Was your pet born to be a star?
Ever watch television or a movie and get star-struck by one of the characters — the ones with four legs? One of this writer’s favorites is Paulie, a movie about a talkative parrot who changes a little girl’s life and a few others along the way. From Where the Red Fern Grows to The Ugly Dachshund, the 2010 big dog hit Marmaduke to Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Hollywood is bejeweled with captivating creatures on the small and big screens.
Perhaps you’ve wondered how your pet could get some facetime on camera, strut his or her stuff in an ad for your favorite cologne, or appear as a glossy centerfold. Spot recently chatted with two local pet trainers to give you the four-one-one.
One of our first questions was, is stardom for any pet?Liz Gulker, a trainer with Everyday Dog Training Center in Vancouver, WA, says no specific breed is more or less suited. She does note that most pets used are lighter in color as they show up more clearly in print.
Gulker got started in the business with her Terrier mix, Baxter Bailey, after repeatedly being told he should be in movies.
After looking into it and taking some classes with “BB” as he was affectionately known, Gulker was hooked. Opportunity presented itself, and she spent time training with New York talent agent, Sassie Joiris, whose path has crossed with the likes of Robin Williams, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifa, and more — along with many four-pawed, feathered, hoofed, and slithering actors she’s trained.
Gulker is now parlaying her experience to offer Saturday morning drop-in classes for aspiring Hollywood hounds at Everyday Dog. Classes offered under the heading “Fun, Games and Hollywood!” include Everyday Dog Drill Team, Tricks, What’s That Smell, Jackpot, and Lights, Camera, Action!
Trainer Paula Ratoza, owner of Feathers & Fur Talent Agency in Portland, OR, has more than 40 years’ experience in pet training. Founded in 1997, her agency’s talent list includes a host of trained critters from an iguana to a goat, fuzzy felines, and dogs of all sizes, colors, shapes, and breed. Ratoza personally raises Dobermans, using positive, upbeat methods in their training. Working with an animal’s temperament is important, she says, because success is to be had when you work with, not against. Never knowing what kinds of parts an animal may be best suited to, her bag of tricks is full.
Today’s Hollywood — not just movies
The road to Hollywood isn’t the only path to success for animals aspiring to careers in modeling or acting. Many businesses use animals in commercials, catalogs, and other formats. And not just pet companies. Clients of Feathers & Fur have worked for Northwest companies including Fred Meyer, Freightliner, Norm Thompson, Scott Thomason, Nike, and Meier and Frank — not to mention international corporations.
Dogs, cats, birds, horses, and even lizards are increasingly becoming “the face of” many companies. Who could forget “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” spoken in the sassy voice of the Taco Bell Chihuahua? Frontier Airlines even has animals gracing their tailfins, much to traveler and fan delight. A Crested Black Macaque (Indonesian monkey) recently became the face of Coolpix, snapping a picture of himself making a funny face. Other great “spokespeople” of our times include Morris the Cat of 9 Lives, Spuds McKenzie of Bud Light, Duke the Golden Retriever from Bush’s Baked Beans, the Budweiser Clydesdales . . . even frogs and gekkos. The list is endless.
Tips from the trainers
Don’t consider your pet out of the running just because he or she has no formal training. You can start any time and you just never know what might be suited to him. Here are some tips from the top to get your training mojo on:
- When it comes to training, don’t stop at the basics. Teach random stuff. Don’t assume only that a solid sit, stay, down, speak, or roll-over will cover the prerequisites. Gulker says, “BB looked kind of naughty. He had that look that said he was trouble. One of the most fun things was encouraging him to get into trouble. For instance, he got to tear up paper and things.” Training doesn’t have to be practical. Anything you can teach and put to a command and count on could be valuable.
- Dogs aren’t the only ones who can learn! Ratoza has worked with a couple of cats who wave. This writer also knows a cat who responds to a finger-trigger pull “play dead” command. With the proper motivation, patience, and consistency, the sky’s the limit for our companions’ hidden talents.
