Training dogs for TV

An experienced animal trainer for film and TV shares a few of his secrets.

Lassie, RinTinTin, Benji…they’re just three of the famous dogs that have blazed their way across movie and TV screens, delighting thousands of fans around the world. The unique canines that star in these roles seem to have been born with a natural ability to do all kinds of amazing things, and all of them have that “special something” that every director looks for in a screen celebrity. Destined for life in the Hollywood spotlight, they are the canine equivalents of George Clooney and Angelina Jolie.

But how do these canine actors learn to present such stellar performances? After all, they won’t win an Oscar or Emmy for all their hard work and effort, and probably wouldn’t care even if they did, so what motivates them to do what they do? And how on earth do they do it so well?

Mark Dumas of Beyond Bears Inc. is more than qualified to shed some light on the magic of canine acting. He’s been training dogs and other animals for film and television for over 37 years. Along with his wife Dawn, an outstanding dog trainer in her own right, Mark has worked on an exhaustive list of films with a variety of canine actors. They include Kavic, the German shepherd star of the 1993 remake of Call of the Wild, and Magic, great-granddaughter of the beloved Benji, who starred along with Glenn Close and Christopher Walken in the Emmy-winning 1991 TV movie Sarah Plain & Tall. “Magic is 20 pounds of fiercely intelligent terrier-mix energy who, while very stubborn to train, was one of the best dogs I’ve ever worked with,” says Mark. He has also worked with Doolittle, the forever-smiling blonde Labrador retriever who shone in the ABC family movie Fallen.

According to Mark, the answer to “how do those dogs do that?” is relatively simple. First, Mark looks for dogs who have confidence, intelligence, and a sense of fun and humor. Then, whether the dog is being taught to open a door, swim to someone’s rescue, or sink a basket with his nose, the training is all based on knowing how canines think and what makes them feel good. Dogs are geared to please their leaders, and thrive in a structured positive environment. So the rules are the same, says Mark, whether you’re training a dog to perform a complex or unnatural behavior, or to obey simple basic commands.

“Repetition of the action and positive reinforcement are key,” he explains. “Keep in mind, however, that when I teach a dog a new behavior, chances are he won’t do it right the first time so he’s given a negative response.”

This negative response does not involve punishment. Negative and positive responses are how all animals and humans learn. In many ways, dog training parallels teaching a young child right from wrong. If we think of the average dog as having the intelligence and problem-solving skills of a three-year-old child, we have a better understanding of how dogs learn. Children learn by repetition and by how their behavior is met. When told “no”, a child comes to understand that what he has done is incorrect. When the child receives positive parental approval, he begins to realize the difference between correct and incorrect behavior.

“Dogs are no different,” Mark says. “When I respond by saying ‘no’, the dog knows he hasn’t done what I’ve asked. When I praise him and bridge that with a yummy treat, he knows he’s done well and is motivated to keep working hard.”

This foundation for training is applied to all the animals Mark works with, including wild animals such as bears (obtained from reputable zoos and related facilities). “You need to condition their interest, but very importantly, build trust, respect and maintain their security. They will learn to love you and then you can pretty much teach them anything.”

A lot of people worry that animal actors are mistreated or overworked. That’s not the case when it comes to responsible professional trainers like Mark and Dawn. “Most dogs only work about ten to 15 minutes in a session. You can work a dog for six to eight hours a day, but during that day the dog only really works one hour maximum.”

In order to find that one “star is born” canine, you might think Mark would have to travel the world when scouting for a dog. Not so. On occasion, when asked to provide a specific breed, he’ll go to a breeder, but most dogs are rescues from pounds and shelters. He looks for dogs with light colored coats (black coats don’t show up well on film). If you’re concerned about what happens to these rescues once the camera stops rolling and the film is finished, rest easy. “We keep all the dogs that work for us. Sometimes we use private dogs and they go back to their owners.”

Next time you settle back for a relaxing evening in front of the TV, and watch a canine actor portray a role in a series or movie, you’ll understand a little more about how he does his work so well. As you’re captivated by his uncanny abilities to emulate human emotions, laugh at his perfect comedic timing, cheer him on as he chases and catches the bad guy, you’ll also know why they say in Hollywood, “Never share a scene with a dog because he’ll steal the scene every time!”

Famous names

From Chihuahuas to St. Bernards, dogs of all sizes and breeds have been starring in movies for more than 50 years. Here are a few of the most beloved canine roles from past and present. In cases where a character’s popularity has outlived the normal canine lifespan, as with Lassie and Benji, the parts have been played by more than one canine actor. As well, two or more dogs of similar appearance may sometimes take the same part within a single movie.

Beethoven: St. Bernard, Beethoven, 1992
Benji: mixed breed, featured in several movies from 1974 to 2000
Brusier: Chihuahua, Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2, 2001 and 2003
Buddy: golden retriever, Air Bud, 1997
Chance: American bulldog, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, 1993
Lassie: collie, Lassie and subsequent movies from the 1940s to 2005
Max : Siberian husky, Eight Below, 2006
Old Yeller: Labrador mix, Old Yeller, 1957
Pongo and Perdita: Dalmatians, 101 Dalmatians, 1996
Rin Tin Tin: German shepherd, appeared in many films and TV productions
Shadow: German shepherd, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, 1993
Toto: Cairn terrier, The Wizard of Oz, 1939