Want to know how to make your dog a star?

Want to know how to make your dog a star?

We all think that our pet is the best. And be it your cat, dog or other creature companion, you've probably wondered what differentiates your beloved from the ones you see on the big and small screen.

Maybe your dog can do cool tricks, is unwavering in his or her obedience, or just has that "it" factor which makes people turn to get a second look at them.

In any case, if your pet is a stunner and the fact that he/she isn't splayed across the big screen for all to see is an outrage, here's what it takes to make them a star.

Believe it or not, there is actually a company right here in Ireland whose speciality is to spot talented pets.

Fircroft Animal Actors boasts of a host of impressive credits and the range of work the dogs they train do is expansive. They've trained animals for poster and TV adverts (Irish setter Jamie would definitely be recognisable to anyone who's seen the Bus Eireann ad) as well as TV shows and feature films.

Their movie credits include 'Saving Private Ryan', 'Braveheart', 'The Snapper', 'Far & Away', 'The Honeymooners', 'Lassie' (2005), 'The Omen' (2006), and 'P.S. I Love You'. They've also appeared in major Irish TV shows like 'Fair City', 'Ballykissangel', 'Bachelor's Walk', 'The Tudors', and 'Moone Boy'. The firm's sheep have even featured on MTV while their dog Sonny starred on 'Game of Thrones'.

Mary Owens, an English Kennel Club Advanced Accredited Instructor (KCAI) and Irish Associate of the Northern Centre for Animal Behaviour U.K., (ANCAB), is head animal trainer at Fircroft while Rita Moloney A.N.C.A.B is animal coordinator/advisor.

Mary detailed for us the amount of work it takes to become an animal actor, and a trainer.

"It's not a matter that we're in here training dogs day in and day out for a film. We train it as the job comes in. So a typical day if we had an animal in for training would probably be walking and exercise to care for the physical and mental health of the dog, cat, pig or another animal that we're working with. Then you'd probably spend 20 minutes working on the task that the animal is required to do in the ad or movie. You have to spend time teaching it how to learn and it's all reward-based.

"We have to teach them to enjoy the rewards and then you teach them or kind of accidentally lure them into doing something. You keep rewarding that action and then that way they then learn what it is that gets them the reward.

"Very often, in the beginning, it looks like we’re getting nowhere. Especially the first couple of weeks can feel like a long time, but as soon as the dog catches on to the idea, suddenly, it then moves so much quicker, because they’ve figured it out and they become much more creative with offering you different things. It frees up their mind so they can almost guess what it is you’re looking for. The more they’re trained in that sort of format, the quicker they are at getting new tasks.

"That would be a typical day if you're preparing an animal. Then you add to that so as soon as the dog or animal is comfortable doing its work here, you then take them to a different environment. Almost inevitably they take a few steps back so you practise there and you build their confidence. And then you will bring them to the location, you'll ask if you can bring them to the set or the location and practise with them there. All the prep work that you do makes it so much easier on the day to get the shoot and to get what the director is looking for."

Their current team of animal actors span a wide variety of breeds, shapes, sizes and colours (she listed for us her current household: two cats, two terriers, a setter, a collie, a rescue Rottie and Staffie cross). Apart from their own personal dogs, Fircroft source and train other dogs when required. In fact, they typically outsource the jobs they get.

"It's much more common that we go out and source dogs - find somebody who would like their animals to appear on whatever it is. Then it's our job to work with the owner and the animal to prepare it. The animal owner gets a fee and we get a fee for our time and for the work we have to put in.

"But people have these notions and they, unfortunately, like dollar signs but generally speaking, you get just a very basic fee for the use or loan of the animal. Budgets are getting lower and lower too. Sometimes you work with shorts by young people who are just starting out, and we'll always try and help out them out in any way we can with an animal, but only as long as it doesn't cost us money.

"People won't get rich on film work in Ireland. There's no doubt about that, they just won't. But most people just love to actually see their animal on the TV or in a film, and they accept the fact that it's a reasonable fee for the loan of their animal for the day or whatever length of time it is. You can get a long movie where you need to borrow an animal for a period of time."

But before you go signing up your dog, Mary had a few words of caution. Being an animal actor in Ireland is a tough gig generally because of the inconsistent nature of the work.

