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.

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