It all started when Tiger’s agent, Nancy Novogard, called to ask if we would be available to shoot a feature film. I suppose I should add that yes, my adorable, three-and-a-half-year-old Terrier mix, whom I adopted when he was just nine weeks, has an agent. And while he’s shot a variety of photo spreads for magazines and books (Vogue, Bark’s DogJoy), appeared onstage with David Letterman, performed Off-Broadway, and now appears in a national commercial (CSX trains), he has never done a feature film.
“He’ll need to bark — incessantly,” Nancy added.
Of course, I was lying — just a bit. Tiger does “speak” on command, but to him this means ONE BARK, then stop. As dogs go, he’s just not a barker. That said, I have trained him to “count” — which really means BARK-UNTIL-IGIVE- YOU-THE-CUE-TO-STOP. Now, I just needed to keep it going.
The bigger problem, though, was that as Tiger barked, he kept moving closer and closer to me. How could I get the distance needed on a set while getting him to stay on his mark?
I called my friend Christine Mahaney, whose Border Collie rescue, Toula, has film credits aplenty. Christine is also an animal trainer/wrangler for dogs — plus myriad other animals ranging from rats and chickens to deer — in the Detroit, Mich., region.
“OK,” she said, in her adorable Midwestern accent. “Here’s what you do: Tie his leash to a banister or something, and start close — don’t let the leash get tight. Then back away — making sure he keeps the leash loose. Work slow. That’s what I had to do with Toula.”
A week later, I awoke to torrents of rain. I needed to get us to a studio in Queens for the audition, which meant hailing a cab, as Tiger is just too large (28 pounds) to carry in a bag on the subway. As a native New Yorker, I do not own a car.
Getting a cab when it’s pouring, however, is never easy. And with a wet dog…
A yellow taxi stopped. The driver looked at Tiger. I said, “I promise I will give you a big tip.”
We arrived at Kaufman Studios in Queens, just under the 59th Street Bridge. Tiger wandered around, sniffing, while I checked out the competition. There was an 18-week-old Tibetan Terrier. Adorable — but could he bark on cue? A three-pound Yorkie. Hardly the kind of dog a street kid would pick up. There was also a cute, terribly energetic Cockapoo, and a Poodle-y mix. One of the owners tried to practice as we waited.
“SPEAK.” (The dog sat.)
“SPEAK!” (The dog jumped up on the settee.)
I looked at Tiger, feeling snarky.
BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK!
I stopped wiggling my fingers and smiled, feeling all smug and cocky.
Dan, the prop master, led us down the hall to the audition room — really just a small office-like space. I noticed a poster along the way: Son of No One
Was that the title of the film we were auditioning for? I wondered.
We walked to the back of the studios. There were about five men, including director Dito Montiel, first assistant director Urs Hirschbiegel and a few others. Someone said, “OK — so let’s hear him bark.” I leaned down to take the leash off when Urs added, “Actually, he’ll be on leash for this.”
I smiled and handed the leash to Urs.
BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK!
After about five seconds I said, “How’s that?”
The men exchanged glances. “Great. OK — now we need — will he grab a pant leg and shake — like he’s attacking?”
Huh? Not so comfy or snarky now.
“Uh… no one told me that.”
“Well, can he?”
“He knows PULL.” I took out a toy.
Tiger grabbed the toy and pulled and pulled with all his might, tearing at the green alien stuffie. The men were not impressed.
“We need him to pull on someone’s pants.” Urs pulled on the bottom of his trouser leg. “Tiger,” he said with a German accent, “Pull on this.”
Tiger looked at me. He looked at Urs. He looked back at me.
“He hasn’t been trained to do that, but this is one smart dog. Give me a week.”
“What if we put the toy under the pants?” Urs put his hand out. I handed him the toy.
My sweet, smart puppy walked over, grabbed at the toy stuffed under Urs’ trouser leg and pulled.
The men nodded profoundly. “Great! OK — thanks.”
Dan walked me out, back down the corridor to the crowd. As we walked, he told me that they would need several pictures of Tiger, and confirmed my availability.
Two days later, we got The Call. That’s when things got real interesting.
I recalled the name of the movie and looked it up on IMDB, the movie database. There was a list of actors already committed to the movie: Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Channing Tatum, Katie Holmes … I began to get very excited.
