Does your dog have what it takes to be a star?
We asked a TV and film animal trainer everything about putting our pups in front of the camera
For some it's Lassie, for others it's Petey from The Little Rascals, and for many Canadians it's the German Shepherd star of the vintage series The Littlest Hobo. These beloved pups of the big and small screens make many pet owners wonder if their own furry best friends have the chops to become the stars of the family. To find out what it just what it takes to be a working dog in film and television — and to manage one — we reached out to Sherri Davis, owner and trainer of the star of Citytv's Hudson & Rex's, Diesel vom Burgimwald.
What are the signs of star potential in a pup?
The great news for all you hopefuls is that Sherri says, "Any dog can be a film dog, but they have to be sound, with a well-rounded temperament." She explains that there aren't really any specific traits that make a dog destined for stardom and, in fact, any dog's chances for success depend on whether the producer or director thinks the dog has the "right look". If the role calls for a shaggy Golden Retriever for example, then your black poodle will have to try again.
How do you train a dog for this work?
The process of getting a dog ready to work on set can take "weeks, months, or years depending on the dog," Sherri says. "Every dog should have a solid discipline in basic foundational skills," or as Sherri calls them, "the ABC's", and for the most part, they complete them at a training school like the one she runs in Ancaster Ontario. Sherri says that Diesel, the German Shepherd, was "completely green" when they got the call. In fact, "It took him a month working 10 hrs a day, 7 days a week to get ready for the pilot."
What work is involved for the owner of pet talent?
Sherri says that her work on set takes at least twelve hours a day. She gets up first thing in the morning and takes Diesel for an hour-long run before he's called to set. He's always the first talent on the call sheet and he or one of his nephews, who rotate playing Rex, are in almost every scene. After a long day of work, she still has to exercise him again. For Sherri that means the average day lasts about 15 to 16 hours when all is said and done. And if you think she takes weekends off, you're wrong. She says she still has to take care of the dogs and do about 8 hours of prep for set, which involves practicing stunts, setting up equipment, and working on new skills every Friday and Saturday.
Speaking of stunts, are there stunt doubles?
"Yes there are. Diesel does 95% of the show and the doubles do the higher risk stuff such as jumps, tackles, and running," Sherri explains. They also have a double for all the goofy stuff! He's the one they bring in for all the sweet, silly affectionate scenes and Sherri says they call him "the Kisser".
Does screen work affect the animals' quality of life?
Sherri says she'd never force an animal to do anything they didn't want to do. "If you have a connection to an animal you can tell when they're not feeling well. If he needs to lie down, or if he seems reluctant, I'm very attuned to his needs. If you look in a dog's eyes, or any animal, they will tell you if they're sick, happy, sad." Unlike most wranglers that won't allow the crew to interact with the animals working on set, Sherri says she encourages it. She wants everyone to say hello and engage with Diesel while he's working, and as a result, "Diesel wants to get out of the car to say hello to everyone because he gets so much love. He's so excited."
What happens on a set when a dog has a bad day?
Sherri says she's never had a dog shut down on set because they never push the dog's limits. The dogs have a heated and air conditioned trailer where they hang out between takes and they get a one hour lunch break to chill out. Most of the work is done before the animals actually enter the scene. Sherri describes it as "acting through her dog". She attends all the reads, rehearsals, and marks before Diesel even comes on set then, she says "Diesel comes in at the last minute, for a 'Rex only' rehearsal."
How bonded is the working dog with the other talent?
Unfortunately the dogs don't always have a chance to get to know the actors before taping begins. As Sherri explains, "I always like to spend time with the talent if I can, but generally speaking you don't have time to prep them or let them meet the talent. That's why the dog's temperament needs to be really solid." The challenge of working as a wrangler on set means making it look like the dog belongs to someone that it's perhaps never met before. Thankfully, on a show like Hudson & Rex, the pair is "together every shot of every day so they're really bonded and close together."
Do the dogs on set have a special diet?
Sherri says that Diesel usually "free feeds his kibble", but when he's on set they cook him "chicken breast and roast beef because it makes him really happy to be on set." She also makes sure that he gets to bring his favourite stuffy toys onto set, which he picks out of his toy box from his trailer.
What about cats?
Not only has Sherri worked with cats on set, but she says she's also worked with "rats, raccoons, donkeys, mice, horses, and cows."
Danielle Hodges is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for dog, baby and toddler safety. She is co-owner of Follow the Leader Inc Dog Training School with locations in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont.