Two senior dogs will make their acting debut this Thursday night when NBC broadcasts their live production of The Wiz. 10-year-old Cairn Terriers Ralphie and Scooter will share the role of Toto, Dorothy’s canine sidekick in this retelling of the Wizard of Oz featuring an African American cast. The training of the two dogs was assigned to Bill Berloni, American theater’s most renown animal trainer. Berloni has been teaching dogs the art of performing on stage going on 40 years. He has trained the canine actors for stage and television productions of Legally Blonde, Annie, Peter Pan, Lady Day and The Royal Family. Since his very first casting in 1976, a shelter dog playing Sandy in the original production of Annie, Berloni always selects his actors from shelters and rescue organizations. For the role of Toto, the production team discovered two blond Cairns in a Sacramento shelter. “There is nothing I look for that’s different in a senior dog than a young dog. They have to be outgoing, people-friendly, want to interact. You don’t want a snappy puppy or a grumpy old man. You want outgoing, friendly and willing to work,” says Berloni.
When asked which scene is the most challenging for Toto, Berloni responded with not the most physical scene but one of the most emotional—where Dorothy sings “Over the Rainbow”—think back to the 1939 classic film where Judy Garland sings and Toto lovingly looks at her. Without the luxury of editing, the scene requires incredible focus on the dog’s part. This is achieved by hours of training and bonding with the actors. During that scene in the performance, nobody is allowed to move backstage, no sound can distract from that critical connection between human and canine performer.
The secret to Berloni’s success is preparation and building a bond between the human actors and his animal performers. It’s less about acting than expressing real love for their human cast members—“Dogs don't act; they either are in love or they’re not, which is why I think animal performances are so exciting and so genuine. It’s like watching a husband and wife in real life playing a husband-and-wife team onstage. They’re really in love.”
The Wiz is televised live on NBC Thursday December 3, 8/7c. In addition to Ralphie and Scooter, the production stars Shanice Williams, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier and Cirque du Soleil.
Read The Bark’s interview with Bill Berloni to learn more about his incredible career in theater and animal training.