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.’
“Breeds that have a willingness to please are going to be easier to work with. Hound breeds are more difficult because they’re very independent. Bulldogs can be too. They will work for just so long and then say, ‘Uh-uh, no more.’ Some of the toy breeds…Yorkies. Although we have a wonderful Yorkie. Golden retrievers have good natural tendencies — outgoing, like people, pretty much take things in stride. But eventually production companies get sick of golden retrievers. Jack Russells [Frasier’s “Eddie”], they’re still popular, but I have had some situations recently where clients have said, ‘No, no, they’ve been used too much.’ So they go in waves. There are fads. Now, of course, it’s Chihuahuas.
PROPS! A JOCK ON THE GREAT DANE, PLEASE
“A lot of times they request a female dog if it’s a short-haired breed, so you don’t have all those…uh…things hanging out. But other times, they might want a German shepherd doing guard-dog duty around a prison, so they want a male dog.
SAPPHO, THE STARLET
Rowr-rowr-rowr! Woofwoofwoofwoofwoof! Great scrambling noises behind the door.
Door opens. Four-year-old fawn boxer named Sappho, huffing and wiggling, straining at her collar, which is tightly gripped by Kithie Gateley, her smiling, enthusiastic owner. “Hey, Sappho — Saphie! Hi! C’mon in!”
Once released, the dog becomes a shameless, wanton ball of wriggling, hopping, panting, licking, woofing welcoming committee. Having only a stub of a tail, she compensates by wagging every other part of her body, a typical representative of her breed.
“Daffy Saphie” (as only her very best friends call her) is a Hollywood hopeful. She has a professional portfolio of 8-by-10 glossies to prove it: a close-up mug shot; a standing, full-body profile; and a “trick” shot — paws, chest, and chin on floor, backside in the air.
Says Kithie, “I hadn’t really thought about it until I just happened to be walking by Camera One, and there was a flyer for a trick-training class. My mother has been in obedience work with Belgian sheepdogs, and she’d been urging me to get the dog in obedience class.” Sappho still prances, hops, wondering where the spotlight has gone.
“But the trick-training appealed to me, so we signed up.” Saphie had honed her sit-stay and off-leash skills through the San Diego Obedience Club.
“Saph?” Dog tilts head, waits for cue. Kithie forms sock puppet with her hand; thumb and fingers open and close. “Grrarf!” says Sappho. “Good speak! Good girl!” Saph swallows another treat, reinforced with the sound of a clicker. “We work a lot with hand signals. If they’re recording sound on the set, you can’t have some voice from off camera giving dog commands.
“Hurt-paw, Saph. Can you do a hurt-paw? No, Saph. That’s a — stay, stay! Hurt-paw, Saph….” Refocused, Sappho lowers her head, lifts one paw limply, her sad boxer eyeballs looking up at her owner. Heartbreakingly cute. “Good girl!” Click.
On command, Sappho backs across the room with a playful kind of hopping gait; shakes her head, dewlaps whapping wildly; follows an object with only her eyes; shuts the front door; goes to a mark, waits, then whaps a bell with her paw; lowers her head, covers her nose with her paw, as if she’s ashamed. “Good Saph! Good girl!” Click.
“There’s a whole list of tricks we learn. She has so many by now. When she was learning, you could work on something until you get frustrated and wonder if she’ll ever learn, and then all of a sudden she does it. But she probably learned all the basics in three or four sessions.
“What we’re doing now is the skateboard.” Sappho bounds to the door when the board’s brought out. On the sidewalk, she briefly considers running at the neighbors’ dogs that are yelping and crashing against their chain-link fence. Instead, she flops her front feet on the end of the board, sending it flipping in the air. “Okay, try it again, Saph.” This time she gets it right and propels herself down the street with her back legs. Kithie trots alongside. “Good Saph! Good girl!” Click.
Back inside, Kithie pulls out a colorful toy piano, with levers in place of keys. “Sit, Saph.” The dog’s riveted and immediately begins banging a paw on the levers, sometimes two or three keys at a time. “We’re supposed to begin working on our own tricks. She loves to use her front feet, that’s a boxer characteristic, so I thought this would be a fun thing to do. I think there’s potential here, but we need one with wider keys.” Sappho still bangs away contentedly.
“She’s done real well. She has an eagerness to do what I want her to do. And I love that boxer energy, that joy of life. The only thing about her personality that makes it difficult is, she’s so interested in life that when we’re trying to focus on tricks there are times that — ‘No, I want to see what’s going on over there!’ So when we get to Hollywood, this may be a problem.”
SMART DOG TRICKS
Eight of JoAnne’s trick-rich clients gather for their weekly class. A springer spaniel, Australian sheepdog, dalmatian, Great Dane, three golden retrievers, and Sappho.
Pre-class chatter: “All the hours we spent there, and you see Pepper for maybe two seconds in the background.”
“Hey, guys, I need glossies. I can’t get your dogs jobs if I don’t have pictures on file.”
“Oh, yeah, we auditioned for that, but I guess they picked another dog.”
“He used to be freaked by everything. But now he’s so fixated on the treats, he’ll do anything — ring the bell, stick his head in the garbage can…anything.”
The Dal is learning the head shake. His handler gives the command, the handler’s father, sprawled next to the dog, blows in the Dal’s ear, the dog shakes his head, then gobbles his treat. Click, click click. “Good girl!”
