What It Takes To Train Animals In Film & TV

By Amanda Wattie

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an animal trainer on tv and movie sets? I’ve had the unique experience of working with a Toronto, Canada-based animal production company (Furry People Productions) and have been involved with TV shows for major networks and streaming services and even some movies.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with not only other people’s animals but working with my own, too. I’ve learned along the way that for a dog or cat to go from a loving member of the family to a bonified actor/model, it takes solid obedience skills. They should have an excellent sit-stay, and a reliable recall essential for any off-leash work. Of course, an animal that loves working for treats is perfect and helps them stay focused while working.

Working with an animal on set is like working with a child. It takes patience and proper planning to get the best results. My goal as a trainer, is always to make sessions short and fun. In other words, a training session during which they will always be rewarded. This helps build their confidence and understanding with their new “job” and leaves them happy and excited to do more.

By now, you might be saying, this is all great. But what is it like on set?

Before being on set, there’s prep work. For example, the animal sometimes spends days or weeks learning a new trick for a specific scene or photoshoot. Then, the day before being on set, they go for grooming, get their nails trimmed, and their hair brushed, washed, and fluffed. I also like to put together supplies I think we might need, such as treats, toys, brushes, leashes, and anything else I think we may need or that could make the day more comfortable.

Once on set, we set up camp in our designated area that’s typically away from the hustle and bustle of filming and the crew so either the dog or cat can relax and even take naps between scenes.

If there are specific scenes between an actor and the animal, we need to account for the dog or cat’s personality and how much time they may need to bond with them before shooting the scenes.

Sometimes scenes are set up to look like the animal is near an actor, but if they’re not on camera at the same time, we can take the pressure off the dog or cat and film them separately. When filming separately, we can reduce the crew around, which reduces potential distractions and usually results in a more natural, relaxed look.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. A dog wants to play or doesn’t want to look in a specific direction. This is where a trainer’s expertise and quick thinking come in handy. If a dog wants to play, I like to turn it into part of the reward. I start playing with them, then ask for a basic command like a sit or lay down and reward them with the play they desire.

Once I have them focused, I ask them for the desired action in the scene, and they get rewarded with a small play session before we shoot again. When play is no longer the expected reward, we go back to a treat, toy, or whatever they love. Throughout shooting, the dog or cat needs to take breaks so they can go eat, drink, or even relax. Their welfare is always a top priority.

Being on set is a fun and memorable experience, especially when you have a talented team and support. If you’re thinking about getting your pet into the show business, I suggest seeking a reputable animal production company near you. Work on having solid basic obedience skills like sitting and laying down. Getting them used to busy environments will help them feel more relaxed when away from home and in a new, busy environment such as being on a set. If your pet already handles this as a pro, teach them a new trick! It could just be the thing that sets them apart from others they might be considering and help them land a role.

All of these suggestions are excellent skills you can do at home and can be used throughout their lives.

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