The Life of a Dog Actor

The infamous saying, “Never work with animals or children,” was first spoken by W.C. Fields as a tip for those humans being forced to share the stage and screen. It is often still muttered by cast or crew members when one or the other shows up on set. And that means Briana Messerschmidt, community outreach director of Hollywood Paws hears it a lot!

Hollywood Paws is a Los Angeles-based company that helps dogs (and their humans) in almost every aspect of becoming an animal actor or model — careers that have a shared skillset. “In people world it’s different, but in dog world it’s the exact same thing,” Briana explains.

Briana started working at Hollywood Paws around 10 years ago. Before that, she went to a specialized school to learn how to train animals. She is also an associate marriage and family therapist with skills that, no doubt, help when faced with someone quoting Mr. Fields!

The first dog actor Briana Messerschmidt, community outreach director of Hollywood Paws, owned was Belgian Malinois Lilu. Photography courtesy of Briana Messerschmidt

Lilu the Belgian Malinois

The first four-legged actor Briana owned was Lilu, a brilliant Belgian Malinois. In general, the industry is vain, Briana explains, which means Lilu didn’t have the same opportunities as other breeds would. “Cute,” “sweet,” “family dogs,” are who usually book the jobs. In advertisements, casting is looking for a dog who will catch your attention and then will pass the spotlight to the product being featured. Dogs like Lilu, who tend to be associated with police or military working dogs, just don’t fit that description.

Even with industry bias against her, Lilu booked a number of jobs due to her impressive training. In 2013, Lilu showed off her skills on the set of Guinness World Records Unleashed by removing 20 people’s socks in one minute. She could have done more, but there weren’t any socked feet left on stage. Later in the same year, she went on the TV show Katie and set the record for the most shoes removed in one minute. Both records still stand.

dog actor

Today Briana works with her Golden Retriever, Coral, who has already been featured in an ad. Photography courtesy of Briana Messerschmidt

Coral hits the big time

When Lilu went to live with her human dad full time, it took a while before Briana was ready for another furry family member. When she was, she opted for a breed that has the best chance of booking work — a Golden Retriever. “The dog everyone wants … the iconic family dog with an easy temperament that everyone wants to put in their ad.”

Enter to the stage, Coral. Coral is a year old, and her doggie resume is already filling up.

“As a trainer I can’t help myself to train sometimes. It just comes naturally,” Briana explains. In her trainer role, Briana tells future actor dogs’ owners to not worry about getting any gigs until the dog is at least 8 months old. For those first eight months it’s key to world isn’t a scary place is key to them succeeding in the business.

For “training” as a puppy, Coral was taken out every day and everywhere, including active sets where her mom was working with clients. Then Coral got lucky. Whistle contacted the agency looking for a Golden Retriever puppy. At that point Coral, who was around 4½ months old, hadn’t done much specific training, but she was confident and that’s what she needed to do the job. Just like that, Coral became one of the dogs featured on Whistle’s website.

Coral knew the basics the director was looking for. “That’s all they ever really want on set — a dog being a dog, but they want specific things they do on cue.” Basics include “sit,” “down,” “on your feet,” “circle,” “on your side,” “barking,” “taking a bow,” “head up” and “head down,” which later in the dog’s training include focusing on the end of a stick called an aim stick, which allows the trainer to get higher ups and focus off herself.

What makes the basics more difficult is the dog’s ability to do it a good distance from the trainer and with a high level of distraction. A dog can be in a scene while her trainer is 8 feet or more away, often behind the camera and surrounded by other humans where she is expected to perform on cue while other actors and crew members are working around her.

Photography courtesy of Briana Messerschmidt

Since her first job, Coral has learned to hit her mark. For dogs, a mark is usually a physical thing that she knows she has to go to, stop and perform on. Briana has added “watch me” and “watch it,” and she can place food in the scene and Coral will sit on her mark and stare at the food — without
eating it!

One day she will be as good as her sister Lilu and be able to perform all of her skills while focused on something, like delicious food. Her self-control even includes being able to hold something in her mouth and dropping it on cue — again, without eating it!

For Coral, her acting work is a fun game where she is rewarded with love, praise, treats and the spotlight. I bet even Mr. Fields would think more like Emma Thompson if he had had the pleasure of working with Lilu or Coral. Thompson edited the comedian’s quote by saying, “There is that thing about not working with animals and children — I don’t think that’s true. Although you should never work with donkeys.


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