The right reasons: Part 1 of 6
Think your dog has what it takes to be the next big thing? You're not alone. Pet parents across the globe have gone bonkers for Hollywood. Pet agencies say they're inundated with calls. It seems everyone thinks their pup should be a star.
More than one billion people worldwide watched Benji on television. Why not your pet, right? Unfortunately, you (or your pet we should say) have some competition. Sixty-three percent of American homes own a pet; of those, more than 43 million are dogs. And that's just in the United States! Then there's Canada, Europe, South America... you get the picture. OK, so not all of those pets are destined for the red carpet. But what if you seriously think your dog truly is a diva in waiting? Well, then get ready for some long, hard, hours.
"Cuteness doesn't quite cut it. The dog has to be able to perform," says Heather Long, animal coordinator and trainer with Hollywood Animals Animal Actors Agency (www.HollywoodAnimals.com). Pets with Hollywood Animals have been featured in movies like Soul Plane, Breaking All The Rules, I am Sam and in commercials for Petco, Ford, and many others.
Heather says she gets lots of calls from people who think their pet should or could be a star. "Lately it's kind of exploded where everyone wants to get their dog into the movies." This wave is often sparked by a new film, TV show, or commercial featuring a dog. The latest craze hit after box office success Because of Winn Dixie, featuring a Picadily Shepherd.
"When people tell me 'I think my dog would have fun' I know they're doing the right thing. It's all about your dog. Your dog should enjoy doing it. Good intentions are the number one most important thing," says Heather.
Bash Dibra, celebrity dog trainer to the pets of human superstars like Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and author of StarPet (www.StarPet.com) holds pet acting workshops across the country. He says pet owners often come in and try to convince him that their pet is the only dog that should be looked at.
Bash says he loves the enthusiasm pet parents bring but he reminds them it's not what they bring to the table but what their dog brings. "It's like this: while it's nice you want to tell me, I need you to show me."
While he finds most pet parents have good intentions, they're goals don't always pan out. That's why he holds a casting call to screen pets before an acting workshop. He likes to make the dogs are ready for the work ahead. "If you're dog is shaking and goes into a convulsion, I'll tell you 'I don't think he should do this. Why do you want to torture this dog?' The dog has to enjoy it."
Fido needs some skills: Part 6 of 6
Convinced your dog has star quality? Maybe you haven't attended a StarPet casting call (yet) but you have a pretty good hunch your dog loves to entertain. Just yesterday in fact, Fido found your missing keys, jumped over the coffee table, and onto your lap right in front of your two house guests. "See, a natural," you tell yourself.
Not so fast. Being able to do tricks at home and doing them on a movie set are two entirely different propositions, says Kathryn Segura, executive director with Hollywood Paws. "The most important thing is to have distance. So many animals do things in their own back yards, in their own proximity, but what they really need is that distance."
Hollywood Paws has trained pets for films like There's Something About Mary, Vanilla Sky, and "Bounce", and has done advertising for McDonald's, Budweiser, Gucci, and many others.
Heather from Hollywood Animals offers a reminder to budding pet star owners: show sets also have bright lights, stage equipment and other obstacles. "Working on set is completely different from a set of behaviors at home. The dog has to be socialized, it's got to be able to work with other people."
So the first step toward stardom is to train your dog well. "A dog or cat is like a diamond in the rough," says Bash. He suggests you teach your pet basic on-leash commands like "sit" while on familiar territory. Then move on to off-leash commands, agility training, and different scenarios.
The good news is, you don't need to spend hundreds, (or thousands) of dollars on a professional trainer. Anyone can teach their dog to do tricks with the right amount of time, care, and determination. There are countless books and videos on how to go about it.
If you want more advanced training, there are oodles of places ready to help. This summer Hollywood Paws is holding special workshops in California. StarPet continues a tour across the United States, making pit stops in select cities. Animal Actors also hosts acting workshops for pets. While all these entities feature highly skilled trainers, chances are there are trainers near you, even if they're not as well known, that can set you on the right track.
And there's even better news. An older dog really can learn new tricks. "It's always better to start younger but you can start at any age. The only time it's difficult is when they get really senior because they lose their hearing, they lose their sight," says Bash. He believes the market is now open for all ages. "Business ads in particular are using more senior dogs than ever before."
