It’s Day 1 one of a four-week animal acting class and I’ve turned up to find out if my scraggly, two-year-old Lhasa apso cross, Oliver, has what it takes to make it on the big screen.
Last year alone, the newly established Animal Actors of Manitoba provided the province’s burgeoning film industry with more than 100 dogs, cats and, yes, even a rabbit who landed a starring role in the filmed-in-Winnipeg TV series Channel Zero.
And since she graduated with her novice, intermediate, advanced and masters titles a few months ago, Winnipeg pooch Niffler took her acting career to a professional level in the locally lensed drama Breakthrough, in which she had a bit part as actor Chrissy Metz’s lovable four-legged friend.
"The film industry has picked up a lot in the last few years," says Animal Actors of Manitoba founder Courtney Voth, a unionized animal trainer who began offering animal acting classes in Manitoba three years ago after training animals for more than a decade in Alberta and B.C.
In that time, the 36-year-old animal lover from La Broquerie has trained a few rats, several dogs — including Apollo, a German shepherd cross whose fur was dyed black for a movie role in Alberta — and a number of cats for film production, print, commercials and theatre.
And now, with the help of five other qualified animal trainers, including her sisters Jill, 39, and Brittney, 29, she offers four levels of fast-paced acting classes and a less intense trick class for pet owners who are interested in acquiring titles.
Most classes are held at Sprockett’s Doggie Day Care on Keewatin Street while other classes take place at Pembina Petland in Portage la Prairie or Canvasback Pet Supplies in Lockport.
At the intermediate level, dog owners and their pets are introduced to distance work, an imperative skill for an animal to have on a movie set where they will likely be required to follow a command from a distance.
At the advanced level, participants need to be prepared for more involved tricks that are performed on a "mark" — usually a Styrofoam block — and create a video of a trick that is sure to impress movie directors.
Finally, the masters class involves script work, which will test a dog’s ability to handle pressure from camera, lights, directors and other actors on a set.
"It’s not for everyone. And some dogs just won’t excel," Courtney says, "so we want to make sure a pet can handle the pressure of being on a movie set and is also having a good time."
“It’s not for everyone. And some dogs just won’t excel, so we want to make sure a pet can handle the pressure of being on a movie set and is also having a good time.” -Courtney Voth
Back at the hour-long introductory class, Oliver and I are joined by a handful of dog owners and their hairy hopefuls, including Sirius, a retired golden retriever show dog; Bling, a rambunctious black-and-white border collie cross; Lexi, a British-style golden retriever; Mark-Cuss, a percipient poodle cross; Jack, a stalwart Siberian husky; and Cricket, an imposing malamute that had already secured a role in A Dog’s Journey, which was shot in Manitoba and opens in theatres on Friday.
Our instructors, Brittney and her clever cattle dog mix, Jungle — an extra in A Dog’s Journey — are set to focus on teaching a couple of essential training tools such as shaping — a teaching method used by animal trainers that breaks down a desired behaviour into small increments, and reinforces the animal’s behaviour at each step until they’ve achieved the full behaviour — and luring, which uses a food reward to guide an animal into a desired behaviour.
"The workshop is just for teaching the owners the difference between shaping and luring and teaching the dogs how to think and offer behaviours," says Brittney, an accounting clerk who has been teaching animal acting classes for about one year.
At the get-go, she assures us that once our dogs respond to shaping it will be easy to get them to do anything, even spin in a circle like her remarkable mutt Jungle, who excitedly demonstrates a basic spin. All it takes is a simple flick of the wrist and the mid-sized, short-haired mutt whirls easily through the air.
"The trick to shaping is getting your dog to think instead of showing them what they want," adds Brittney, who maintains that treats should be used as an initial motivational tool and eventually eliminated — switching the treat from the right to the left, or vice versa, and finally removed — when the animal begins to understand a verbal or physical command.
Although their focus is dogs and cats, the Animal Actors of Manitoba trainers work with a variety of animals, including exotics.
Novice — All dogs they use are required to take an acting skills class to ensure success. Training skills covered include shaping, luring, reward placement and mat work.
Intermediate — The fundamentals of dog acting in Level 1 include distance work and a few of the most common behaviours that producers look for when casting dogs for their show or movie. This class requires homework to be done every week and provides weekly report cards.
Advanced — Participants are required to learn a new trick every week and produce a short video of a trick that will impress movie directors.
Masters — Script work will include the behaviours from Level 1 and intermediate. This is a test to determine if your dog can handle the pressure of a camera and working among human actors.
On the last class of each level you will have a test, and you must score 75 per cent or higher to move on to the next level.
Classes are four weeks long and cost $125 (the introductory workshop is $80). For more information, visit their website.
When it’s our turn, my regularly obedient pooch — a loyal companion who consistently sits on command, shakes a scraggly paw and, if motivated by a treat, will slump back on his furry hind haunches and beg "like a pretty boy" — seems slightly unsettled by the chatter and other dogs in the room.
"So you want to put the treat to the nose, move your hand in a full circle and reward him when he does a full circle," demonstrates Brittney, adding a verbal command can be added when the animal offers up the behaviour on its own.
Oliver’s attention eventually peters out before the class ends, but after practising spins all week on our daily walks along Bunns Creek Trail, he’s like putty in my hands at the second class of the workshop a week later.
This time around, during an introduction to mat work — returning to a mat on command is another crucial skill set for animals on a movie set — Brittney likens the shaping technique to teaching an animal to think about what you’re asking them to do instead of showing them.
"Let’s say I’m talking to someone and they speak Chinese and have no idea what I’m saying but I want them to put their hand on their head," she explains. "I would stare at their hand and as soon as they move it, I would reward them. Once they offer that behaviour, I would stare at the top of their head and wait as they offer up more behaviours. They might scratch their head or pull at their hair, but as soon as they touch their head, I would reward them."
Sounds simple enough, but one of the tricks in shaping a dog’s behaviour is capturing it the second it happens. So, as I sit facing his furry face with a treat — I’ve upped the value of the treats like Brittney suggested and have come armed with a Ziploc bag full of all-beef wieners — behind my back, I’m having a hard time catching the exact moment Oliver glances at or even turns his head in the direction of a nearby carpet sample.
The following week, at the third class of the workshop, my 17-year-old daughter stands in for me and is introduced to distance training, a skill set that is developed more in the Animal Actors of Manitoba intermediate class.
"We work really hard on distance training," explains Courtney, whom I’ve agreed to meet a few days later at a nearby pet supplies store after Amazon TV producers notified her they’re casting a scruffy dog for their filmed-in-Manitoba series.
Oliver hasn’t even completed the four-day Animal Actors of Manitoba workshop when I’m told that if he’s got what the casting director is looking for, he could land a spot in the upcoming American drama television series that is being filmed in Morden.
At the store, Courtney takes a few pictures of Oliver and videotapes him following some very basic commands. She’ll be pitching him and another scraggly haired pooch to the series producers and wants to determine his trainability.
He passes Courtney’s amenability test and at the final class of the workshop even breezes through his down, stay and stand test, but still, it’s not enough to nail down a shot at movie stardom.
Not this time, anyway!
Updated on Monday, May 13, 2019 at 8:56 PM CDT: Updates story.