Working Dog Spotlight: Dog Actors

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Check out these tips for start your dog in acting.

Is your dog the next Brad Pitt-bull or Clint East-woof? Is your fur baby ready for prime time? While the answer is obviously “yes,” how does a talented four-legged actor break in to showbiz? Surprisingly, aspiring canine actors must take many of the same steps as human actors to make a career in acting. With a bit of research, and luck, fans could be asking for your dog’s paw-tograph.

You Dog Has to Have More Than Just Good Looks to Be an Actor

While a dog’s appearance will always be important, the ability to follow commands is even more important than a pretty muzzle. At a minimum, your dog must be trained to consistently sit, lay down, head up or down, stay, speak, circle and hit a “mark.” Hitting a mark is when a pet can be directed to a certain “mark” and perform (sit, lay down) as well as go from one mark to another.

Also, while filming a scene, the owner or trainer may be up to 10 feet away and unable to give voice commands, so dogs must respond to hand cues. Dogs should also have good concentration and not be easily distracted by people, loud noises, crew, equipment, lights or sudden movement. If your dog is able to follow these basic commands, then your dog may be on the way to the red carpet.

Additional skills may be required depending on the role, and dogs may have to learn new tricks. Dog actors should also be able to interact with other actors in natural and convincing ways. Of course, some roles will require a specific breed, size or color, but many roles will be cast primarily on the dog’s ability to follow instructions and hit their marks. Most importantly, casting directors are looking for healthy happy dogs, so make sure that you dog is seen regularly by a veterinarian and properly groomed to be “camera ready” for a close-up.

How to Become a Dog Actor

Just like human acting, there is no one path to stardom. Many acting dogs are “discovered” at shelters by trainers, who often can contact casting directors directly and recommend animals for projects. Owners, however, can submit dogs to casting directors as well in hopes of getting a lucky break. There are also many talent agencies that represent animals and are always looking for new four-legged talent.

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There are two ways to get in front of a casting director: casting calls and auditions.

Dog Casting Calls

Casting calls are held when a casting director is looking for new talent. Any pet can attend an open casting call and be seen for a role. There are many dedicated websites that list available pet casting calls in your area. Social media (mainly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) is also a great way to find out more information about new film productions and where dog casting calls will be held.

Dog Auditions

The other way to get cast is through an audition, which is invitation only. Major tv and film roles, and commercials are usually cast this way. Auditions for animal roles are very similar to auditions for humans and are an opportunity to perform a scene in front of a casting director. These casting sessions can be in-person or on tape; and may consist of several rounds before the final decision is made. Consistency is very important with dog actors, and the audition process is good practice because if your dog is cast, they may be asked to perform the same task many times in a row. That’s why it is important to have a dog that can be focused and will not be easily distracted or frustrated.

While Hollywood may offer many opportunities for both canine and human actors, there are opportunities to work in film, tv and commercials across the country. Like humans, dog actors may start out acting in non-union student films, music videos or local commercials to gain experience and obtain film for an acting reel (highlights of acting jobs). Many roles are listed on Craigslist, trade publications and websites as well as casting platforms.

How to Submit Your Dog for an Acting Role

To submit your dog for a role, you will need to have good photos of your dog. While they don’t have to be professional headshots, they do need to accurately show what your dog looks like including close-ups as well as full body shots. Try to have a variety of photos that really show your dog’s personality. As your dog gains experience, make sure to have an updated resume that includes any special skills or talent your dog has. For more experienced canine actors, you should have a short video, or acting reel, that shows highlights of past work. Be sure to include at least one scene of your star barking so casting directors can hear your dog.

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How much do dog actors get paid?

While the “Tom Cruise’s” of dog acting like Lassie and Toto can make a lot of money, most dogs starting out in the biz can make anywhere from $50 a day for a student film to several hundred a day for a non-union commercial. According to The Hollywood Reporter, an established animal actor working on a union tv series can make over $100,000 a year, which is actually twice as much as the average union actor makes. However, the vast majority of animal actors earn far less, and can expect $4,000 to $10,000 a year.1 Also, agents and trainers will earn a commission, which is usually a flat rate per project.

For human actors, commercials can be very lucrative, particularly national commercials. However, since dog actors are not eligible to join the union, and technically, the owner or trainer is being paid, the pay for animal actors is usually far less than human actors in commercials. Most contracts will specify a flat rate for a “buy-out” which means the dog actor does not receive any residuals. While that may seem unfair, as a dog becomes more successful, and if a dog has a unique skill, the pay will definitely go up because the dog will be difficult to replace and in higher demand. This is when a dog’s appearance may be important too as some established roles will require a look-alike dog when the original star retires. For example, over a dozen collies played Lassie in various films, tv shows and personal appearances.

How to Protect Your Dog on Film Sets

Getting your dog cast in a movie, tv show or commercial is certainly exciting. But ultimately, you must make sure that your dog enjoys “working” and is safe at all times. Fortunately, union projects have very strict rules whenever an animal is cast, and your pet’s safety is taken very seriously on set. SAG-AFTRA is the union that represents actors and also provides strict guidelines for having animals on set. For example, according to SAG-AFTRA, all union productions that include animals must register with the American Humane Society and enroll in the “No Animals were Harmed” certification program to ensure proper safeguards are in place to protect animal actors.2 Producers obviously want all actors, human and canine, to be safe on set, and an additional incentive to keep performers safe is that an injury to the talent could result in significant costs associated with a delay in production. A serious injury on set will almost always shut down production and could mean the end of the project.

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In addition to following strict guidelines for the use of animals on film established by the American Humane Society, union projects are required to have general liability insurance for loss of property and bodily injuries. However, any injury to a human actor will be insured through workman’s comp, which technically is not available to animals which are not considered to be “people” under the law. Animals are considered “property” under the law, and most likely any injury to an animal on set would be covered under the general liability insurance policy.

Non-union projects, however, are not required to provide the same protections as union projects and often will not have insurance coverage which means any injury on set to a canine actor may only be covered by an existing private insurance policy. Check with the insurance agency or agent to make sure it covers any accidents to animals. Despite the many safeguards in place to protect animal actors, accidents do happen, and the best protection is a pet insurance policy designed specifically for your pet like those offered by Pets Best. As with any legal issue, you should consult with an attorney before agreeing to any contract and ensure your rights are protected.

With a bit of hard work, and some luck, your dog could book a role and be on the way to stardom. Lights. Camera. Bark!

Sources:

1 The Hollywood Reporter (2014). Hollywood salaries revealed, from movie stars to agents (and even their assistants). Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hollywood-salaries-revealed-movie-stars-737321

2 American Humane Society (nd). No animals were harmed. Retrieved from https://www.sagaftra.org/files/american_humane_association_mailer_9_1_01_9.pdf

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