Some of South Africa’s most memorable and endearing adverts have been ones featuring animal actors. Think of the Buddy the Boxer with his sassy wit on the Toyota ads or Dulux paint and its iconic Old English Sheepdog.
Life on the set
When Charlie, a Jack Russell/Beagle cross (known as a Jack-A-Bee), won M-Net Family’s first Ambassadoggy in May 2015, his owner Roxanne Bennett, decided to sign him up with a chasing agency. Charlie’s acting career soon took off and today, he’s living the doggy-celeb high life. Charlie recently completed a French advert for the Peugeot 208 and another for the Nintendo Pokémon game. His brilliant temperament and intelligence are key to his acting success.
“Charlie started training right from puppy school,” says Roxanne. “We both loved it and it seemed natural just to continue to obedience training. He loves to work and has an abundance of energy.”
Charlie is trained to work both for treats and toy rewards and is very well socialised. He adapts quickly to noise and energy on a busy set. Animal actors need to be able to cope in different environments and be comfortable working with people of all ages. Mom Roxanne always accompanies Charlie to his shoots, together with Charlie’s animal wrangler, either Ansie Minnaar of Hotdogs Animal Actors or Nicole Jennings of Animal Tails.
In terms of the law, an animal inspector must also be present on set. He or she ensures that all animals are comfortable and not subjected to cruelty during the shoot. The animal wrangler must ensure that the animal was properly trained for the role and has access to shelter and water. The animal may not work for more hours in front of a camera than he can cope with.
Right for the job
Ansie Minnaar, an animal behaviourist trained in both the advertising and film industries, says that temperament is perhaps the biggest factor for animal actors, followed by level of training. “No matter how well the pet is trained, if fear factors in, you are unlikely to get the best out of your hero pet,” explains Ansie.
Ansie explains that a production company may ask for a dog to sit-stay – but what isn’t mentioned is that the animal actor would need to do this while a large motorcycle speeds past or a building catches on fire close by… habituation to other animals, pets, various modes of transport, loud sounds and different environments is essential.
“The ideal dog would be ‘bomb-proof’,” says Ansie. “He also needs a heart of gold and should want to please anyone at any time. Food and toy motivation is a big bonus.”
Canine acting 101
It’s not just dogs who are trained for film, stage and TV work. Cats, birds, farm animals, reptiles and even wild animals are used across all mediums. In this article we will look at signing up your dog with a casting agency.
Acting isn’t for all dogs and if your dog isn’t enjoying himself, he is unlikely to deliver a stellar performance. Does your dog have the right temperament to cope with the demands of a ‘job’ and various environments and situations on the set? “When picking out which dogs to present as options to clients, I think temperament ranks first, then skills or training. I can train for anything extra but I cannot change the temperament or work against it,” says Ansie.
The more training your dog has, the more work he would be able to take on. “In some film work, the dog is simply a family dog and needs to interact with children, so for example, the setting is a happy garden and a child will throw ball which the dog brings back,” explains Ansie. “In other film work a myriad of talent is required.”
- Acting classes
If your dog has a basic level of obedience training or competes in dog sports, you can sign up for acting classes. Depending on the training facility, classes cover various aspects of work on the set (etiquette and focus while working with distractions), finding a ‘mark’, basic behaviour and a selection of tricks. Training must be through positive reinforcement. Classes may be offered in groups or individually.
- Casting agency
Once your dog is ready to work, you can sign up with an animal casting agency. You’ll need to send in a picture and/or video of your pet. The agency should request a consultation and assessment. Ask for possible references and links to view work they have previously done. Professional portraits and video, which are used to present your pet to potential clients, may also be part of package costs to get your pet registered, or you may need to pay for these as an additional cost.