The silent signal for “scratch” makes the owners look like they’re auditioning for a role as a rib-scratching gorilla. If the dog won’t scratch, apply cellophane tape lightly to his side.
The retrievers, of course, are stars at holding things in their mouths. Sappho and the Dal look miserable the whole time. They finally replace the big rubber bone in the Dal’s mouth with the handle of an Easter basket. At any trick involving waiting for a cue, the Dane is a standout. It never shows any expression. It’s simply big and extremely self-possessed.
On a head-down stay, the retrievers look cute, the shepherd looks sly, the Dal looks cool and aloof; with all her wrinkles and jowls, Sappho looks adorably gloomy.
JoAnne tries a coordinated eight-dog rollover. “They have to be able to do it immediately on command. Like when the director says ‘Action!’ ” Sappho and the Dal flip on cue. The others follow at their leisure. “It’s important to get these on cue,” JoAnne emphasizes.
THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE DOG BUSINESS
“To use a dog on location the production company has to give the American Humane Association a copy of the script and the animal action,” says JoAnne. “Then the AHA sends out a representative to the set to oversee all the action, document each scene, and make sure the dog has food and water and shade, make sure they’re working under proper conditions, that they’re not working on hot pavement or something. Of course, we would step in, too, in that kind of situation, but it’s nice to have an ally there, because it’s the law. The AHA has the power to stop production then and there.
“Trainers are licensed. You need exercise plans and parasite control and feeding and inoculation. I have to have a license to provide dogs to L.A. They’ll have an inspector come and make sure you have this license.”
THE MAKING OF MICHAEL LANDON: THE FATHER I KNEW
“They called us only two or three weeks ahead for two dogs,” says JoAnne. “They sent me a copy of the script and the behaviors to see what they were looking for. It wasn’t really, really clear, so I spoke with the director. One of the things they were looking for was a Yorkie to chase a kite. We have a Yorkie who loves to play tug-of-war, so I said I’d have to get back to them, because I wasn’t sure if the Yorkie would be afraid of kites. You have to check these things out. So I had the owner get a kite and work with the dog and get back to me as soon as possible. So she called back and said, ‘Oh, yeah, he thinks it’s great.’
“The other dog, first they wanted a silver poodle, but the silver poodle was unavailable. So I submitted other poodles I have, and they picked an apricot miniature. Then they sent us a call sheet telling us where to be and when we had to be there.
“The first day of shooting I was on the set. The poodle was on a sit-stay under a dining room table, and they were feeding him food. I guess they neglected to tell us that part of the scene was where the character of Michael Landon came over by the dog, picked up the child who was sitting in the chair next to the dog, and flipped him over. When you think about it, that required a very solid sit-stay. Lots of dogs would have been scared and out of there. But luckily the dog just stayed there.
“The next day — here’s where we get the director changing things before a shot. It was supposed to be the poodle in a sit- or down-stay on the grass in front of a house while movers were going in and out with furniture. Then they added a go-with on a hand signal, where the dog had to go with the children, I believe, then the father met up with them, and the dog had to go with all of them. And this was all in one continuous shot. I wasn’t there; thank God the trainer was able to handle it. I’d just talked to them days before — ‘Oh, yes, it’s just a stay, on the grass.’
“For the Yorkie’s scene, we were on the set for maybe four hours, even though the shot only took about 20 minutes. Most of the time, you’re just sitting around. We always tell people to bring a very comfortable chair and a book.
“It was just incidental background action. The dog was just supposed to run down the beach one way and stay at the other end. They didn’t tell us it was a 150- or 200-foot run, so the dog’s away from the trainer, running toward strangers, holding a piece of roast beef. So dadun-dadun-dadun-dadun, he’s running one way down the beach like the script calls for, then suddenly dadun-dadun-dadun-dadun, he comes back the other way, right through the shot. It was pretty funny. It was like she decided, ‘The roast beef is nice, but I’m going back to Mommy.’ ”
There’s no union scale for dogs, says JoAnne. “Some simple print jobs that may take an hour or so, you might get $50. If we’re paid to prep the dog, they get a fee for that. It depends on how much the dog works and how much prep time is required. Say $50 to $200 for a day’s work. So if you’re working multiple days and you’re getting that, you might be making more money than you would at your regular job. But you can’t retire or put your kids through college on your golden retriever. Unless you own the Taco Bell dog, of course. See, they want that specific dog now. They have to have that dog. So then you have a bargaining point.”
CAN THE TACO BELL DOG DO THIS?
As the class rounds up leashes, dishes, and dogs, JoAnne tells everyone she’d like to start working on getting the dogs to open a refrigerator door and remove a can or dish. The Dane has already mastered that; the problem now is keeping her from immediately eating what she takes out. One retriever owner isn’t sure she wants her dog knowing how to get into her refrigerator.
“And we’ll be having a crew from Animal Planet filming the class. And next week, it’s back flips!”
All eyes turn to the Great Dane….
A STAR IS BORN
In the current Fruit of the Loom catalog, two studly guys in plaid boxers are shown on a lawn, trying to bathe a dog. One, limbs akimbo, mouth agape, appears to have taken a seat-first fall into an empty metal tub. The second crouches nearby, laughing at the merry mixup, as a brown boxer leaps free of their grasp. The dog is Sappho in her professional debut. The shoot went smoothly. Sappho was a pro.