Pet Acting Gigs Not For All Animals
Bella Starlett Dog has taken her talent and good looks to the mainstream, enjoying a steady career in modeling and acting. (Photo Courtesy of Beth Joy Knutsen)
NEW YORK -- With that wagging tail and soulful eyes, not to mention those scruffy, floppy ears, your pet's face could not possibly be one only a mother could love.
Or could it?
"A lot of people think that their dog is the cutest one on the block, with such a great personality. It's similar to a stage mother thinking that their kid is precocious and king of the world," said Jone Bouman, head of communications for the American Humane's film and television unit.
Even if your pet's dashing good looks derive "oohs" and "aahs" from strangers on the street, it does not mean that he or she is ready to debut as the next Lassie.
Pet modeling and acting is serious business, talent agencies say, requiring a major commitment from owners and pets alike.
Many of Hollywood's largest pet agencies, such as Boone's Animals for Hollywood, rescue their animals from shelters, then house and train them on private ranches.
Boone's Animals owns and markets around 100 animals, which go through extensive training before they can even consider making it to the big screen.
"We rehab former runaways, work with dogs who just wouldn't sit still, and work with cats that are in your face but still don't care," a Boone's representative wrote in an e-mail to Pet Pulse. "We have wonderful animals and enjoy all their personalities."
A typical day on set for Boone's animals can range from two to 14 hours, including time for potty breaks and relaxation.
The sometimes grueling schedule calls for concentration, patience and, most importantly, obedience.
Modeling gigs in print advertisements require animals to know basic commands, like sit, stay and down. But when placed before a moving camera, on a pricey set, expectations rise to a higher level.
"You are working with a lot of lights and noise and distractions," said Kathleen Holland, vice president of A1 Animal Talent, a Tuscon, Ariz., based agency.
"And the animal has to be able to work off-leash, to be directed from 10-to-20 feet away."
Dogs at A1 are trained to perform various, quirky tricks, like crawling, dancing, bouncing a basketball, picking up their toys and placing them in a box.
Los Angeles based Hollywood Paws Inc., recently received a request for a dog who can bark "I love you," said managing member Lena Lionetti.
That high level of obedience and precise skill cannot -- and should not -- be taught by an average, inexperienced owner, Bouman said.
"Our [the American Humane's] position is that any random Joe deciding it might be a good idea to use their pet in any sort of TV show or movie is simply not a good idea," she said.
"The experience can be highly stressful and traumatizing," Bouman continued. "As much as Fido might have a sparkling personality at home, if you place him on a busy, bright, noisy and crazy film or photo set, where he is being asked to do the same action over and over again, it's scary. It's an alien world."
The American Humane monitors animal actors on set and has the authority to determine that no animals were harmed in the making of a film. It generally sees actors dispatched from large agencies like Boone's Animals, Bouman said.
Trying to break into the industry with just an irresistible snapshot of a cat or dog can be a trying, consuming task. Bouman says that the American Humane has also received occasional reports of pet owners "swindled" by agencies.
"People pay a few hundred dollars to agencies to get the pet started and then nothing ever materializes," Bouman said.
There remains hope for determined pet owners and their photogenic animals, however. Manhattan resident Beth Joy Knutsen, for example, represents herself and her six animals -- three dogs and three cats -- in various entertainment ventures.
Perhaps the star of the family is Bella Starlett Dog, a "muttfabulous" actress whose age Knutsen declined to disclose. After Knutsen rescued Bella Startlett as a puppy, she noticed the dog doing this "funny wave thing," she said.
"I said to her, we gotta find you agents, we need to get you business. She was hysterical, so funny," Knutsen said of her realization that Bella could actually become a star.
Over the course of the past 10 years, Bella and her five other actor siblings have appeared in various advertisements for HBO and Bravo, as well as films like Stuart Little 2.
Knutsen took it upon herself to train the animals, teaching Bella how to bow, for example, and instructing another of her dogs, Oscar Madison, how to dance on his hind legs.
Bella is also bi-lingual, able to respond to her cues in French.
"It takes time," Knutsen said of the training process. "They respect me and I respect them and we base our training off of that."
Knutsen's pets' gigs contribute financially to the family's downtown lifestyle, but at the same time, Knuttsen said, "they are my whole life."
Companies like Hollywood Paws Inc., and A1 Animal Talent provide owners and pets with a less extreme route into the animal entertainment industry. Acting like regular human modeling agencies, the companies take pets on as clients, but don't own or house any of the animal actors.
It provides the best of both worlds to owner and pet alike, Lionetti says.
"We pride ourselves on having our clients go home to a bed and a loving family each night," she said. "When companies buy or adopt dogs for acting purposes, they live on ranches with other animals and trainers. I'm sure they are treated great, but they are not a pet, anymore."
Hollywood Paws Inc., instructs owners how to train their pets, making the work a collaborative effort.
Hollywood Paws Inc., and A1 Animal Talent both declined to address the going rate for an animal actor, saying it can range greatly. Going into it for the money, however, may never pay off financially, they say.
Of A1 Animal Talent's nearly 300 animal clients, most receive one or two jobs a year, Holland said, meaning owners should consider acting or modeling as a low-key, fun hobby.
"With our clients, the dogs love it, the people love it, and the owners get great bragging rights," Holland said.
Like people, not all animals are fit for stardom. Their eligibility isn't automatically determined by appearances, since advertisers and films are constantly seeking something different and new.
"Right now we are getting job calls for Jack Russell terriers, and a few months ago, it was for Chihuahuas," Lionetti said. "It goes in and out of phases. Sometimes the ugliest dogs get the most jobs."
An ugly disposition, however, is not as appealing to companies seeking an animal actor. All animals placed in such a public position should have a calm, easy-going temperament, agencies say.
"Animal talent companies will spend an inordinate amount of time finding the types of animals they know will do well with these kinds of situations," Bauman said. "Some pets can go to a set and find it stimulating, other dogs with different personalities can shake and hide. You have to know the personality of the animal in order to make it work."
Certain behavioral traits can be "worked through," Lionetti says, but the basic foundation of a calm disposition is key to an animal actor's success.
Individual pet owners who lack formal animal behavior training might not recognize the signs of distress an animal exhibits on set, the American Humane warns.
Just to be safe, dogs and cats, no matter their beauty or skill, may be best suited to performing in the living room, where they can strut their stuff without worrying about the glare of a flashing camera.
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