"In Ireland, we wouldn't have the volume of work that you could have a trained kennel of creatures for," she said. "Now if you're in America, or Japan, or Britain or other countries, there are companies where they actually own all the animals, train them and hire them out.

"Film work here is very spasmodic. This year we had nothing from January until about a fortnight ago when the phone started hopping again. The amount of film productions that come into Ireland isn't massive anyway and sometimes there isn't an animal in it. Or sometimes the animal that is in it may not be one that we have.

"The setter that we trained up for the Bus Eireann ad, a beautiful, well-trained dog, probably only got one or two small parts after that. We just couldn't afford to keep a huge batch of animals because the demand isn't there. You could have a beautiful white German shepherd but they want a brown one. It just isn't feasible here."

There is more work going for animals in advertisements and in Mary's opinion, it's preferable. She explains: "The most work would probably be in commercials and commercials are lovely when you get them because they might have a reasonable budget and they're short. You know you're not going to have to borrow someone's dog for weeks on end. Or be going and collecting their dog constantly to bring it on set. Photoshoots are common work as well.

"Film is very hit and miss. It's very seldom that you have one where the dog actually stars all the way through. We have a couple of inquiries in there at the moment but it will only be for a day's work, to make an appearance in a scene. Last year we worked on 'Greta', the Neil Jordan one, and that was brilliant because the dog featured heavily in that. But then a lot of his work was actually let on the cutting room floor! So I felt very sorry for the owner because some of the really nice scenes weren't there at all but sure, that's the way it goes.

"I do get lots of pictures of dogs sent in by people telling me their pets should be on ‘Fair City’ or film. And of course, there are fabulous animals out there. But the actual reality of it is the opportunities out there are very small."

Mary stressed the importance of temperament and explained that they'll typically use unproven cats and dogs for this reason. She also spoke about how animal welfare is a priority when working on set.

"It’s so important that you have good communication between the director, first AD [assistant director] and yourself so that they don’t suddenly throw something at you that you weren’t prepared for. We’ve gotten much tougher at saying no to certain situations because as one producer said to us ‘always remember we’re very greedy people.’ They’ll always want more so now, if it’s not in our brief, it’s not happening. The welfare of the animal has to come first.

"We have to remember that these are creatures that feel and they can’t speak up for themselves so you have to be there to stand up for them. Most of the people working in film love animals and are very caring. But you might just get the odd one or two who are caught up in themselves and their own job so they’re a bit dismissive. It’s very important for us to say ‘well this is our job.’ That aspect of our work is very important and we’ve prided ourselves on that over the years."

So what advice does Mary offer to those who want to see their dog or other pet on the big or small screen?

"I suppose that it’s not just about having a pretty face. There are certain important things to teach your dog like that it comes when it’s called, that it’ll sit or lie down and stay there and be rock steady, regardless of what’s going on around it. It needs to be very sociable and happy with people. And the other thing that they often like is that the dog will bark on command, and also that the dog will retrieve or carry something. They would be the basics that you need but having said that, then it’s luck.

"I remember watching ‘Blue Peter’ with the children and writing into RTE saying I’ve this lovely, young collie who’s very friendly and well-trained, and perhaps you’d have somewhere amongst your programmes that you’d like to use her. It was a whole year later when I got a call from someone saying they were looking for a studio dog for a programme called ‘Youngline’ and they still had the photograph I’d sent in. Sure enough, Tansy then went on to be their studio dog for about three or four years. So really I suppose I’d say chance your arm. You can send them to me or off to other people or agencies and you never know what might happen.

"It’s worth noting too that it's very seldom that you’ll see an ad for a dog for a film. Normally the agencies will come to us because they know we’re reliable. It’s not like ‘Extras’ where sometimes you’ll see ads for crowd scenes or unpaid work. With animals, it’s worth sending out photographs here, there and everywhere."

Studio execs could be looking for any breed and different ones become popular at different times. But as it turns out, if your dog is black in colour, it’s unlikely to ever book a gig.

"Black dogs just do not get work, because it’s very hard to capture their expression on camera. It applies to rescue situations too sadly. Black dogs are often left behind because they haven’t got that same visual appeal as cute, light-coloured dogs."

You can find out more about the work Mary does at animalactors.ie.