Article written for the German-language
Clicker Magazine --  Jan. 09 Issue

Author: Charlene Dunlap

Using positive reinforcement techniques, many people are now teaching their dogs a variety of clever and unusual actions and behaviors . . . and, they enjoy showing others what their dogs can do. However, rather than simply having a dog demonstrate these actions and behaviors to an audience as isolated units, it is much more interesting to see them presented in a context that is creative and entertaining. Two ways to accomplish this are through live entertainment shows and “home” movies.

I prefer movies for three reasons: 1) I can incorporate anything and everything I've trained my dogs to do - as long as I make it fit into the story, 2) I don't have to be part of the entertainment so the presentation can focus entirely on the dog's performance, and 3) movies allow a dog's “acting” skills to reach out and connect with an audience in a way  that few other venues can accomplish.


Training a dog to perform for live entertainment shows and training a dog to be the star actor in his own movie are not mutually exclusive; however, there are significant differences in what is required.

Most dogs trained for live entertainment shows are specialists - that is, they are trained to perform a limited number of tricks, moves, or stunts. In many cases, these dogs are pattern - trained and have their routine memorized. Since they have only one chance to impress an audience, they must learn to perform their tricks and stunts as quickly, flawlessly, and energetically as possible. In live shows, the handler is of equal importance to the dog since the person is part of the presentation: she or he has to engage the audience, set the pace and tempo of the performance, and cover any mistakes the dog makes.

A dog trained to star in his own movies is a generalist: that is, he is taught a little bit of everything - some actions or behaviors are taught to “perfection” while others are taught just well enough to get on film. Unlike in live entertainment, the human partner of the movie-dog team is invisible. It is entirely what the dog does on-screen that will affect the audience. The handler can be just outside the frame of the camera giving directions, but the audience does not want to ever feel that someone is cueing the dog: they want to believe in the story that is being presented on-screen.


Most computers now come with video editing capabilities where people can easily produce movies of their dogs. These programs allow us to add titles, music, and sound effects that make our productions more professional looking. With these programs, we can make DVD movies or display short movies on the Internet.

I have been making movies of my dogs for over ten years and use the clicker as a positive reinforcement tool for training many of their movie behaviors: professional trainers have successfully used the clicker to train commercial movie dogs for over fifty years. Using the clicker, trainers are able to isolate and capture nuances in dog behavior that are difficult to train with any other method.


The objective for a good canine actor is to look as natural as possible while doing any action or behavior in a scene . . . as if he were doing it as an innate part of his everyday repertoire. The dog's actions and appearance must be consistent with what is being presented in the storyline, whether it is a dramatic scene, an action scene, or a comedic scene. The behaviors you have the dog perform on-screen must tell the story, much like how a Hollywood director uses an actor's repertoire to create a character for films .

To help an audience better understand and relate to the canine actor's actions, it is really helpful if the trainer teaches her dog behaviors that look like emotions. (Like the human actor, a dog would look rather silly if he always had the same demeanor in every situation.) For example, what would you need to train your dog to make him look (or induce him to look) sneaky, curious, playful, frightened, angry, confused, embarrassed, naughty, lost, sad, surprised, or proud?


“Natural” behaviors (ones that the dog does naturally) are really helpful to have on-cue in a movie-dog's repertoire. Most behaviors in the “natural behaviors” group cannot be taught - they have to be “captured” as the behavior occurs (or is induced to occur and then clicked/captured).

Natural Behaviors include: Speak, Yawn, Sneeze, Howl, Scratch, Shake (body or head), Shake it (object), Close eyes, Stretch, Squirm (on back), Kick back (as if kicking to cover something up with the hind feet), Tilt head, Dig

Professional trainers have used the clicker to train dogs for commercial movies for over fifty years.  Home-movie makers also find clicker training an invaluable tool for training "acting" nuances.

DIG: In this video clip, I used a small cloth and wiggled my hand under it to elicit my dog's “dig” behavior, clicking for any attempt she made to dig at it. Training the dig behavior may be easier if you put a toy in sand and encourage the dog to dig for it, clicking/rewarding until the dig action is on cue. This clip also shows how I used the “dig” in our movie "Pinocchio.

