- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

Think working with vain actors can be difficult? Try sharing a set with a dog that might dart away if a tantalizing scent hits its cold, wet nose.

Veteran animal trainer Jim Warren has been coaxing canines and other animals through their paces for film and television for 15 years.

His latest gig involved helping bring the beloved nonfiction tale “Marley & Me” to the big screen. That meant being part of a training team directing eight adult dogs and a number of puppies to duplicate the rambunctious behavior of the book’s hero.

“The challenge in this film is to make them not look like they’ve been trained,” Mr. Warren says. “You want them to be crazy, but at the same time, you want trained behavior.”

Mr. Warren and crew got just that from the dog actors, but some on-set snafus couldn’t be avoided. During a critical snow scene, the dog actor decided he wanted to romp in the snow rather than do as his trainer instructed. So he fled the set, forcing a gaggle of workers to give chase.

“He was being Marley,” Mr. Warren says.

Mr. Warren was working on wildlife rehabilitation projects when he began training animals for film and TV. Since then, he has helped out on a number of animal-centric films, including “Charlotte’s Web” and “Evan Almighty.”

The latter required a team of 38 animal trainers. For comparison’s sake, “Marley & Me” used six trainers to help the dog actors hit their marks.

Every movie offers its own potential pitfalls, Mr. Warren says. Some directors resist any changes to the script, even if Mr. Warren tells them it might be difficult for the animal actor to perform the scripted tricks.

“The director doesn’t want to hear, ‘That’s not gonna happen,’” he says.

For “Marley & Me,” which stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as the owners of a misbehaving dog, Mr. Warren made his dog actors mimic how an aging animal would go up and down the stairs.

Marley’s “hips are supposed to go out. How do we make him look like he’s falling? It takes a lot of time and thought,” Mr. Warren says.

Mr. Warren worked with a number of dogs for the film, including Brody, a 9-year-old yellow Labrador from Monument, Colo. The older dog exemplifies what a trainer wants in a dog actor.

“He’s very intelligent. He’s got a ‘want to please’ attitude,” Mr. Warren says. “If he does something wrong … he’s got the attitude that he’ll keep trying.”

No matter how much planning goes on before the director yells “Action,” it’s hard to determine precisely how the animal actor will perform.

“Thinking you can control an animal to do anything is a ludicrous thought,” says animal trainer Bill Berloni, who is guiding Toto the dog in the touring production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Mr. Berloni says he trains the human actors with whom he works to be his assistants, because it’s their cues the animals ultimately will obey.

“We’re in the wings, supervising,” Mr. Berloni says. “The dogs don’t go out and act. They’re only reacting to cues.”

Mr. Berloni walks the actors through some worst-case scenarios just in case.

“We actually train the actors into a myriad of ‘what ifs.’ They can cover [a gaffe] without the audience knowing,” he says.

He can’t predict every possibility, though.

Mr. Berloni recalls a performance of “Legally Blonde” in San Francisco that he won’t soon forget. The show’s bulldog got so excited when cued to go onstage and eat some cookies that he vomited for all the audience to see. That’s a common reaction when that breed is worked up, Mr. Berloni says.

Turns out the highly trained cast also broke character that night.

“The actors lost it.”

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