Portfolio & Agent
Get the exposure they need: Part 3 of 6
Once your dog is trained, your next step is registering it with a pet agency and/or creating its portfolio. Some animal acting agencies charge small fee, about $25, to add your pet to their database. While this may provide great exposure, please beware that these agencies aren't like those for us two-legged folk.
"There's no such thing as really an agency for a pet. It's not the same as a human actor's agency. There's not one person that's going out and showing your dog's head shot," says Heather. Also, pet agencies have their own animals they turn to, so you're dog may not be their first choice. But don't lose heart. "The reason private party people do get work is because these companies can't have 700 animals on their property," says Kathryn.
If you choose to register your Poodle, Princess, you'll be asked to fill out a list of actions she's able to do and to submit photos for her profile. While your dog looking beautiful certainly helps, agencies need a recent shot of your dog demonstrating a behavior.
Typically, you'll need to provide at least two photos: one that really showcases the size of your pooch and another that's a close-up. Neutral backgrounds are said to work best though it's your pet's skill that'll seal the deal. "Ninety percent of the time it's (the selection) all based of the action required of the animal." However, looks do matter. It's important that if you change Princess' hair cut you send the new and improved photos right away.
Since your pooch can't exactly intern and get his paw in the door to land a gig, he or she will have to rely on you for help. You need to let people know Fido exists and is ready to take on the world. Your dog, laugh not, will need a resume and portfolio.
Go to a local school and give a demo of what your dog is doing. You should also reach out to people within the working community; contact local photographers and tell them your dog is available for work. "The more you're in the limelight in your community the better," says Bash.
If you're in some small town far from Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive and there aren't many businesses, talk it up. If you want to take your dog from middle of nowhere to mainstream U.S.A. you're going to have to get the word out. And if your recourses are limited then you're going to have to talk very loudly... Tell the supermarket cashier about Fabulous Fido. Tell your friends. Talk with your doctor. Enlighten your manicurist. "Your local area is like a ripple effect. You start in your local area and you grow around you and around you," says Bash.
Local governments grant permits that allow film and television crews to shoot in your area. Look up the number for city's office of film and television and obtain a schedule or contacts for the production companies coming to your area. If you're so small you don't have an office dedicated to such a thing, then see if you can get a list of happenings in a neighboring town.
Also, don't narrow your mindset to Hollywood only. There are plenty of other ways your dog can be a star. "You can do charity work, you can do senior citizen work, there's just so many things you can do out there," says Kathryn.
Trends for pet actors: Part 4 of 6
Hollywood is nothing if not a fickle beast. Just like human actors, pet actors are hot today and mild tomorrow. "The dog that we thought was hot yesterday is a whole new dog today," says Bash. "It goes through cycles," says Heather, who estimates a certain type of dog is in demand for 6 months at a time. "We're seeing more mixed breeds right now than anything."
Still, there are tried and true Hollywood family favorites, like the Golden Retriever, Labrador, and the old American mutt. Heather says the "hot" dog of the moment is purely coincidental; no rhyme or reason.
Working breeds of dogs are easier to train, like the Australian Shepherd and Border Collie. "But that doesn't mean they're better than a mixed breed," says Heather.
And here's another trivia bit. The American Humane Association estimates that more than 80 percent of the dogs and cats used in motion pictures come from animal shelters. The original Benji, for instance, was adopted from a shelter. As a result, more than one million dogs were adopted from shelters across the country following the movie's release. Other dogs who've hit it big also came from animal shelters, like:
* "Fang" from the Harry Potter movies. Fang is a Neopolitan Mastiff whose real name is Bully. He's one of four dogs that portrays Hagrid's "boardhound" Fang. Bully was rescued from a junkyard by one of the movie's production trainers. He was also adopted by the trainer once the film ended.
* "Lucky", a multi-cultural canine from Dr. Dolittle and Dr. Dolittle 2 is really called Sammy. He was discovered by an animal trainer in a shelter in Los Angeles.
* "Murray" (real name Maui) from the TV show Mad About You was found by a trainer in another California shelter along with the dog's mother, Bingo, who starred in the 1991 film Bingo. Maui serves as mom's double in the film. This Collie mix awed viewers throughout the Emmy-Award winning sitcom's seven-season run.
