LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION! Standard Poodles Jyah and Sydney star in their own movies that owner Charlene Dunlap produces. To train her dogs, Charlene teaches them everything from advanced obedience to obstacle training, targeting to tracking, scent work to service work . . . and a little bit of everything in-between.

By Charlene Dunlap

Historically, many Poodles worked as entertainers; but for modern Poodles, jobs in the entertainment world are hard to come by. Poodles rarely have starring roles in movie or television productions (although there have been a few exceptions.) For leading roles, producers of movies and advertising generally select dogs with whom they feel the public can identify. Poodles in TV commercials and movies are usually there simply to make a fashion or social statement -- rarely for their acting skills.

Captain Arthur Haggerty, renowned author and dog trainer, in his book TEACH YOUR DOG TO TALK states, "Standard Poodles are brilliant and can be taught anything -- the more difficult the better." Yet, as author of HOW TO GET YOUR PET INTO SHOW BUSINESS, he also states that in movies Standard Poodles are usually portrayed as "expensive, silly, foppish, and extravagant."

So, why would I choose an acting career for my Standard Poodles? Certainly, had I tried to get steady work for them in commercial productions, I would have been extremely frustrated. Not only would I have had no control over how my Poodles were characterized, but their large repertoire of trained behaviors would have gone unused and unappreciated. Fortunately, video-editing on the computer became a reality and gave me not only an outlet for my own creative energy, but also provided me with a "stage" to display my Standard Poodles in a way that showed their intelligence, athleticism, and endearing qualities. Having always loved watching dogs perform in movies and on TV, and having always enjoyed teaching my dogs, I found that making movies was right up my alley. Initially, I made these whimsically almost-true movies simply for my own entertainment; but friends, and then strangers, asked for copies and I began selling them to help defray their production cost.

Producers of commercial movies usually select dogs for their look/type, but obviously the more a dog can be trained to do, the more jobs he will get. Depending on the role, a dog can be required to have training from the bare minimum of sit/stay, stand/stay, or down/stay to an extensive repertoire where he or she will be required to perform many difficult actions and behaviors. In the latter case, there are often one to several other identical looking dogs hired to do some of the behaviors and actions for the one role.

My dogs are the central characters in their movies and must perform their own parts throughout the entire storyline. The actions and behaviors I train my dogs for their movies are limited only by my own imagination and limitations. These include everything from advanced obedience to obstacle training, targeting to tracking, scent work to service work . . . and a little bit of everything in-between. The end-application of the actions and behaviors trained for movie work, however, is unlike that for any other trained-dog activity.

In obedience competition, there are a limited number of exercises that dogs must learn and a precise way for them to do each exercise. In agility, there are a finite number of obstacles the dog must successfully navigate, and the trainer is constantly seeking ways to improve the dog's speed and accuracy on the course. Flyball, Schutzhund, tracking, field trials, ground trials, sledding, disc-catching, carting, and conformation all have specific and finite sets of skills to be learned . . . always with the trainer's goal of polishing and perfecting the dog's execution of those skills. Dogs in these sports learn a set of skills and repeat them in every performance.

The actions of movie dogs on-screen often look so natural that a person might be inclined to think it would be simple to train a dog for movie work; yet it is more complicated than it appears. For instance, in "Paws to Dance", Sydney is in the training building. She comes into camera frame and looks down at a book which is lying on a small footstool. She stares at the book for a moment, then turns and quickly leaves the frame. This action seems insignificant, but there are four distinct cues that Sydney had to instantly and smoothly respond to: "Wait" (outside the camera frame), "Go look" (at the book), "Chichichi" (a verbal cue telling her to keep doing what she is doing -- staring at the book), and "Here" (turn and come to me out of camera frame). The whole sequence looks so natural to the viewer that Sydney's training is not noticeable.

