TWENTY THINGS TO KNOW
TO GET YOUR DOG ON TV
(or movies, or commercials, or...)
Do you think your dog has star potential? Are you interested in the possibility of doing commercial work with your pup but aren’t sure whether it’s right for you? Do you need some pointers about how to start?
This is an article that describes some of the basics of commercial work and how to make the most out of the opportunities that might be granted to you. It will touch on how to get started in the industry, what sort of training might be required, things to remember and the nitty-gritty aspects of working in it.
Commercial work takes many forms: still images for print or online, digital media, television, theatre, movies and more. For some projects, dogs or other animals may feature prominently; for others, they may exist in the background to add depth to a scene. The end products can vary widely, but there are some common themes that run throughout the work.
1. Luck. So much luck.
I’m not going to lie: it takes a great deal of luck to get yourself started.
Clients will make gut decisions based on photographs (or similar) and if your dog doesn’t match what they’re picturing in their mind’s eye, you’ll not be given a second thought. Your dog’s breed(s), size, colour, age, coat, expression and more all factor into these decisions, all of which are largely outside of your control. Clients might avoid flashy-looking dogs, those with blue eyes, or those with dark faces and bodies since they may not be easy to film or photograph. This doesn’t mean you’ll never get any work, but I suggest you be aware of what may work for and against your dog’s commercial candidacy.
That’s not even touching on the amount of luck you’ll need beforehand to even get your dog’s photograph in front of a client. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are all interested in participating in commercial ventures with their animals, so competition is fierce. Be realistic in your expectations when you’re just starting out. It may not pan out. Don’t take it personally.
But, of course, always remember that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Knowing people who work in the industry helps, as sometimes opportunities come across their desks in which they cannot participate for various reasons; a recommendation for an alternative casting decision may get passed back to the production team. You may get lucky: it could be your name that gets mentioned. As with everything, networking certainly can help.
2. Find an agent to find you clients
The real first step you can take is to find proper representation. There are a number of animal talent agencies that may agree to represent you. Find a reputable agent who is taking on new clients. Get an audition video together with your dog's behaviours to send to them with a headshot and a full body shot. Agents may request a fee at registration and they will take a portion of the proceeds of any work they find for you.
Got an agent already? Great. But this is just the beginning and is by no means a guarantee of future work. As I mentioned, sometimes luck is just not in your favour and your dog’s photo gets added to a pile of others and never ends up drawing the eye of a client. That sucks, but sometimes them’s the breaks.
3. Make a great impression
If the stars do align and you end up getting a call from your agent about a job (and you accept), put your best foot forward when meeting the clients (either at the audition or on set). Dress appropriately, be polite and engaged and of course make sure your dog is at her best. If you do well, your agent is likely going to hear about it (if you do poorly they’ll likely hear about it, too). Positive feedback and reviews from clients can help push you closer to the top of your agent’s call list and can launch you into their rotation once they have a better understanding of your skills and capabilities (and those of your dog).
4. Update your resume...
This may also come in the form of managing an online presence that showcases the talents of your dog (this isn’t everything, but it does help). I’ve been asked “can your dog do ___?” and I’ve been able to shoot back a reply with an enthusiastic “YES!” and a link to a video that shows as much.
5. Location, location, location
It’s simple: you will get more work if you’re where the work is. There may not be many commercial ventures in a small town located hours from the nearest city. Traveling is a part of the job, but if you have to travel a lengthy distance to participate, keep in mind that you may not be reimbursed for travel expenses. Agents may also group clients by location and contact those nearer the job first when doing preliminary availability checks, etc.
TRAINING AND BEHAVIOUR
A) BEFORE YOU GO...
6. What you should know
Here is a cursory list of tricks and behaviours your dog may be asked for while on set. It will be assumed that your dog has basic obedience skills, can perform off leash and respond to silent cues from a distance of 10-20 feet from the handler. I emphasize: this list is not exhaustive by any means but it should be enough to get you started.
