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Does Your Dog Have Star Quality?

So you wanna go into show business

Eight years ago Kay Westgate thought she would try and get information on how to get her dogs into the world of advertising, film and television, so she rang the BBC and asked where they got their animals for television work. The joker on the other end of the line said he thought dogs had to become members of Equity, the actors union! But Kay wasn't falling for that...

I managed to obtain the names of some agents who used animals for this purpose. I telephoned a couple and was told to submit details and photos. At that time I only had Toby, my Cairn Terrier and Sam my clever little crossbreed. I sent in the information and frankly thought that it would be the last I would hear! To my surprise four months later I got a call. A little dog was needed for a Mothercare commercial.

I was so excited! Sam had been selected and all he had to do was sit on a sofa with an actress. I was especially pleased because several of the agents had told me dark coloured dogs rarely got work. I am pleased to say that Sam has been the exception!

How a star is born
When you first start they always send an experienced handler along with you to supervise and liaise with the director. As I was shaking in my shoes, I was really pleased of her company!

The commercial also included twenty mothers and their toddlers! The kiddies were okay. but the mums all wanted THEIR child to be the one used most and so all out warfare ensued. Fortunately Sam did his bit - not hard really - and we left. The poor director really had a tough time of it!

I eagerly waited for the commercial to come on the television.

Finally it did. The scene on the sofa had been reversed so that the actor and Sam were upside down, and it lasted for all of three seconds! Blink and you missed it! It happened so fast I even missed trying to get it on video. Ah well!

TobyA few months elapsed I got another call to go for an audition for a television film starring Rik Mayall and Amanda Donohue. I went with the experienced handler, and when we got there the room was full of aspiring doggie actors. I found it hard to take everything so seriously but nevertheless when it was our turn I was a little nervous.

Inside the room was the producer, the director and a couple of other production assistants. I was asked what experience had Sam had and what had he done to date! I said truthfully, not much but they liked the look of him very much. He had to speak on command, jump up, sit, stay and run across the room. I was told that they would let me know, but he was in with a chance because he looked a very street wise pooch. I decided not to be too unhappy if we did not get the part, but they rang me the next day and said he had got the job.

Over the next years Sam worked on many productions and his biggest role to date has been Shakespeare in Love where he had to misbehave in front of Queen Elizabeth played by Judy Dench.

Toby, my Cairn Terrier, has also had his share of work, mainly on fashion shoots as he is a handsome little fellow

The Wizard of Oz
I knew that Jack Russells seemed to be used the most and so when getting another agility dog, I decided a Jack would do for both agility and filming. Of course, temperament is important so I did not know for sure if he would be suitable. Again I have been lucky, and he has turned out to be a clever little chap!

As mini agility folk who see me run Oz will know he is very excitable! How come then he can be used in filming so successfully? I think it is because he lives to work and will go on and on. He will do anything for food, and so I have based my training around this premise - clicker based of course! When I arrive on the set Oz is usually he usual hyped up self! I see the faces of the crew and always know they think they are in for a load of trouble! Once he starts to work their attitude changes, and they remark on how good he is. He has now done lots of different assignments, and his specialty is tail chasing and holding onto a trouser leg. Funny that! I think this is the perception of many about the type of things Jacks do!

Ozzie has done a stills advertisement for British Gas which has been in lots of publications. He was required to be able to use a treadmill. As he had never done anything like it before I was given a couple of hours prior to the shoot to practice. Fortunately for me he took to it okay. The idea of the advertisement is that the British Gas home is so nice that the owner walks himself and his dog inside the house on a treadmill rather than go out! The actor was very nice and although he had to use the treadmill in carpet slippers both he and Ozzie did a good job as the picture will show!

Lucky me
I know I have been very lucky to have had three loveable little chaps and been offered so much work. It has been lots of fun although things do not always go strictly to plan, just like agility really! When I see dogs in films and television I view them in an entirely different light and know how much hard work can go into obtaining the shot the director wants!

Trying to break into film?
I would offer this insight for what it is worth. Many dogs are clever in the comfort of your own home or out in the park, but how would they behave in a totally alien environment. Film sets can be organised chaos, lots of noise, equipment all over the place, lots of strange people. Into this scenario you are expected to get your dog to perform what is required. Sometimes you get to rehearse, other times you do not. Most of the time they want your dog to look directly into the camera. There is lots of hanging about, sometimes all day. Occasionally they do not even get around to using you at all! I know agility folk are used to getting up early for shows but you can be called on set from 7.00am, wherever the shoot happens to be.

If this has not put you off then go for it! Hear are a few suggestions which you will find useful.

  1. A reliable sit and down stay are a must especially with lots of distractions and noise.

  2. Get them used to ‘flash’ photography

  3. Teach your dog to do a ‘watch me’ and build up the distance between you and your pooch. Use something in your hand like food or a toy. This is essential for getting looks into the camera!

  4. Train your dog to walk slowly to you, trot to you and then run to you. Get them to stop midway to a mark, if you can.

  5. Build up an extensive repertoire of tricks, as many as possible.

  6. Get them used to children and going with strange people for short walks, so that they will go happily with actors on set.

  7. A speak on command is often required. When they are running sound, it needs to be by hand signal. Hand signals for most things are very useful although in most cases they often allow you to use vocal commands to your animal.

  8. Become an avid reader so that you can pass the time away on set without becoming bored out of your mind.

  9. Sign up with reputable agents. All the ones I use allow owners to go along with their dogs, and I personally think this to be a good idea and makes for a happier animal.

These are just a few of the basics required but if you train your dog to be able to do them then you increase your chances of getting picked.

It is a very cut throat business. Sometimes you can be lucky and you and your dog with get picked for work. Many will not! The more experience you get the more likely you are to be used again. This can be a catch 22 situation. That first job is all important.

If you make it however, you can have a lot of fun, meet some very famous people, get paid (not a fortune I must add) and have the pleasure of seeing your dog performing on the silver screen, on the box or appearing in a national newspaper or magazine. If you would like to know more about my experiences then visit my site www.k9clickers.com and do get in touch for further information if you are thinking of trying it yourself!

About the author...
Kay Westgate retired from her career in local government as a Personnel Officer in 1989.

She has competed in agility for about thirteen years. Sam her little crossbreed took her to Crufts four times and one year they competed in all four events. Sam won Hills Mini Agility Dog of the Year in 1996. He is now retired. Oz her Jack Russell lives for agility, but Kay feels she is too old and too slow to do him justice in the ring these days but as he is such a fun dog to work will carry on for as long as she is able.

Kay has branched out into Clicker Training and is now an experienced instructor holding local classes and one to one sessions. She writes a successful web site in conjunction with her friend of many years Rosemary Elliott, covering as many doggie-related matters as they can find!