Turn the knob, open the screen door… Wham!
A roiling ball of shelties hurtles against it and slams it shut. Yipyipyipyipyipyip! Jumpjumpjump. Yip. Yip. Jumpjumpjump. Yip!
“Scat, Jazz, Riff. Hey, guys. Quiet down.”
Yip. Yurp. Yup, yup… Urf….
Tickticktickticktick. The receding clatter of claws on hardwood.
“Scat was the number-one-ranked dog in the United States in obedience. He’s an Obedience Trial Champion and Conformation Champion and a Utility Dog Excellence, the first in the history of our breed to hold all those titles. So this one’s a very famous dog.” JoAnne Griffin is owner-trainer of the welter of shelties.
The very famous dog now holds a large red plastic shovel in his mouth. His almost-as-famous pals move in close, a semicircle of black noses aimed at Scat and shovel. A game threatens to break out. No one makes the first move. The moment is lost. The scrum disbands, looking for something to herd.
For 22 years, since she was in her teens, JoAnne has trained Shetland sheepdogs — bright-eyed, coiled springs of energy disguised in silky collie fur. Her first AKC (American Kennel Club) obedience title came in 1977. A dog-training stint for two regional productions of Annie and a minute of fame on David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks” were the seeds of Camera One Canine Actors, on 30th Street in North Park, which JoAnne launched officially in 1996. She’s now the agent for more than 200 San Diego dogs with Hollywood dreams. Their résumé of film, commercial, TV, stage, and print jobs includes some of the biggest national names.
“We’re on our own down here. We’re smaller than some of the operations in L.A. I certainly can’t drop everything and go off and do a film in Germany or South America for months, whereas they can because they have lots of trainers. But I didn’t want to run a big kennel of 85 dogs living in concrete runs. Our dogs are people’s pets. They have a rounded, fulfilled life. They go places with their owners, they live in the house, maybe even sleep on the bed.
“We did a Denny’s commercial, and we had six dogs on the set. Three of them were from an outfit in L.A., and my observation was, our dogs were happier. Not that they don’t love their dogs, and they rescue many dogs from shelters, but…” A house pet’s contentment shows on camera, JoAnne believes.
Tickticktickticktick. It’s Riff. A perfect, alert sit-stay in front of JoAnne, empty water bowl in mouth. “You’re trying to tell me something?”
THE DOG’S CUTE, BUT OWNER NEEDS WORK
“People call the agency… ‘Everyone stops me on the street and tells me how cute my dog is, how unusual she is.’
“ ‘Does your dog have any training?’
“ ‘Well, no, but she’s really, really, really cute, and everybody tells me she should be doing a feature film.’
“ ‘Can the dog sit and stay for ten minutes while people are around her?’
“ ‘Well, I really haven’t tried. She might do it in the backyard…’
“Well, that’s a completely different thing than on a set where the dog is off a leash, or the dog is on location where he might take off into the hills. So we have minimum requirements for the agency, a ten-minute sit-stay with distractions, a ten-minute down-stay, off-leash control with distractions, off-leash recall — Will the dog come instantly? Will the dog stay with the owner off-leash?
“We try to prescreen them on the phone. But we get them here into the studio for auditions, where there really aren’t very many distractions, I take them off leash, and suddenly the dogs are running around, ignoring the owner, peeing on the bookshelves… So you tell them, ‘Well, you really need to get some training at an obedience school.’
“The owners want their dogs in the business, but some of them aren’t willing to do the work. Or they don’t realize the work involved. I’ve had dogs that I’ve auditioned that are right on the borderline, a three-minute sit-stay, say, and I tell them to work some more on it. Then I get them a job and bring them in because I haven’t seen them in months, and the dog can’t even stay for three minutes anymore. ‘Well, we haven’t really worked on it.’ So there’s a lack of motivation sometimes.”
THE DOG’S FINE, BUT THE DIRECTOR NEEDS WORK
“In general, directors want a dog that’s well socialized, comfortable in any situation,” says JoAnne. “Not afraid of crowds and noise and activity and things moving around. Like the crew, when they’re moving part of the set. And you obviously want a dog that’s intelligent, cooperative, that picks things up quickly, because sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to teach a new behavior.
“We try our best before we get them on the set to get information from the director, but it’s sort of like the game Telephone. The director tells the first assistant director what he or she wants, the first A.D. tells someone else, and on and on and on. By the time it gets to you, what the director wants and what you’re told the director wants are two different things.
“Or they’ll say, ‘Well, the dog is just in the scene. He really doesn’t do anything.’ They neglect to tell you that what they really want is a sit-stay while there’s a fight going on behind them, with people throwing things. Now that’s completely different. It isn’t just a dog sitting there. You have to prepare the dog for that sort of thing.
“Oftentimes when you get on the set the director gets a little creative and wants to change things, and it’s your job as a trainer to adapt as best you can and try to please them, because time on the set, with all the crew and equipment, is very expensive. But sometimes you have to say, ‘He’s an animal, and we haven’t prepped for this. He’s not a human; he has to be trained.’