In priming a pup for the stage, “you have to share the dog’s love with someone else,” famed animal trainer Bill Berloni says—much like multiple family members need to share a dog at home.
A successful performance caters to the actors’ abilities, human or otherwise. “I assess what people's skills are, and then I tell the director what's going to be possible, not the other way around,” he adds.
Berloni has been working with animals on stage productions since the original 1977 production of Annie—here he shares some memorable moments from his career... including that wolf in The Crucible.
Berloni’s first-ever foray into animal training came by chance. He was an apprentice at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where Annie was about to premiere in 1976. Berloni was a 19-year-old artistic apprentice and found himself saddled with the task of adopting, housing, and training the show’s Sandy and, in turn, the show’s Annie.
“He had to listen to someone else, except it has to be somebody the dog loves—not just likes, loves,” says Berloni. “Someone who understands the training, and knows how to give the commands, and earns the respect. So my first job was taking 11-year-old girls and turning them into professional trainers.”
Sandy and Annie had a total of 13 cues, executed to perfection eight shows a week. “Fate smiled,” he says. “The first actors I had to train were children; all you have to do is put a kid and a dog in a room together, and it happens.”
Legally Blonde: The Musical
When Berloni worked on Broadway’s Legally Blonde: The Musical, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell wanted Elle’s chihuahua Bruiser to alert her sorority sisters to her whereabouts—Lassie style. (You know the scene.)
“There are two types of chihuahuas: there are the little Napoleonic ones, who've been on the street trying to attack pit bulls, and then there's the little scared ones,” Berloni says. “And I thought, ‘Let me look for the Napoleonic one, who's not afraid of anything, and barks a lot. Who barks all the time.’ Because then I could teach him to be quiet, and run onto a stage, doing what he does naturally, and then asking him to stop for five seconds. So that's exactly what I did.
“I have lived the last 12, 13 years now, with the most barkiest, obnoxious chihuahuas you'd ever want to have, because they're perfect for that show,” he laughs.
Traditionally, the Arthur Miller doesn’t feature a dog, but producer Scott Rudin called Berloni saying, “[Director] Ivo [van Hove] has this vision of a wolf coming across the stage and stalking the audience.” For this gig, the hardest part was finding a “wolf.” Wolves are illegal to own and wolf hybrids are dangerous animals. But, “there is one breed of dog that has been specifically bred to look like a wolf, and genetically, there’s no wolf blood in it, and it's called a Tamaskan,” says Berloni with encyclopedic knowledge. He found two and wound up borrowing one from owners in Seattle.
But how do you get a dog, night after night, to scan the audience? “You know how you hold the toy up, and you move it from right to left, and their head follows it?” Berloni asks. “He would get center stage, and in the back of the house we had a stage manager who would hold up a flashlight on his favorite toy, and he’d look at it, and he’d watch it, and the audience had no clue. And if he did the behavior, he would exit stage right, he would meet the stage manager in the lobby, and they’d play with the ball.” Instant reward.
“If you were sitting in the audience, you thought that dog was looking into your eyes, ready to jump off that stage,” Berloni says with a smile. “But he was looking for his favorite toy.”
For the movie based on the book by Sigrid Nunez—about a NYC woman who unexpectedly inherits a Great Dane and winds up falling in love with him—Berloni first turned down the job. Great Danes are notoriously impossible to train, but if anyone can, it’s Berloni. “There was no trained Great Dane in this country that is available to do films, so [I said] ‘I’d have to train it from scratch, and you'd have to rewrite your movie.’” (Berloni is now a collaborative writer and director on the film.)
Unlike in theatre, the Great Dane (of which there are two for the movie) can respond to Berloni as he stands off-camera. “They're sort of lazy, gentle giants, so they’re not really motivated to learn and because they’re so big, people don’t socialize them, so they’re sensitive, and they’re spooky,” he says. But Berloni won them over and his dogs are fully the co-stars of the story.
Because of Winn-Dixie
Berloni’s toughest task to date was training the lead for an original stage musical, Because of Winn-Dixie, which he and his wife Dorothy had wanted to adapt for years. With over 120 cues, “it took three trainers, two off-stage, one onstage, including the actress who was playing Opal, the lead, to make it look like this dog was acting completely independently as a character,” Berloni says.
But Berloni’s favorite performance every year is the one without any cues: Best In Shows. The annual benefit concert i support of the Humane Society of New York features Broadway stars singing to their furry companions—an homage to all the hard-working animal actors. “The Andy Karls, or Annaleigh Ashfords, or Sutton Fosters all come do a benefit,” he says with pride. “Being able to use my talents to give back to society, and to actually help real people and real animals is also another gift.”