People, in general, do not realize that to teach a dog to act like a dog for movie work -- yawning, sneezing, scratching, closing eyes, howling -- whenever he is cued requires a great deal of patience and ingenuity. These are natural behaviors that the dog will normally do only to satisfy his own needs. A particularly excellent trainer I know of taught his dog to scratch back with her hind feet as though marking territory. This action is one the dog did naturally, and the trainer simply captured it by clicking (with a metal sound device) and treating (with food or play) to mark the exact moment the dog was doing the behavior he wanted her to repeat. I say "simply" because the trainer did not have to physically do anything to get the dog to perform this behavior -- he just had to make sure he reinforced her at the exact moment she did it; but, he said it took him six months to get this behavior on cue. Training actions and behaviors can often be simple, but not necessarily easy.

Service work -- bringing the phone.

Rather than polishing my dogs' skills to competition sharpness, my goal is that they look as natural as possible performing any action, behavior, or move . . . as though doing it is their own idea. However, this is not to say that I do not have precise criteria. For instance, the trained action of walking on three legs can depict a dog in pain whose foot or shoulder has been injured: the same three-legged action, done with a different attitude, can convey the look of a dog that is dancing or playing. These two same-type behaviors require the canine actor to portray very different emotions . . . for which he must be trained.

Another end-application of training that is different is that in most competitions the dog usually has only one chance to correctly do each trained action or behavior. For movies, my dogs sometimes have to repeat the same correct action or behavior anywhere from a couple of times to numerous times in order for us to get shots of them doing the behavior from different angles. (Different camera angles are essential to have for later in the editing process.)

Additionally, I may have them do the same action with slight modifications. For example, the simple action of sitting has many variations: sit with head hanging, sit with head up and one foot raised, sit and look in a specific direction, sit and open and close mouth (as if talking), and many others. These alternatives in the way the dog performs this behavior will give me choices later when putting clips together in the editing process. My dogs have to be adaptable doing any trained behavior since I may have them try out several slightly different variations during filming.

Agility -- directed jumping.

"Dancing" -- 3-legged hopping with foot high, head up, tail up.

"Hurt foot" -- 3-legged limping with raised foot, head down, tail down.

As strange as it may seem, my dogs understand that they are acting when in front of a camera. For a recent scene, I wanted Sydney to appear depressed because something she hoped for did not seem within her reach. Jyah comes into the room to console her. For this scene, I cued the dogs to put their heads and bodies in specific positions to give the impression that they were feeling the emotions I wanted them to convey. Interestingly, assuming these postures seemed to change the dogs' body chemistry as well, and the scene came across as totally believable. As soon as we finished shooting however, both dogs resumed their normal demeanors.

One thing I find fascinating about training my dogs is seeing how they use their learned behaviors to build new ones that I may not have thought of. One of the foundation behaviors I taught Sydney and Jyah is to rest their chin on different surfaces such as a table, their own paws, or on my knee. (This behavior has many applications for movie work.) One day while working in the kitchen, I heard the dogs barking in the next room. I went to see what was happening. They were standing on a loveseat which is beneath a window, both staring toward the front yard. With knees pressed against the end of the sofa, I looked out the window. "What do you see?" I asked. Immediately, Sydney stepped up on the arm of the sofa. She placed both front paws on my shoulders and nestled her neck against mine with her chin resting behind on my nape. She was using the foundation behavior of "chin" in the form of a hug. My heart melted into a puddle! Needless to say, I put this adorable behavior on-cue and used it in a movie.

Sydney reading.

Jyah yawning on cue.

Jyah consoling Sydney in "Paws to Dance."

Sydney giving Charlene a hug.

Standard Poodles are like gifted children who delight in learning new things. Having their mental and physical abilities engaged seems to satisfy their yearning for attention and personal achievement. As for me, I enjoy the wonderful camaraderie engendered by my dogs and me working and playing together. The added bonus in making movies that other people see is that I can show Standard Poodles as they really are -- loyal, generous, intelligent, witty, athletic dogs.

Ready, my darlings? LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION!

Article written for
The International Parti Poodle Gazette
May 2006 Issue