It doesn't really matter where you find your pet. As long as you train him or her well, the real "trick" in reaching star status lies in how you market your pet.
Bash says the main mistake is that "people sometimes forget to focus on the strengths of the breed". While each dog is different, certain breeds are more capable of learning complicated tricks. Body types can often be a factor as well. Expecting a Basset Hound to perform an advanced agility trick as well as a Border Collie just isn't fair.
Protecting your dog: Part 5 of 6
Now it's time for logistics. Just how safe will your pet be on set?
The American Humane Association's Film & Television Unit is designated by the Screen Actors Guild as the only animal welfare organization with onset jurisdiction. The Association has supervised the safety of pets on production sets since 1940. It usually has a Certified Animal Safety Representative on set to make sure all pets, including yours, are treated well.
Many times in movie credits you'll see a line that reads: "No Animals Were Harmed..." Technically this is called an End Credit Disclaimer. It means that in agreement with the Screen Actors Guild or upon request of the producer/director the American Humane Association has monitored the film and found it to be "Monitored Acceptable." It means an Animal Safety Representative was on-set whenever the animals were used.
If a film received this rating it means that throughout the pre-production stage, American Humane received a copy of the script and was able to review the daily schedules for the animal actors to determine if any scenes or situations put animals at risk.
There are other ratings a movie can get too, though you're not likely to see those as well advertised in credits. If a production films a segment considered risky without authority from the American Humane Association and it ends with an animal being hurt or injured, it's "Monitored Unacceptable."
If the American Humane's Film and TV Unit wasn't able to directly oversee the animal action because of limited resources or time conflicts but the production complied with all requirements that apply to a Monitored Acceptable film it is deemed "Not Monitored: Met Production Expectations." If the Association was not contacted regarding animal action in a film and wasn't given the right paperwork, the film will receive a "Not Monitored" review.
The Association's Web site is a great starting place to brush up on the rules and regulations that surround movie-making. It also gives you some insight into what a day is like on set for a pet. For a complete list of rules a film must follow to be "Monitored Acceptable" check out the site's 32-page safety booklet called: Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media.
Benji: Off the Leash! was "Monitored Acceptable" and received a "No Animals Were Harmed..." End Credit Disclaimer. In this movie there's a scene where Benji almost gets hit by an animal control van. The van; however, comes to screeching halt directly in front of Benji.
In real life, this situation would be extremely dangerous for anyone. Moviemakers and the Humane Association made sure the van was stationary the whole time. Crew members jumped off the back of the van to make it look as if the van had just stopped, and a trainer placed Benji on mark and cued him to bark and shake his head.
If you'd like to know how other scenes were filmed in Benji, or other movies, go to www.americanhumane.org and click on "Protecting Animals," then "Film Monitoring." At the bottom of the page you'll see a link that says "Search for Movie Reviews," there you can get tricks of the trade on different movies monitored by the American Humane Association.
Dollars and Cents
Bringing home the bacon: Part 6 of 6
Time to get down to the hard numbers, people. Just how many pet treats you can expect to buy with your dog's new income?
A working pet actor can expect to make anywhere between $50 to $350 per day, depending on the type and length of production. Most commercials shoot for 2-days whereas a movie may continue for months. A well-known pet star may end up with a more lucrative contract, but if your pet is an unknown, expect them to start at the bottom.
"One of our dogs, Mike the Shaggy, became a real hot item... he had to get his own 1099 form from tax people because he was making so much money," says Bash about one of the dogs that attended his workshop.
Kathry says landing a big sum of money isn't ordinary and pet parents shouldn't rely solely on their pet's career to make their living. "It's not very likely unless it's a Spuds Mckenzie or Gidget from Taco Bell, but you just never know."
Kathryn's own dog, a Border Terrier called Mouse, played backup to "Slammer" in the movie There's Something About Mary. Mouse went on to promote the movie.
Kathryn says her dog really enjoyed acting but that she's not in it for the money. "I'm sure there are people that are in it for the money but I don't believe in that." She says the people who choose to rely on their pets are usually professional trainers themselves and have more than one pet to their name.
In the end, it all comes back to the life you want your dog to lead. Like Bash says, "If you have fun training with your dog, that's a plus. You're also creating a family dog with star quality in your home. In then end, that's really what it's all about."