- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - It was a rebellious golden retriever named Sadie that brought Alicia Rudd into the local film industry fold.

The year was 1987 and Rudd, an animal trainer for big and small screens, had returned to her hometown of Wrightsville Beach to finish her English degree at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. For several years Rudd, now 53, worked in the heart of Hollywood alongside established animal trainers.

But the pace was a bit too fast for the girl who once took a boat to school.

Knowing little of the still-burgeoning film industry at the time, Sadie’s innate ability for slipping a fence brought a unique opportunity right to Rudd’s front door.

“A movie that was shooting here needed some extra dogs and my dog had been arrested so many times for getting loose that the dog catcher suggested they call me,” Rudd said, laughing.

The film was a 1987 TV movie starring Phoebe Cates, titled “Date With an Angel.”

For Rudd, it was more like a date with destiny. In the past 30 years, she has worked on almost every major production in Southeastern North Carolina.

Now a veterinary technician at Paws and Claws Animal Hospital in Wilmington, Rudd continues to provide animals for productions. But like most of the region’s film workers, she and her pooches have seen their opportunities shrink.

After the N.C. General Assembly nixed an attractive film incentive program last year in favor of a limited grant program, the once-plentiful field of work right in Rudd’s backyard has been largely vacated.

But it’s just another pit stop in a career that once had Rudd bound for dental school. Instead, she course-corrected and put her lifelong passion for animals to use - whether it be casting them or curing them.

In those first years back from the West Coast, she only provided productions dogs and cats. But Rudd soon realized it might be best to broaden her animal client list. Since then, she has offered snakes, reptiles, rabbits, pigeons, horses and livestock.

Among her contributions are Truman, a dog featured on the first season of CBS’ “Under the Dome;” a rabbit nicknamed Chester on The CW’s “One Tree Hill;” cockroaches for an autopsy scene in “Idlewild;” and Revolutionary War-era livestock for Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” to name just a few.

There was also the time she covered young Dakota Fanning in 30 nonvenomous snakes for “Hounddog.” And the days she trained 14 horses to gallop down the beach for a climactic scene in “Nights in Rodanthe.”

Rudd owns a handful of the dogs she provides. But when she needs something a bit more specific or exotic, she has a network of friends and colleagues who are happy to offer up their animals for 15 minutes of fame.

Training

While every animal is different, Rudd said training always starts with establishing a bond and a reward-based system.

“It is all done with rewards, treats and love,” she said. “The little treat is their pay at the end of the day. They all have a sense a purpose and they want to be rewarded for what they are doing.”

The first step is seeing if the animal is food-motivated and will respond to the reward system.

From there, Rudd said it’s crucial they all learn a few basic skills. Among those skills for dogs is a good stay command, the ability to pick up something in their mouth, the ability to speak on cue and a familiarity with hand signals in case, while filming, Rudd can’t verbally communicate with them.

“Then you build on each command, each one leads to another,” she said. “You are basically taking words and putting them into sentences.”

Quick on set

When an animal is on set, Rudd said it is vital to get them acclimated to the often chaotic environment before cameras start rolling.

“We do a walk through to get them used to the set, the props and the lighting,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get on my hands and knees, the same height of the animal, and get a feel for their point of view on set.”

She usually tells directors to tape the rehearsal because an animal’s first take could be its best.

But even with the challenges of getting an animal ready to act, Rudd said it’s still the humans that can provide the biggest hurdles.

“The hardest challenge I’ve faced is the people,” she said, admitting to only partially joking. “Having them understand exactly what we agreed to do and having them understand the animal is only going to do it so many times before it gets old.”

Change of pace

Although being a professional animal trainer is what has helped pay the bills for a decade or two, Rudd’s passion for animals - and a lack of local film work - landed her a more stable position at Paws and Claws in 2013.

Receiving her certification at Penn Foster College in May, she’s now a registered vet tech that helps prep for surgery, gives vaccines and assists the veterinarian.

Shifting her focus to the medical field has kept Rudd in the business of animals even when film work couldn’t.

Only now her client base has expanded to their owners as well.

“It is like a ministry for me to be able to go and help people who are so scared for their dog or cat,” Rudd said. “I love being able to go and hold their hand, and say, ‘Paws and Claws is great and we’re going to do everything we can to help you.’ “

Knowing how to calm an animal on set also helped hone her skills for those animals terrified of a vet visit.

Most of Rudd’s time is now spent assisting animals in need - meaning training has taken a back seat. But it was never meant to be her livelihood.

“Every movie was always going to be my last one,” she said. “And then the phone would ring again. You didn’t know if work was going to come to town. It was a hobby I was able to make mortgage payments with.”

Even though the phone hasn’t been ringing much lately with paying work for her four-legged friends, Rudd said they are her family and that bond remains no matter what.

“These are my animals,” she said. “I’m not taking them to the pound just because they are on unemployment.”

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