SHAKE IT: The “Shake it” behavior can morph into the “No” head shake. Notice how Jyah is responding to my “Shake it” cue while Sydney is responding to the same cue by shaking the rag. The “Shake it” behavior is easier to teach if you half-bury a rag in sand. Most dogs will shake a rag to get the sand off, and you can “capture” the behavior by clicking and rewarding it.

The head “Tilt” can be captured and put on cue; however, when I want Jyah do this behavior, I simply use my voice in a way that I know he will respond to with a head tilt. Sydney has never done a head tilt in her life and, since I am unable to elicit it from her, I think it would be difficult to train her to do it so that it looked natural.


I do very little “free shaping.”  By that I mean I do not sit with clicker and treats and wait until my dog does something -- then click and reward for closer and closer approximations of the targeted behavior (the shaping game).  I know what I want my dogs to learn and can visualize what steps are necessary to get them there.  I can genererally do something to induce the dog to do the behavior, or part of the behavior, and then click and reward when the dog responds.  I will, however, "catch behaviors" by clicking and rewarding any spontaneous behavior I like that my dogs may offer.

It is important that the movie dog have basic skills that can be used as a foundation to build and modify other behaviors and actions. As with any type of training, the trainer must have firmly in her mind all of the steps needed to form any behavior before teaching the dog so that she can mark and reinforce the exact moment the dog does the behavior, or a part of the behavior, she's looking for. That's the beauty of the clicker. It is effective and efficient, and the trainer can pinpoint each step in the dog's learning process.

Each person who makes movies will have difference requirements for which foundation behaviors she wants to teach her dog; however, the more your dog knows, the more behaviors you will have to work with, and the more entertaining your movies will be.

Below are foundation skills I work on with my canine actors:

BASIC SKILLS: Come, Sit, Down, Stand, Stay, and Heel

RETRIEVING SKILLS: Take it (from person), Hold it, (Go and) Get it, Bring it, Give it (to my hand or to another person), Drop it (on or in), Pull it, Put it there (designated location), Catch it

NOSEWORK: Tracking, Finding hidden objects, Discrimination scent work

OBSTACLES: Over, Under, Through, Jumping (any cue used for agility or obstacle courses)

DIRECTIONAL: Go to a person, place, or mark, Go in, Go up, Get off, Go around (an object or barrier), Go left, Go right, Go straight, Go back

BODY TARGETS: Most useful for me are: nose, chin, all four feet, hips, ankles, hocks, and shoulders .

TARGETS: Almost anything can be a target that the dog goes to or touches with a part of his body. (The directional “look right, look left, watch it,” as well as the head up and head down behaviors can also be taught using targets.)

Targeting Behaviors Video

Segment 1: Sydney puts coins into a small bottle. I trained this by using her knowledge of foundation behaviors: “the retrieve (get it, put it there, drop it)” and targeting - in this case, she is targeting the bottle (object target) with her chin (body target).

Segment 2: How I used the hip target to train two dogs to stay together while backing

Segment 3: How I set Sydney up in a birddog pose. Using the foundation behavior of “stand,” I added her “tail” (body target), then her “ankle” (body target), and finally, the “touch” target (my hand with her nose, so she had to lean forward to touch it).

I call the process of adding behaviors to existing ones “layering” -- that is, the dog must hold the stand, add the tail, add the bent ankle, lean forward to touch my hand, and then freeze in position. Each new cue is layered on top of the previous one.

Using this pose in a video, you can either train the dog to go into the birddog pose , or you can set up the pose and then video the dog in that position. This sequence can be trained to a single word cue or set up by using individual touch cues. A touch cue is where I touch the part of the body I want the dog to react with rather than saying a cue word to get the reaction. 

Although not shown in this video, I also use targets to teach the dogs distance work, etc.

“TRICKS” are unlimited. (Many behaviors called “tricks” are simply foundation behaviors used in different contexts, or foundation behaviors combined with something new.) A few of my dogs' basics “tricks” are: Back, Crawl, Roll over, Sit up, Curtsy, Limp, Cover nose with paw, Say “Yes,” Say “No,” Head up, Head down, Talk (open and close mouth without sound), Feet up (on whatever indicated), Speak, Hind leg walk .

