For Bill Berloni, every year is the year of the dog—and the rat and the lamb and the cat and the pig. Beginning in 1976 with the extraordinary musical, Annie, for which, as a young aspiring actor, he found and trained a shelter dog to play Sandy, Berloni has spent more than 30 years working with some of the best in the business. When it comes to show-stopping animal actors, he’s likely to have trained them. In his new book, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars, he shares his passion for animals, especially those of the pup persuasion. He spoke to Bark recently after a rehearsal for the upcoming Legally Blonde road tour, for which he’s training four brand-new dogs to make their stage debuts.
Bark: You started your animal-training career by finding Sandy at a shelter. Are you still working with shelter dogs?
Bill Berloni: Absolutely. When I was asked to find the original Sandy, they told me to go to a shelter because that was the cheapest place to find a dog. I had never been in one before, and I remember that as I looked at the conditions there, and all the dogs, I was so moved. I made a promise to myself: If I ever grow up and get another dog, I’m going to get it from a shelter. That was 32 years ago, and every dog I’ve ever trained has come from an animal shelter or rescue group. The dogs give me such joy, and I’ve had a wonderful life as a result.
B: What catches your eye when you’re looking for a dog?
BB: When I went in search of the original Sandy, I was looking for a sandy-colored mutt of no distinguishable breed. In Sandy, I found a dog who had been abused and was very frightened. Being somewhat young and gullible, I thought, I have to rescue that dog! He came a long way to get past that fear.
Now when I go to shelters, I see dogs who are just hangin’ out, in spite of the environment, and those are the dogs I gravitate toward. If they can deal with the stress of the shelter, then they’ll be able to deal with the orchestra, the lights, the crowds. I also test for aggression. Obviously, if a dog has an aggression trigger that can be easily tripped, it would be irresponsible to put him in a situation where it could be tripped. So, basically, I look for the ability to deal with stress and a low threshold of aggression to humans.
B: What happens to “show dogs” after the show’s over?
BB: They’re always welcome to stay with us. We have a fenced four-acre farm and a 3,000 square foot home; half of the downstairs is dogland. The dogs live with us—they don’t have kennels. When you have a pack of dogs, they either love the running outside, barking at the horses, jumping in the pond, digging holes—or they hang out inside. Not all dogs like it, though. A seven-pound Chihuahua doesn’t enjoy getting trampled by 15 dogs. So there are some cases when I feel that if I can find a dog a better situation, I will. When you make a commitment to an animal, it’s life-long. If living with us isn’t making the dog happy, we find him or her a good situation.
B: Tell us about an average day for one of your working dogs.
BB: Our job as trainers and handlers is to keep them healthy and happy. When a show is running, we keep them really quiet and calm throughout the day. We take them out, feed them a morning meal—again, just keep things quiet and calm until it’s time to go to the theater. We’re usually walking through the stage door about an hour before the show. Dogs are social creatures, so when we get there, we visit all the dressing rooms and greet the performers. Then we do the show and come home. They have their evening meal, and we all go to sleep.
The routine’s a little different during rehearsals. This is the time during which we’re desensitizing them to the noise and activity of the theater, teaching them to go onstage for the first time. We’re usually there eight hours a day. In my experience, dogs in this situation have about a 20-minute learning window, so the rest of the time is desensitization. Somewhere in that eight-hour day, we go through the training.