Starstruck: Does your dog have what it takes to be famous?

By Sandy Robins

It’s Friday night and you and your dog are curled up on the couch, checking out your favourite TV show, the one with the hilarious pooch who’s always up to something. Suddenly, in a lightbulb moment, you cast new eyes upon your adorable companion and cry, “Hey, Woofer, you could do that!” Visions of six-figure movie-star salaries and private limos dance in your head. And the catering table….

Doggie models and movie stars play a huge role in our popular culture. Channel surf for a few minutes and it won’t take long before you spot a dog in a sitcom or an advertisement featuring an exuberant canine tracking mud over the clean kitchen tiles. Page through magazines as erudite as Fortune or as fashion-conscious as Vogue and glossy ads such as the one with Ellen Degeneres playing cards with a Border Collie for American Express will grab your attention. Check the schedule of summer blockbuster movies such as Firehouse Dog and you can be sure that there’s a dog with a walk-on part or a featured role.

Every day, doggie talent agencies like Hollywood Paws in Los Angeles ( are inundated by doting pet parents with stars in their eyes determined to carve out a lucrative and visible career for their pooch.

But before you let Fido give up his day job as the competent inventor of 101 different snooze positions on the family couch, you should realize that stardom for your dog can be very hard to achieve.  Just think of all those wannabee actors and models that have to work as waiters as they strive to turn the word work from a noun to a verb.

“I get at least ten calls and emails a day from people saying that their dog loves people, is extremely well-trained, and definitely movie star material,” says Joel Norton, head trainer at Hollywood Paws. “But most pets don’t have the level of training needed to cooperate over a lengthy period of time and on a typical set there’s anything up to a hundred people being paid top dollar by the hour. Also, the dog parent may not be allowed on set and the pet may need to take commands from a professional trainer and be capable of reacting to both voice commands and hand directives.

“If they can command their dog to sit and stay outside a very busy Home Depot and then move more than twenty feet away and ask the dog to do certain behaviour from a distance, then that dog is set-ready.”

Understandably, most doting pet parents are unaware of what really goes on behind the scenes of a movie or commercial or even a photo shoot for a magazine. Consequently, when it comes to employing dogs—as with any business—production companies and photographers tend to rely on trained professionals.

“They know whom to call,” says Norton. “The famous handbook LA 411 is considered the entertainment industry’s bible. It lists everything from grips and gaffers to stuntmen and pets. There are companies that raise and train animals from cats to rats to elephants on huge ranches and can have any creature available on a moment’s notice 24/7.

“Canine actors are working dogs in the same way as a police dog or a search and rescue dog is a trained working professional. Trainers love them but they are not pets that have an emotional bond with a particular person.

“Further, they don’t work for treats; they work for their food,” explains Norton. “All dogs are smart enough to know if they tire and the treats aren’t a big enough incentive, dinner will come later. But a professional working dog knows that essentially he is working for his livelihood, in the form of his daily meals. It’s part of the training.”

Andrea Arden, director of the Dog Actor’s Guild website (,


“There are very few dogs that have really busy careers like the late Jack Russell named Moose who played Eddy on the hit TV show Frasier. He worked every week for years. But he was owned by an agency with an in-house trainer. For a dog owner who has his dog listed with an agency, it’s unrealistic to expect to get a job a month. It could take years.

“We deal with pet wannabees but our main focus is training dogs and other animals to put them on a more professional footing,” explains Arden, who is also a professional trainer and author of several books. “However, for an annual fee of $25 dollars, we upload pictures and profiles of pets onto our site and advertise directly to the trade so that production companies and photographers know to come and check out what we have available. If they like a dog, it’s up to them to negotiate directly with the owner.”

Consequently, members do have the opportunity of being spotted and an ephemeral shot at fame.

“Of course, there are those stories of instant doggie celebrity that are typical of the fashion and entertainment industry,” says Arden.

Dean Upson’s Golden Retriever, Woody, for example, was an overnight success story. Upson was vacationing in Maine and taking a stroll along the beach with Woody when he walked past a set-up for a fashion shoot. The photographer spotted the dog bounding along and approached Upson with a request to use the dog in the fashion spread. The next day, the Golden Retriever was sitting in a kayak being photographed for the cover of the L.L.Bean catalog.

“It wasn’t a paying job,” recalls Upson. “But I was thrilled to bits. Then I got calls asking to use him in subsequent catalogs and was offered a model fee. It paid for gas and treats.”

Upson’s second dog, Wyatt, is equally photogenic and affable in front of the camera and has also been featured in subsequent L.L.Bean catalogs.

For Joan Behrend, it was a case of not what you know but whom you know. Behrend was at an agility class with her champion Pomeranian, Lina, when she met an animal trainer who was looking for a small, cute dog to star in a Target television commercial with designer Isaac Mizrahi. This first contact led to further modeling jobs for Lina.

“I don’t work, so I’m available at a moment’s notice,” says Behrend. “We get a fee for the day and sometimes it can be a very long day with lots of waiting around.”

According to Norton, his agency often gets a call for a ‘showing,’ the doggie equivalent of an open casting call.

