s just you trained them that when you go to the fridge you’re going to get something and then they’re going to get something. They know you’re probably going to ask them to do a trick, so they try all the tricks hoping they land the right one to get the cookie. I’m literally walking around in a field right now and my dogs are all following me like I’m the Pied Piper.

Winship: Years ago I had a golden retriever that would smile. I encouraged it because she had to do a job where a dude was [attacking] an actress and she had to save the actress. She had to growl and jump on the dude. So there’s two things a dog’s never supposed to do, right? Knock a person down! But she naturally smiled and it looked like a growl, so I encouraged it. Well, it was wonderful when you had a job on set. But when she was real happy she’d smile, and if people didn’t know her they thought she was growling at them. So you’ve gotta be careful what you train.

Millett: Recently I questioned whether I wanted to reinforce my cat for knocking things off the counter. Thankfully he doesn’t offer that to me on his own accord.

Winship: Once they learn something, it’s so sweet and endearing—they’ll go do everything to get a treat. I had a commercial where a Great Dane had to get on the dining room table and eat lamb chops. Well, guess what? That Thanksgiving we had a turkey dinner. The turkey ended up in the bedroom.

What about, ahem, when dogs need to use the facilities on set?

Judd: My dogs are all taught to go to the washroom when they’re told. I tell them to take a break. A lot of my smaller dogs are potty box–trained. I actually will point and tell my dogs, go take a break right there—nope, not that tree, nope, not that one!

Brauner: Sometimes right in the city it’s a challenge but there is always some greenery—it’s one of the first things on our radar when we pull in. On big projects production often supplies us with a box trailer where we can set up Astro-Turf and a play area that can travel with us.

Millett: Some prefer to potty off leash and of course they need the royal treatment with hay laid down to keep their toes from getting cold in winter.

A lot of movies have talking dogs—live-action dogs whose mouths and faces are reworked with CGI after the fact so they seem like they’re chatting away. How do you train them so that can be added later?

Brauner: We spend so much time training for the talking-animal movies! The strong look is very important—we teach look left, look right, and look at the Look Stick. But we also spend a lot of time on small, subtle movements, weight shifts, head lowers, and head up. We study what people do during a conversation and try to come up with slight body movements that can mimic that. Cats & Dogs is a great example of that.

Judd: The biggest thing when you want to get your dog talking is they have to keep their mouth closed and their head super, super still. I have these little dumbbells that I teach them to hold, and I’ll pull on them and they know not to let go until I tell them, so they keep their mouths shut. With dogs, it’s hard for them to do two things at the same time, so if you’ve got them holding a dumbbell in their mouth and you want them to look left and look right, their response is really slow and kind of mechanical, because they’re like: “What? Hold this and what?” Even when we’re training, we’re often proofing. I might tell the dog to lie down and stay, and then I might throw food on the ground to see if the dog gets up, or I might have kids run by and throw a ball or something. And they know I’m setting them up, so they don’t move. So when it comes to that—get on the mark, stay, hold this in your mouth, now look this way—they’re like: “Is that a trick? You’re trying to trick me!”

Millett: I have done talking animals in two different ways, filming an interview where we gave her peanut butter and added a voice-over to that action. When we used a dog and cat talking, we held eyelines for as long as possible and they added the mouth moving in postproduction.

Mui: I trained Captain Canine for the movie Super Buddies. The only difference there is that he was trained to wear tracking dots on his face so that CGI could add his mouth moving later.

Have you ever had to tell a director that a trick just couldn’t be done?

Mui: For Night at the Museum 3, they wanted a monkey to ride a tiger. We could not offer that, but we did offer a monkey riding a dog covered in green, which could be overwritten by CGI to make a tiger. This is what they did.

More recently I worked on the Harley Quinn movie, where we trained a dog which the amazing CGI artists overwrote to create a hyena. In both scenarios, it was unsafe to use the original animals they wanted, so we provided the action reference with an animal that was safe.

Millett: We worked with a deaf dog on a movie where he was cued to look at a little girl. They asked if he could take steps toward her when the trainer was not in sight, and we didn’t think it was possible. He needs visual cues.

What about working with young puppies on camera? Any unique challenges?

De Cagny: Puppies are little sponges. They love to engage.

Mui: The most important thing to keep in mind is that they are infants and they need to schedule naps between the training sessions.

Brauner: The biggest challenge is explaining to everyone on set that only essential people can touch them. Everyone wants to pet a puppy! We have strict quarantine rules when we bring any puppy to a set. This eliminates health concerns and it also protects them from getting overwhelmed and helps them to focus on what we’re doing.

Millett: It is always nice to have a double.

De Cagny: When you work on a movie, the challenge is they grow too fast. They’re only good sizewise for about two weeks, three at the most, and after that they already look too big. You can’t work the same puppy for a month.

What about older dogs? You sometimes see dogs who are looking awfully gray around the whiskers in movies. Are those actually senior dogs?

Judd: Sometimes we just use chalk to gray them—just put a little on their face to age them. We teach them to walk slower. On A Dog’s Journey, the producer really wanted to use the lead dog, so we chalked him and taught him to act old. Just the puppies were different than the adult dogs—it’s the same dog from the time he’s supposedly nine months old till he passes away. We use chalk and have them walk slow and drop their head. You can teach a limp.

Brauner: Hachi: A Dog’s Tale is a great example of using younger dogs to portray the old Hachi. We used safe makeup for the look and all his training was in slow-motion mode. If you watch the film, the “old Hachi” was actually a young dog of three years. Some scripts call for a senior animal, but we are super clear that if a production wants a true senior we all have to treat them as such. This means more breaks, no rushing to set, and limited action—all discussed beforehand.

Do actor dogs ever retire?

Mui: We do assess animals we train and will find them forever homes if the entertainment lifestyle is not a fit for their needs.

Brauner: Our seniors let us know when they want to retire from filming and sometimes we have to make the call for them because they still love going to work but just don’t have the juice anymore. As they get older we start limiting the action and jobs we’ll submit them for.

Millett: We did a commercial a couple years back with six dogs recreating an adoption event. They requested a senior dog and my 12-year-old black lab was chosen. She was a retired actor and performer with the Ultimutts and in this case, she only needed to lie down and stay. We knew this was perfect for her and not too taxing.

Sophia was positioned off to the side in a down stay but she was so excited to just have the chance to be working again. She was beaming with the most beautiful, happy expression. The clients noticed her beautiful expression and requested that she be pulled from the background to the front of the shot to work with the actor.

Toward the end, the actor was asked to prance happily with a young dog that didn’t feel like working anymore. Sophia the old pro, who has seen it all and lived to work, got up from her stay and started leaping happily. I brought it to the director’s attention and they ended up using Sophia for the shot.

She passed just this week and that day with her expression was one of my fondest memories of her. To see her leaping with such joy gave you butterflies, you wanted to giggle and cry at the same time.

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