- A friendly demeanor should not be overlooked. While a trainer is often present, so are other people and/or animals. If you’re looking to raise an animal with hopes of stardom, begin with the basics. Expose him or her to everything. Friendliness around kids, adults, and other animals is king.
- Work on motivation. What motivates your pet? Food? A special toy? Those most likely to succeed are motivated to work. This can be taught from the day you bring your special family member home. Tons of resources exist on teaching motivation, but hooking up with a talent agent such as Ratoza doesn’t hurt either.
- Amenability. An animal that works well with others is a bonus. From walking on leash to running up to someone, coming when called or simply performing, keep this in mind during training.
- Accepting commands both verbally and visually — even from a distance — is important. With one stunt, Gulker says she had to be down behind a couch giving verbal commands. BB had to follow her command without being able to see her.
Never Say Never
Recently an opportunity presented itself that this writer couldn’t refuse. If you’re a regular reader of Spot you will have seen my articles, and perhaps know that I have one of the biggest of the big dogs, Vegas, my Great Dane and faithful sidekick. Having taken her nearly everywhere I went from the time she arrived as a wee pup at 7 weeks and 14 pounds, she’s earned her own sort of local infamy. But recently she had a shot at celebrity of the variety that would put her face on film for the world to see (or at least television viewers within the scope of the advertiser).
Feathers & Fur was contracted to provide a handful of dogs for international, multi-billion dollar Goodwill Industries. One of the requested breeds was Great Dane, which is where Vegas came in. I knew Ratoza through agility circles, and she asked if I was interested. Never one to miss an opportunity to try something new, I quickly sent her photos of my girl and awaited a response. As Gulker said, dark pets are not usually selected. However, in this case Vegas fit the mold they had in mind for the part. The producer approved, and Vegas’s shoot was on.
On the big day we arrived at the park in NE Portland without a clue as to what to expect. The crew broke for lunch shortly after we arrived so it gave Vegas time to get loose and stretch her legs. Having just picked her up after work and driven 45 minutes, I didn’t have a good feeling about my pent-up Dane. Fortunately, the break gave us a chance to get familiar and relaxed at the park, and meet some of the crew and actors. Thankfully Vegas loves all people, and was soon in seventh heaven, throwing herself (figuratively) at anyone willing to love on her.
The commercial being shot involved a woman looking back on her childhood. Vegas was to play the role of her dog. And here came our first hitch. Danes are very loyal to one person, and that “lady” was not Vegas’s person, I am. Our first stumbling block to stardom came quick!
The first scene had Vegas running across the park while girls frolicked with ribbon streamers. Vegas was to run right at “the lady.” In order to make this happen, I spent much time (take after take after take) alternately sitting on the grass tucked snugly under the camera, or running Vegas back across the park for a do-over. This involved a great deal of bottled water and many treats, and eventually led to one very tired dog.
When the producer called a wrap, we’d been on location about five hours. It’s a tossup as to who was more tired, Vegas or me. I learned a lot, though. Fortunately the producer and crew were flexible, adapting to Vegas’s limitations, and rolling with them. They were all positive and friendly. As a new “Hollywood Mom,” that meant a lot to me.
I haven’t seen the commercial yet and am uncertain when it will air. I don’t know if this will be Vegas’s first of many, or her last, shot at stardom. But I definitely learned never to say never.
As Ratoza and I walked toward our cars the evening after the shoot, a park-goer commented to her dog that he would never get to participate in something like that. Just a few weeks before I would have thought the same thing.
Photography by David Childs
Kennedy Morgan is a native Oregonian, customer service manager, and freelance writer who shares her home with her two sons, her Great Dane, Vegas, Pomeranian, Leo, Bearded Dragon, Godzilla, and three uber-friendly kitties. Kennedy is an active member of agility clubs and the Portland Great Dane Community. In her spare time she enjoys agility, hiking, biking, and attending her kids’ sporting events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.