• Sit/down/stand in place
• Follow an actor
• Move to a mark
• Put head down on ground, object or paws
• Head tilt
• Play dead
• Take/hold/carry/drop an object
• Jump onto/off furniture
• Back up
• Recall from a distance
• Front paws on an object
• Focus on one spot without moving (often the eye line of the camera)
• Target an object with a paw
• Happy, relaxed interaction with a stranger
• Wag tail
• Sit in front of food, or hold food without eating it
• Eat on cue
7. Training 101The stuff for which you’re hired may frequently be basic, but it had better be clean. Clients will want your dog’s skills to be well beyond that of “standard family pet.” (They may not always get it – I’ve heard some stories…)
Frequently a dog needs to be able to perform their behaviours with only a hand signal or non-verbal cue at a distance of 10-20 feet (or more) on camera while other things are happening. You’ll want your dog to be able to perform from a distance and do as asked the first time with little to no latency in the response. Your dog may be asked to take cues from another person on set.
Your dog may be asked to work for longer durations than you might expect without reinforcement from you. Practice behaviour chains and increasing the time between rewards so your dog doesn’t get blindsided by the realities of working on set.
You will probably have at least a few minutes to practice while things are being set up (and sometimes you’ll have quite a bit more). Use the time wisely. If you’re having trouble accomplishing what you need, say so. Plans may change. Time is money, so sometimes the preferred option is to change the plan rather than spend the time to work out the kinks.
And remember, there are no leashes in showbiz (or at least not very many). Don't plan to rely on one.
8. Temperament and Behaviour 101
Your dog should be confident, resilient, and patient. She should be level-headed, have a strong desire to please, and love to work. Your dog should be able to accept body handling and positioning without becoming unduly stressed. If she does not embody these qualities, you may want to think very deeply on whether she is suitable for this type of work.
“As much as you may want your pet to be a star, it isn't the right choice for every dog.” – Dana Gallagher
Behavioural issues are, ideally, non-existent (or at the very least, imperceptible). Your dog should be safe to handle and to work in close proximity to strangers. Your dog may be asked to work with or nearby a strange dog – is this something yours can safely do? Be upfront about potential issues like dog reactivity/aggression or fear of children well in advance (these are likely things which your agent should be aware of well before you find yourself on set).
Your dog should be able to work relatively quietly and calmly. Sometimes you’ll want your dog to get crazy and make some noise, but generally you do not want a dog who barks, whines or grumbles unbidden while working.
9. It's the simple(r) stuff that gets you hired
Impressive, cute or crazy tricks may catch the client’s eye, but the meat and potatoes of your job will be the basics like walking from one place to another, sitting, laying down, barking, fetching, wagging her tail and interacting with an actor. This is pretty simple stuff, but it’s not as easy as it seems.
Don’t ignore this simple stuff or allow it to degrade over time if you’re serious about commercial work.
This may feel like a no-brainer, but make sure your dog is comfortable in front of a camera and working in front of crowds. Perform your dog's tricks in front of people at home, at the grocery story, at a pet store, in a group of people, etc. Make sure your dog is able to adapt and perform in new environments with new sounds, new people and new sights. Just because your dog can do it in your home, doesn't mean that she can perform on cue on a set. Training at home is not enough. Proof behaviours in as many locations as possible.
Dog trainer Kristen Sobanski adds that the dogs used in media have a strong desire to please, love to work, frequently offer behaviours during training sessions and are level-headed while working. A confident, well-trained dog who is "over-socialized" and well prepared will come across as cool and relaxed in front of a camera. A more novice dog may shut down and come across as untrained.
11. Targets, Targets and More Targets
Targets can be anything, but ideally they should be portable and innocuous. Coins, tape markers, books, or plastic lids all make for handy tools to mark locations.
As far as directing where your dog is looking, she will likely want to default to looking at you. But this isn’t always an option in a scene. A dog who will perform behaviours while looking away from you or at another target is a great asset. I’ve taken to using a target stick to briefly direct a dog’s gaze during practice and while filming.
