Dogs on television or in movies are a marvel to watch. They seem to ‘act’ on their own, with no visible help or cues from anyone, but this is not magic. These dogs know how to take cues from a distance, often with only hand signals. The camera only shows a limited view, and the handler is right there on the set just off camera, asking for commands and tricks.
Consider Mr. Wuzzle, a canine actor in the mid-eighties that was discovered on the street in Manhattan by a dog talent scout. In the heyday of big corporate advertising budgets and fast-talking ‘Mad Men’ in slick suits. Mr. Wuzzle became the official spokesdog of Gaines burgers and biscuits, getting primped in front of the camera like a spoiled supermodel.
If your dog is a people-pleaser and a treat vaccum, you can start working toward his debut with these tips:
Target training– teach your dog to ‘Touch’. I like to use a Post-it pad in my palm. (Later, we’ll tear a Post-it off the pad and place it on another object we want the dog to touch.) Now place a few meaty or cheese treats on a table or counter. Offer the pad about twelve inches from your dog’s nose, and say, “Touch!” He should be curious enough to bring his nose to it. Immediately say, “Yes!” and place a treat right in his mouth. Do this several times until he is reaching for the Post-it. He may try to skip that step and just stare at you for treats, but wave the Post-it pad at least twelve inches away from him until he touches it. Be careful not to push it up to his nose; he must reach out for it. After five or six successful touches, stop for now and pick it up later the same day, always before a meal when he is hungry.
Distance work– Brush up on your basic commands and then try them from farther away. Tie your dog securely to a tree or post and walk out in front of him about six feet, so the tie is behind him. Ask for a simple “Sit”. Help him comply by sweeping one hand up from your thigh to about your eye level. Praise him but don’t move toward him. Try the “Down” command by doing the opposite. Instead of bringing your hand up, bring it down to your ankle level.
Hand signals– Start with a simple, “Watch!” command. Grab a tasty treat and let your dog have a sniff. Say, “Watch” and bring that hand up to your face and point to your nose. When he looks, lightly clap your hands together up at your chest level and give him the treat. Do this twice and on the third try, do it silently.
Now, try to combine the distance work concept with the hand signals. Tie your dog and walk about eight feet out in front of him. Ask for “Watch” silently, with only your treat-filled hand pointing up to your nose. If he looks, smile and clap quietly. Move in and treat him.
Stay tuned for the next post, when we will take these concepts and teach two camera-ready tricks. I’ll also give you advice directly from a New York animal agent. In the meantime, keep your practice sessions short and sweet, and your attitude happy. Soon your little wage-earner could get his fifteen minutes, or more.