Hollywood Gives Stray Dogs New Leash on Life

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
January 14, 2003
Lucky the dog wasn't always so lucky.

Before starring on the silver screen opposite Eddie Murphy in the film Dr. Dolittle, the 6-year-old mutt was an unwanted stray living at a Los Angeles pound. That changed, though, when an animal trainer for the movie industry adopted him.

Lucky isn't the only canine to catch a break.

About 80 percent of the dogs that appear in motion pictures were rescued from shelters by Hollywood trainers, according to the American Humane Association, which sends representatives to film and television sets to make sure animals are not harmed during production.

Some of the dogs that have gone from strays to stars have appeared as the silver screen characters Fang, the Neapolitan mastiff, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; Max, in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and J.J., a yellow lab, in The Mexican. On the small screen, there's Nipper, the RCA commercial mascot, and Eddie, a Jack Russell terrier that makes a star turn on the sitcom Frasier.

Training for the Silver Screen

Birds and Animals Unlimited in Irvine, California, has provided trainers and talent to the entertainment industry for more than 30 years. About 50 percent of its canine actors are discovered in pounds, and trainers routinely search shelters for doubles of animals. "Shelter dogs have got a lot of character; unusually outgoing personalities," explained Lorraine Putnam, operations manager at Birds and Animals. "We love the ones that are at the end of their cages, jumping and barking."

Once adopted, the dogs live with their trainers. "They get lots of positive reinforcement, playtime, and immensely enjoy what they do," she said. "In fact, because they go to work with their trainers everyday, they probably get more 'me' time than your average pet."

In some cases more than one dog is adopted and trained to portray the same character. Max, who served as Jim Carrey's sidekick in the movie Dr. Seuss, for example, was played by six different dogs. All were discovered at pounds and had their hair dyed and trimmed to resemble one another.

Before filming began, animal trainer Roger Schumacher spent over three months practicing with the dogs to perfect their stunts and acclimate them to the set. Each animal was trained to perform actions it was comfortable doing. Zelda, for example, was taught to scoot in a sitting position. In the film, she can be seen in the part where Max is forced to smooch the materialistic mayor of Whoville, and then scoots off in disgust.

When the film finished shooting, four of the Max dogs were adopted by the cast and crew, while Schumacher kept the two lead dogs for other acting jobs.

Nationwide Search

One of the best-known strays to become a star is Benji, who was found by legendary Hollywood trainer Frank Inn at a Burbank, California, animal shelter. The floppy eared mutt's first movie in 1975 sparked a huge interest in shelter dogs. As a result, the American Humane Association estimates more than one million homeless animals have since been adopted from pounds.

In 2001, when Benji creator Joe Camp wanted to find a new canine star, he launched a nationwide shelter search in hopes that it would once again draw attention to the smart, loving animals that can be adopted at shelters.

The three-month search began in Chicago and proceeded to several cities including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. Animal organizations and pet adoption Web sites helped Camp on his quest. Hundreds of Benji look-a-like photographs poured in.

After seeing a picture of a pup named Jodie at the South Mississippi Humane Society in Gulfport, Camp flew there to meet her. But when he arrived at Petsmart, where the humane society regularly displays its animals for adoption, there was a surprise waiting for him. Besides Jodie, there was another mutt, who had been found wandering the streets. One look at the stray and Camp fell in love.

The dog was adopted and flown back to his home in southern California where there were two other candidates—one from Chicago's Animal Care and Control Shelter and one from the Carson Shelter near Los Angeles. The three spent a week with Camp and his family, then a week with trainer Anne Gordon.

A selection was made and the Mississippi mutt got the job.

"This is one amazing dog," Camp said of Benji Number 4. "Those eyes simply melt everyone she comes in contact with, and she is absolutely the brightest of some very bright predecessors."

The female terrier mix will begin training this month for a staring role in the movie Benji Returns: From Rags to Riches.

"It will be her story in effect," Camp said in a telephone interview from his Valley Center, California, home, while the new Benji quietly rested on the floor near him. The film will depict her struggles on the street, the situations she gets into, and her ultimate selection as the next Benji canine film star.

The other dogs that vied for the lead role but lost were given different jobs. The Los Angeles candidate is Benji's understudy and the Chicago candidate will play her goofy, unwanted sidekick. About 25 shelter dogs of all shapes and sizes will also appear in the film, which will be released next summer.

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