Then there’s the old “follow the treat with your eyes” trick that can come in mighty handy. If you’re like me and have done any work on impulse control and not focusing on food in your hands, following a treat like this this can present a problem. Add this to the list of things you’ll likely want to work on. I occasionally use a target stick to direct the dog’s gaze.
I don’t go anywhere without my clicker anymore. Not everyone is a clicker trainer, and that’s fine, but I’ve found it to be an enormously helpful tool when first approaching a scene. Most of the time you don’t know exactly what is going to be asked of you ahead of time so you and your dog will likely be learning on the fly. If your dog already has a good grasp of the basics, refining their performance for the task at hand shouldn’t take more than a few minutes with a clicker and a handful of treats.
TRAINING AND BEHAVIOUR
B) WHILE YOU'RE THERE...
13. Pete and Repeat
Did the actor? Did the camera operator get the angle he or she wanted? Did the boom mic stay out of the frame? Did everyone on set remember to turn their phone ringers off? Does the director want one more take just to be safe? (Pro-tip: the director always wants one more take.) Be prepared to repeat things a lot. This can be demotivating to some dogs; they may shut down or they may begin second-guessing themselves and start throwing other behaviours at you. A confident, resilient and patient dog is best suited to these environments.
14. Plan ahead, but be ready to change
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Sometimes you’ll know what will be asked of you before a shoot; sometimes you won’t. If you do, practice! You’re being hired as a professional, and as such, you will be expected to deliver a product so make sure you can do so, and do so in new and chaotic environments. If things don’t go to plan (or if there wasn’t much of a plan to begin with), think on your feet and be ready to adapt to the changing constraints of the project.
Kristen Sobanski makes an important point when asked about what you need to learn and adapt on the fly. She notes that plans frequently change and, in turn, you will be expected to change your dog’s performance. To perform best, you need a strong foundation of generalized, trained behaviours. These dogs aren’t acting in the same way that human actors do (and directors might forget this fact). Animals pattern and chain through repetition and training.
“We see [plans change] all of the time on sets. We need to be confident in our dog’s training and skills to be able to get what the director envisions without making it look difficult.” - Kristen Sobanski
Having a very firm grasp on the basics will grant us the ability to adapt as needed.
15. You are a professional problem solver
As mentioned above, you are now a professional. You are on set not just to follow directions, but to act as a problem solver as needed. Figure out what the director ultimately wants, and then use your head to deliver it in the most reliable and expeditious way possible. It may require some thinking outside of the box. Put your thinking cap on and be an active participant in the project. Don’t be afraid to speak up and make suggestions – you are the animal expert on the set (or at the very least, you are the expert on your own animal).
oh hi there
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy states “a towel … is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have.” This is also true for dog trainers.
I don’t know about you, but my dog drools while working. (Yay Pavlov!) On set, you may have to periodically step in to tidy your dog up, wipe feet, tidy eyes, etc., with a quick wipe of a towel. My dog has been covered in inadvertent lipstick, mud and yoghurt on set, just to name a few things. Towels (and wipes and brushes) to the rescue!
I also use a towel as an impromptu bed or place marker when I need my dog to chill for brief periods of time. Handy!
The days can be long, so ensure your dog rests when she can. If you can find the space, set up a crate to give your dog a home base while on set. Assuming your dog is comfortable in a crate, put her away while not working to allow her to relax. Tired dogs can become ornery dogs, so it’s in your best interest to keep your dog well-rested.
In my experience, gather the amount of food you think you may need for a project and then double it. (Full disclosure, my dog works almost entirely for food – your mileage may vary.) It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, right?
I also feel strongly that a dog should not be hungry when asked to work. Hungry dogs may be enthusiastic dogs, but they may also be stressed dogs or dogs who will tire quickly. Also, I do not think that it is fair to withhold food since the dog wasn’t the one to sign up for this – it was you who did. Be considerate of your dog’s needs.
