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.
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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.
B: Do animal actors carry union cards?
BB: There are no unions for animals, and it’s a huge bone of contention for me. For example, humans get air-conditioning, animals go outside. To get air-conditioning, I have to negotiate. Also, when producers don’t pay, unions have legal teams and bonds to draw from. I have the courts. And it’s impossible to sue large companies. So I’ve learned how to protect my animals.
B: Film or live—which is more of a challenge?
BB: Movies are easier than theater. For a movie, I can stand behind the camera or the actor and give the dog a silent command; we get it right once and go home. In the theater, I can’t give commands from the wings. If, for example, you’re watching Annie and you see Sandy look toward the wings and then do something, it’s clear he’s not listening to the characters on stage. So in the theater, we train the actors to be handlers. When you see my dogs on stage, you see them running to people they love, executing the commands, getting rewarded and then coming offstage to me. The dogs will do anything for me, but in live theater, they also have to do anything for someone else, and that’s an interesting dynamic. You really need well-balanced dogs to do that.
B: Is it hard to train the actors?
BB: It can be challenging, but most of the time, I work with people who love animals—Bernadette Peters, Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker.
B: Speaking of Sarah Jessica Parker—do you think she took what she learned as one of the early “Annies” working with Sandy to her later role as a dog in Sylvia?
BB: Absolutely. When Sarah started in Annie, she had never been around dogs; she was from a large family—eight kids—and they moved around a lot, so they always had cats. Sandy was her first dog. She learned quickly how to work with him, and got very good at it. I went to see her in Sylvia, and afterward, went backstage. I said to her “You stole some of that stuff from Sandy, didn’t you?” and she freely admitted it. She really loved Sandy.
B: We know you use positive reinforcement in your training. Is applause reinforcing for dogs?
BB: Not at all. Applause is a great positive reinforcer for humans, but to dogs, it’s just an annoying noise that sort of buzzes in their ears. One of the things we teach them to do is to ignore that noise, and it really doesn’t take them long to learn how to do that. Of course, teaching them to ignore the noise made by 3,000 people who scream when they enter can be a challenge. You can’t really prepare them for it before opening night. But what you can do is get them so connected with what they’re doing—essentially, build the bond between the dogs and the actors—that when that sound happens, the dog looks to his person for direction.
B: Over the years, have you had any improv moments onstage?
BB: There have been instances where someone wasn’t paying attention, or miscued a dog, and the dog has walked offstage. But usually, if everyone’s doing their jobs, there are no problems. Still, things happen. For example, when actors come onstage, they often get entrance applause. Annie had been running for about a year, and every night, Sandy had gotten his entrance applause. It was a rainy midweek night, the audience was wet and tired, and when Sandy came onstage, no one applauded. He stopped and looked at the audience. Andrea called him: “Come here, boy! Come here!” But he stood there looking out at the crowd. All of a sudden, the audience started to laugh, and then they started to laugh harder, and he just stood there looking at them. And then he got his applause, and he went on to Andrea. They thought he was soliciting the applause, but my take was that, for 300 performances, he’d heard that noise when he went onstage and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t happening.
Another bit of improv involved the Bulldog in Legally Blonde. When Legally Blonde opened in San Francisco a couple of years ago, there was one scene for her in the first act, and it got a tremendous audience response. So before we went to New York, the creators of the show decided to write another scene for her in the second act—she’d go onstage and play with a toy. It came time for our first preview in New York, our first audience, and she was in the wings waiting to get her toy. She was so excited, she was almost vibrating. When she was cued, she ran out onstage, got her toy, sat down and threw up. In Bull breeds, this is a sign of happiness, so I knew she was looking forward to doing the new scene. After that, she never threw up again.
B: Of all the productions you’ve taken part in, does one stand out as more challenging than the rest?
BB: Prior to Annie, there had never been a character written for an animal—there had never been an animal in a play upon whom the action depended. There had been animals used as props—walked in on-leash or carried on—but nobody ever thought you could train an animal to do something every night that conveys a story. There we were in 1976, I’m 19 years old, we’ve got young composers, and no one told us you couldn’t do that. So they wrote a character for a dog named Sandy, and I was able to deliver that performance. Since then, every show that’s written tries to push that envelope. When we did Annie, just having a dog come out on stage and do a couple of simple behaviors was revolutionary. Fast forward, and it’s like...You want Bruiser to do what? Bark how many times? Most of shows I get are trying to come up with an animal behavior that’s never been done before.
B: Do you prefer to work with female or male dogs?
BB: Fortunately, gender doesn’t matter to the character; as I’ve said to directors, if the audience is looking at the dog’s genitals, I think there’s something wrong with the play. What I’ve found over the years is that canines are very sexist—dominant males, submissive females. Generally, females are easier to train because they’re willing to be less dominant, but they’re less courageous—they roll over for anyone. I use mostly males—I’ll get a male dog and I’ll butt heads with him. It’ll take a while for him to learn who’s in charge, but once he understands that, he’s unflappable. Whereas the females, they give it up real easy, and generally, they’re more easily spooked.
B: When the dogs aren’t working, do they seem to miss the routine?
BB: I don’t find it on their days off. Where we see it have the most effect is when the show is over. Here are social creatures who go to theater every night and get loved up by 30 to 40 people. They do behaviors, get treats and have one-on-one time with me. When the show closes, they come home and they’re one of 16 or 17 dogs within our family. They get used to all that wonderful positive reinforcement, and then they come home to us and we can’t give them enough. But they settle in.
They go back to being regular dogs. I think that’s very important. When news crews come to my house, I think they’re expecting an agility course, or trainers making them do tricks. When the dogs aren’t working, they interact with one another and with us. We don’t train them on a daily basis until we have a job for them. We interact with them, make sure they follow the rules, but they go back to being dogs.
B: What’s new on the horizon?
BB: It’s been somewhat of an extraordinary year for me—people are calling it the year of the dog on the road. As a performer, you’re blessed to have a hit show once a year. We’re now opening the national tour of Legally Blonde; in two weeks, we’ll go to Florida to open the touring company of Wizard of Oz, and then after that, we go back up to North Carolina to reopen the national tour of Annie. Most of the theatres in U.S. have booked three shows that have my animals in them. Chances are that anyone attending the theatre will be seeing one (or more) of our rescued dogs onstage.
What’s even better is that the publicity around each show gives us the opportunity to do outreach on behalf of shelter and rescue dogs. Selling shows can be a hard thing, but it’s easy to sell human-interest stories, and I do it because it promotes animal welfare. The shows sell my book, and 20 percent of the proceeds from the book go to the Sandy Fund at the Humane Society of New York. Even the programs mention the source of the animal performers and encourage people to adopt. There are great animals at local shelters who need homes—adopt from a shelter or rescue group and you may find your own star.