“Are you sure that’s the film?” Nancy asked. “We were told it’s a small film.”
“I met a guy named Dito. How many directors do you know of named Dito?”
I started training Tiger to pull on a pair of pants. Since that is a behavior not generally sought by the average dog owner — most people want to train a dog not to pull on pants — I pulled out Captain Haggerty’s How to Teach Your Dog to Talk. Captain Haggerty was, for many years, the trainer for dogs in movies. He recommended using a scented pad made of burlap filled with batting.
When I spoke to my friend Rick Caran, whose Yorkie, Jilli Dog, is the internationally known poker-playing pup, he strongly suggested that I only train to the scent — so that my dog wouldn’t think I wanted him to go around grabbing every pant leg he saw.
But which scent should I use? My Google search turned up an array of flavors: mouse, duck, rat and so on. As the idea of bringing rat scent into my New York apartment on purpose was not terribly appealing, I chose duck.
I dug out an old pair of pants, sewed the burlap pad reeking of mallard inside and started working. Sometimes the pants were just a tug-toy, sometimes I tied them to a chair and sometimes I put them on. I invited friends over to put on the pants and let Tiger tug. We rehearsed in the stairwell, the park, on the sidewalk — everywhere. Tiger became a terrific tugging Terrier.
I examined the rest of the script. Tiger appeared in more than eight scenes. Mostly, he was “background” — sitting on a chair, for example, but mainly he was going to need to bond with Jake, the young actor playing Milk. I prayed that Jake was a dog lover.
The night before the first day of shooting, I pulled out Tiger’s travel bag. Tiger started jumping around — he clearly loves working. I packed our things: pop-up crate, toys, blanket, duck scent, silent whistle, dog bowl, a selection of collars, brush, paper towels, baby wipes and treats, treats, treats. There were the regular treats from the dog store, but also, string cheese and slices of turkey hot dog.
The next morning we awoke at 5:00 am. More rain. I staggered out of bed. We arrived on location in the projects in Queens and were escorted to our “room” in the “honey wagon”— the colorful name ascribed to a trailer parked near the location. It was about 5 feet by 10 feet — with a toilet at one end. And it was freezing.
Still think movies are glamorous? Nancy and I set up the crate, dumped our stuff, trotted over to the breakfast wagon for some hot coffee, then settled down for a typical day on a movie shoot, waiting to be called to the set.
Four hours later, someone knocked on our door. “They’d like Tiger on the set, please.”
Tiger jumped out of the crate, eager and excited to work. I clipped on the treat pouch, threw on my raincoat, grabbed Tiger’s leash and away we went — down the rickety stairs of the honey wagon, through the mud, around the enormous puddle gathering around the clogged, neglected city drains, past the Kraft services tent and into the apartment building smelling of urine and who-knows-what. Inside, Tiger was introduced to a young teenager named Simone who was playing “Young Vicky.” They were immediately smitten with one another. Tiger would need to sit with Simone on the couch.
That was the extent of the direction. The only tricky part: I would have to be hidden from view, behind a thick curtain. The room where they were shooting the scene was so small, only the actors and the cameraman could be inside.
The next seven days were a variation on that theme — lots of waiting around, lots of free food, lots of rain and mud, and some work, generally with me crouching behind or between or below. We were fortunate that we had a company of actors and crew who generally seemed to care about Tiger’s well-being; they allowed us to bring him along to the lunchroom, and they treated him like a star. Jake Cherry, the young actor playing Tiger’s owner, was also wonderful and really took the time to bond with Tiger.
That said, it was not an easy job. Situations popped up on set every day that required a great deal of skill and patience and creativity. While general obedience training is important (skills like STAY, COME and, of course, SPEAK), it is not enough. The dog has to want to be there and feel comfortable around many, many people, lots of different noises, and all manner of other unpredictable situations. I had trained Tiger, for example, to play dead and hold that position even as someone leaned over him. What I did not train him for was for that someone to jump afterward.
I should add that Tiger was never in any physical danger during the shoot. As a matter of fact, the scariest scene in the movie was actually the easiest to shoot, as the behaviors needed were close to what I’d imagined when we prepared. Much of that is also due to the two representatives on set from American Humane, who were our advocates on set and off, ensuring that no animals were harmed.