Two more cues that are extremely helpful in training the canine actor are “Wait” (freeze in position) and “Watch it” (where the dog watches an object and performs cues without looking at the handler). Additionally, when I'm working with more than one dog, each dog must learn to continue what he's doing while the other dog responds to a different cue. I also sometimes use one cue to teach two dogs different actions so they can do these separate actions at the same time to a single cue.


When I make movies of my dogs, their trained behaviors are frequently used in different contexts. Whereas when a competition obedience dog is asked to sit, it will always be in the same way - tightly tucked, front feet aligned, eyes on the handler - when the movie dog is asked to sit, it will often be different in some way. For example: sit with head hanging down and eyes closed (sleepy dog), sit and look left then right (which way did she go?) , or sit facing away from the person with his head down and looking back at the person (sulking). The movie dog should be well schooled in foundation behaviors as he will be asked to combine foundation behaviors in many different ways throughout a movie.

The key to training any behavior is to visualize the behavior or action you want your dog to do and break it down into its components and then click and reward each step in the learning process. In training, if the dog isn't getting a behavior right, we've obviously missed something. What we think we're teaching is not what the dog is learning. We need to re-think it and try another approach. Clicker training is a forgiving process. If we are using positive reinforcement training, the dog will not be harmed in the process and his trust in us will not be jeopardized.


A movie can be as short as one minute or as long as 30 minutes. Making a short movie such as the one below will help you understand what is needed. Unless you have exceptional visualization and memory skills, I suggest you make a sketch of each shot needed in the scene (called a storyboard) so you can see how the action in that clip relates to the action in the next clip in the sequence. You don't want a “jump” where in one clip the dog is in one position and in the second clip of the sequence he is in a similar position but facing in the opposite direction; hence, it looks like the dog jumped from one side of the screen to the other. Additionally, it is very important to use a variety of shots: close-up, distance, medium, angled, high, low, etc. It will not only make your movie more visually interesting, but it will also be easier to fit clips together in editing.

As much as possible, I try to shoot most shots for a scene two or more times because even when the dog performs the behavior correctly , the “look” may not be right. One of my shots will have just that “something” I was looking for that the others didn't have. This means that the dog must be adaptable and able to do the same action or behavior over and over correctly - only with slight variations.


This video clip is an example of a micro-movie. That is, it is very short but tells a story . . . it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. On average, there are around 16 individual clips in one minute's worth of movie. This one has 13 clips. Generally, I like to have more close-ups; however, the main purpose of this movie was to show how to use trained behaviors to tell a story. (Notice how music tends to pull all the video clips together so they are not seen as individual units.)

Clip 1: Sydney asleep on bed - cues: “On your back,” “Wait,” “Come”

Clip 2: Sydney leaves house - cues: “Stay,” “Come”

Clip 3: Running through woods - cues: “Stay,” “Come”

Clip 4: Coming up road - cues: “Stay,” “Come,” “Wait”

Clip 5: Close up - cues: “Look left, look right”

Clip 6: Stalking -- “Head down (looks more predatory),” “Come,” “Wait” - repeat over and over

Clip 7: Same as above from different angle

Clip 8: Close-up shot of rabbit

Clip 9: Sydney in Birddog pose - cues: “Tail,” “Ankle,” “Touch (to draw nose forward),” “Wait”

Clip 10: Sydney gets the rabbit - cues: “Get it,” “Shake it”

Clip 11: Carrying rabbit - cues: “Stay,” “Bring it”

Clip 12: Sydney back on bed - cues: “Down,” “Head Down,” “Close eyes,” “Wait”

Clip 13: Rabbit “romping” (added as a dream in production)

This sequence makes a story because it has a beginning (dog searching for something - sets up what's to come), a middle (the dog locates quarry and is stalking it - the action in the scene), and an ending (the dog achieves her goal of finding the rabbit - resolution).


This is an overview of what I do to train my dogs for movies; however, it is only half of what the aspiring movie maker needs to know to produce a successful movie of her dog. Writing a script, shooting video (camera work), editing clips on the computer, and adding music and sound effects to enhance the visual story are skills that those interested in making movies need to become familiar with. There are many excellent books and videos on all aspects of script writing and home video techniques. Additionally there are magazines about producing home videos  such as the one listed at:

With a few movie-making techniques under our belt and a clicker in our hand, producing entertaining movies that showcase our dog's "acting" ability is easily within our grasp.

NOTE: This video starts with body targets and then segments described (at left) are added.