It’s easy to get caught up in a project and forget about water, potty breaks and just some time to unwind a be a dog. Provide all of these things liberally when you can. I ensure that water is available at all times, and I bring a special favourite toy so my dog can get her “yayas” out after working for a period of time. It helps to relieve any stress that may have built up and keep her fresh!
17. Look the part
You will want the photo in the possession of your agent/client to be an accurate representation of your dog’s current condition. You’re being hired for a certain look, so don’t change it! This means no dyeing of dogs or surprise haircuts. Try to keep scruffy dogs at a consistent level of scruff and plush dogs equally plush year round. Frequently, you’re hired for a job on a relatively short turnaround, so there is no time to regrow coat.
Most of the time you’re simply asked to have your dog groomed prior to getting to the set. (Though I have been asked not groom if the client is going for the scruffy/goofy look). I’ll bring a brush with me to tidy as needed and to use in a vain attempt to try to cut down on shedding. I recommend ensuring nails are trimmed, tear stains are absent, that your dog is neither underweight nor overweight, teeth are healthy, body is sound, etc. Basically, do your best to put your dog’s best foot forward.
18. Sometimes you have to say "No"
In a perfect world, your animal’s wellbeing should be top of everyone’s minds. However, sometimes this world is less than perfect. Your primary responsibility is the wellbeing of your dog. If you are being asked to do something that is unsafe or otherwise a risk to your dog, speak up and say no. If you know something is not likely to work, or you’re not comfortable with it, say something and say it early. No one wants to see an animal hurt, and no one wants to waste their time if something isn’t going to go as originally intended.
Be open and honest about what your dog can and can’t do.
“Your relationship with your dog is more important than any scene or job. Don't let the pressure of the situation affect how you treat the animal with whom you are working.” – Dana Gallagher
19. It’s not all sunshine and roses
It’s a lot of work. The days are long; you could be on location for hours and hours for what ultimately becomes a two-second clip (or less – your part could even be cut completely, or the project itself may never be released!). In certain projects you may find yourself working into the night. This can be very stressful on the dog and the handler.
This is a job, and there aren’t many jobs that are 100% awesome 100% of the time. There’s a lot of money that rides on these projects and the deadlines are often tight. The pressure can be high and you and your dog will still be required to deliver what you’re there to do.
Not every dog is cut out for this sort of work. See above re: your first responsibility is your dog. Be very honest with yourself about your motivations as well as your dog’s ability and desire to do the work.
|Cohen, the silent film star|
Learn how to read a contract, and read each one well. Get outside opinions on legal issues with which you may not be familiar. Contracts often come with non-disclosure and/or exclusivity agreements that may affect future work, so pay attention.
Don’t forget about claiming any income while filing your taxes. In general, expenses incurred in order to earn business income are tax deductible, so keep your expense receipts, too.
Keep copies of everything in your records and get absolutely everything you can in writing. I am in the habit of emailing immediately after telephone conversations to essentially parrot back the contents of the call so that I have a written record of the communication.
You’ll be asked to sign a release (sometimes at the end of a day of shooting – don’t leave without one if this is the case!). This can serve as proof of your work on a project. I take photographs of the written releases for my records just in case anything unexpected crops up in terms of payment or contract fulfillment. No one is out to rip you off, but mistakes do happen. The better you document your work, the less the chance of something happening that isn’t in your favour.
So there you have it. I hope you’ve found this informative and perhaps now have a better understanding of how you and your dog might fare in the industry. If there’s one thing that you take away from this article, I hope it is the motivation to work and have fun with your dog and the confidence to explore commercial work if you believe it to be suitable. For me, the best part of involvement in the industry is the motivation and structure to train new behaviours and refine old ones. It keeps us learning and growing together as a team.
I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone who allowed me to pick their brains and who offered their help in drafting and editing this article.
If you have something you’d like to add to it, please comment below. If you’d like to link to this article to share with friends, please do so. And finally, good luck and have fun with your dog!
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Follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/CohenTheAustralianShepherd or Instagram @cohen_the_australian_shepherd.
© Jessica Bell, 2016