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Is Your Pet a Budding Star?

By: Alex Lieber

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Have you ever looked at your pet and thought, "You oughta be in pictures"? After all, pets display so much character at home; you may already have miles of antics and tricks on videotape, enough to stretch from your home to Hollywood.

But how do you persuade a casting director that your pet is just perfect for the part? The first step is to realize that many animal stars have been trained for a specific movie. As a matter of fact, a number of animals are often trained to perform specific acts attributed to the "star."

Movie directors usually prefer to work with animal trainers they know, and trainers often prefer to own the animals they train. (Should the animal make it "Lassie" big, both pet and owner reap the financial windfall.)

Take heart: It's not impossible for your pet to make it in Hollywood. And if your pet isn't a hit in Tinsel Town, there are many roles in commercials, television programs and independent films where he or she can shine. One of the keys to making it as an animal actor is to be registered with a reputable talent agency, just as it is for their human counterparts.

Casting calls occur all over the country. The Internet is one good way to find a talent agency, or you can contact your state's film board. In searching for a talent agency, be warned: True modeling agencies do not charge a fee to list your animals with them. Moreover, owners must have flexible hours because shoots are often held during the week and "the call to stardom" may come without warning.

Registering with a talent agency takes more than just an email. A good talent agency wants to see a picture or videotape and then meet your pet. And your pet should have some training before he or she goes on a casting call. Obeying sit/stay commands is especially important in dogs. Once the pet is screened for temperament and training, the real work begins.

Attitude is All-Important

There's no future in working with uncooperative talent, explains Gloria Winship Ayon, head animal coordinator and owner of Georgia-based Animal Actors/Sweet Sunshine Talent Agency. "Temperament is the most important thing," says Ayon. "A dog, for instance, has to get along with everybody on the set, not just the actors."

Gloria has been training animals of all types for movies, commercials and television programs for more than 25 years. Her long list of film credentials include Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Jungle Book, Dr. Doolittle, The Patriot, as well as "Wild America" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "David Letterman."

Bashim Dibra, owner of StarPet, an animal talent agency based in New York City, agreed. "We look for a charismatic personality," he said. "A dog eager to please or a cat willing to perform." (Dibra, an author and animal trainer, has trained animals pets for actors Mariah Carey, Matthew Broderick and Kim Basinger.)

He says owners sometimes mistake their pet's antics as a lust for the limelight. "Your dog or cat may want to be the star for your house only," he said. If your pet has the potential and the ambition, he'll need to be prepared for the hard work that is the price of fame.

Getting Ready

Prepping animals for a shoot means getting them used to the noise, the lights and the need to re-shoot scenes again and again. Some scenes may require weeks or even months of preparation, and often special equipment is used. For instance, a scene in the movie Men in Black shows Tommy Lee Jones violently shaking a pug.

In reality, two identical pugs were used, and both had been trained for two months to teach them that the shaking was just a game. According to the American Humane Society (AHS), which supervised the action, both pugs wore a special harness under their sweaters to protect them. The AHS monitors the treatment of animal actors both on and off the set to ensure their safety, especially if a scene could be stressful to the animal.

When the day of the shoot arrives, you may be asked to stay out of the area, so your presence isn't distracting to your pet, says Ayon. "Unless they're a professional trainer, the owner is not allowed on the set," she said.

In addition, she said owners shouldn't be surprised to see several animals trained for the same part. It often takes too much time to train an animal for all parts he has to do. In a typical Lassie movie, for instance, one dog that is prone to be affectionate, will stand in for some scenes while another that is more animated will be used for the action scenes. (Rin Tin Tin was a notable exception to this rule – he performed many of his own stunts.)

So while your pet may not rise to the legendary status of a canine Gary Cooper, both of you can still shoot for the stars.

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