“The company will tell us what they want in terms of looks and specific behaviours and we contact an owner whose dog fits the description and ask them to attend,” he explains.

Neither Upson nor Behrend has their pets signed up with an agency. However, Arlene Pietrocola has her Old English sheepdog, Desti, signed up with three New York-based agencies and has attended showings.

“Desti has done print ads for Ralph Lauren and Kmart and made several TV appearances on programs such as Fox and Friends, Saturday Night Life, and The Insider,” says Pietrocola. “Another one of my Sheepdogs named Sunny had a walk-on part in the opera Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera. He had his own dressing room with a casting couch and a star on the door.

“We can earn around $100 an hour for a short job and $500 for a day. I do it to show off my dogs. They are all AKC champions. But also it’s such fun. That’s my main motivation.”

Purebred owners like Pietrocola have an advantage over those who want to promote a lovable, but unique, mutt. Because of the demands made on set, often more than one dog is needed to play a role, and the dogs must be similar in looks. To the uninitiated, one purebred Old English Sheepdog looks much like another, but with mixed-breed dogs, it can be difficult to find dogs with identical markings.

In the recent movie Firehouse Dog, for example, four Irish Terriers actually played the star, Rex. And it took four professional trainers to take the dogs through their paces on location.

Last year the Lifetime Television Network ran a very successful reality show called Off the Leash which gave household pets from across America an opportunity to try out for stardom. More than 400 dogs attended a casting call held by the Le Paws Canine Talent Agency in Hollywood and vied for coveted role in the TV movie Last Chance Café that eventually went to a Great Dane named Yampa.

According to Michelle Zahn, one of the agency’s owners, the focus of their business is connecting “not-so-average” pets with fashion and entertainment talent scouts. The reality show was a huge success and there’s talk about a second season.

The huge surge in the pet fashion industry has also brought a demand for dog fashion models for both fashion spreads and ramp work in fashion shows.

“They also need to be well trained for a photo shoot,” says top pet fashion photographer Myrna Huijing, who does all the work for designers Haute Diggity Dog in Los Angeles. “But the expectations aren’t quite so demanding. You can certainly train your dog to model.”

Two Yorkshire Terriers named Paris Noel and Bella LaRue ( are being hailed as the Gisele Bunschen and Heidi Klum of the pet fashion world. And in true supermodel style, their faces are everywhere in advertisements for some of the trendiest canine clothes and on the covers of the latest doggie magazines. Naturally, they also have their own range of merchandise, a pin-up calendar, and a MySpace page, too.

Paris’s career was launched when the Terriers’ pet parent, Valentina Bloomfield, ordered a ballerina dress from Hip Doggie in Los Angeles and sent them a photograph of her pup modeling her first hair cut. They responded saying how cute she was and said that if Bloomfield sent a photograph of her wearing the ballerina dress, they would put it on their website.

“The next thing, she was modeling for them,” recalls Bloomfield, who now has a modeling contract in place which states that the dog gets to keep all the clothes and accessories she models.

Next she started contacting other designers and set up a photograph studio in her home, taking total creative control of her pooches. While Bloomfield has them registered with The Dog Actors Guild agency to ensure they are exposed to all opportunities, she acts as their agent and manager.

“Both dogs really do justice to both our casual t-shirts and formal bridal wear,” says Sandy Maroney of the I See Spot label based in Los Angeles. “They have that ‘it’ factor and it really shows.”

Of course, as in the human world of fashion and entertainment, the really big money doesn’t come with a magazine fashion spread or a hit movie but in the endorsement deals that follow. Currently, the top earning canine supermodel in the world is Woongja, a seven-year-old American Cocker Spaniel who lives in Korea. She’s earned about $17,000 as the spokesdoggie for a Korean pet product supply company and a further $50,000 for being Pfizer’s pup representative for a year.

And when it comes to working for food, that’s an awful lot of kibble.


How to Break into Show Business

The Look

The current popular look is a scruffy “dog-next-door” appearance. Many terrier breeds and mutts fit this description. Dogs in greater demand also include typical all-American family pets such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers. Remember that black dogs don’t photograph well because it’s difficult to capture their facial definition on film. Dog with unusual markings don’t often get roles because their markings may appear strange from certain camera angles and it’s more difficult to find a doggie double.

Tips from a Photographer

Seek out local photographers in your area and ask them whether they are ever looking for dogs. You may even consider having a set of professional photographs taken for future use.

You can expect to earn between $60 and $75 a day if multiple dogs are used for a shoot according to Myrna Huijing.

Tips from an Agency Trainer

Fees for TV or movie appearances range between $100 and $500 a day and are negotiated according to the skills the dog is trained to perform.

Check out local film schools and make them aware of your dog, advises Joel Norton of Hollywood Paws.  All students need to make a film in order to graduate and this is a great way of getting into the business. Your dog could earn between $200 and $300 a day.

It’s All about Training

If you are serious, then make sure your dog takes several training courses beyond a basic obedience class. Approach animal talent agencies in your area and find out what training classes they have to offer.


This article is from Modern Dog Magazine

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