By Charlene Dunlap

Poodle lands supporting role in new dog-training video.

"The Poodle's role in the story was that of the 'professionally trained' and 'arrogant' Pierre."

I HAD BEEN in the process of teaching April, my apricot Standard, to "Mail a letter," but I was told that the producer didn't want an apricot Poodle. He wanted a black one. I had been teaching Stoney, my black Standard, to "Get the mail." I have been working on a routine (for schools and nursing homes) where April would mail a letter which Stoney would then go to the mailbox to get. Changing "Get the mail" to "Mail a letter" would require Stoney to unlearn several steps before I could make progress in his training. Time consuming, but necessary. I had six weeks. It'd be close.

Although Stoney knew the individual cues necessary to accomplish the refrigerator "trick," I had never actually used the cues involving a refrigerator. The refrigerator scene would require Stoney to "Pull" open the refrigerator door, "Get" three soft drinks off the shelf, and "Bring" them to me -- all cued from a distance of about ten feet.

All of Stoney's training had been correction-free.   Although he had always retrieved whatever I asked, we had never been in a situation where it really mattered if he didn't.  But now, someone else's time and money wereon the line.  Would Stoney open a stranger's refrigerator door in a cramped kitchen with cameras, lights, and people hovering above him?  Whould he retrieve three cans of soda and deliver them to someone esle on a single cue?  Would this video make Stoney famous?!!  

To make it easier for Stoney to pick up and carry three cans of soda, I got a clear plastic tube (about the diameter of a pencil) and cut a section a little wider than Stoney's mouth. I sliced this down its length and secured it around one of the plastic loops that holds a six-pack of soda. I put a can in a loop on either side of the mouthpiece (for balance) and began handing it to Stoney with his know cue, "Hold." After he would solidly hold the cans, I had him carry them. Sometimes I took the cans from him, sometimes I had him deliver them to my husband. Then, I had Stoney pick up the cans from the floor, from a low table and, finally, from the refrigerator shelf. When he would successfully go and get two cans (by the mouthpiece) off the refrigerator shelf (without dropping them), I added a third can to the opposite side. The cans made a pretty, red inverted triangle against Stoney's black chest. Since I used only positive reinforcement in teaching Stoney these behaviors, he learned that getting the cans and bringing them to me was a highly rewarding and fun activity.

Next, I took Stoney to friends' houses to have him practice opening their refrigerator doors. I would start over each time. First, getting Stoney to nose the tug attached to the handle and finally rewarding him only for pulling the door open.

Relating all of the components that went into teaching "Mail a Letter" is beyond the scope of this article. A lot of separately trained behaviors went into the chain that formed the smooth finished trick. By the end of six weeks, I wished that I'd had two more to get everything solid.

WE ARRIVED ON LOCATION at 7:30 AM. All of Stoney's scenes, and those of Mr. Fenster (Pierre's owner), would be shot that Saturday -- an eleven hour day.

The typically southern two-story house was at the end of a cul-de-sac and had a long driveway that descended steeply down a hill to the garage. The "location" home was set behind a beautifully landscaped front yard. Pink Impatiens lined the sidewalk up to the front door. Privacy woods bordered either side of the lawn. A sign by the mailbox announced Yard of the Month.

In addition to a "trick Poodle," the script called for a "trick Lab." The owner of the Lab trained dogs for the handicapped, and her dog's scenes would reflect this training. An eight week old Lab puppy was also there for a scene with Pierre and Mr. Fenster. On the set (the front lawn) were the actors, the dog handlers (with their dogs), two cameramen, one audio man, a script girl, and the director.

We watched as the actor and the puppy, and then another actor and an adult Lab each did their scenes. It was fascinating watching the crew shoot each scene from a variety of angles and distances. Shooting a scene that would last a few minutes in the final edit could take an hour, or more, to shoot. Fortunately my husband, Glenn, had come along to help with Stoney's mailbox scene, because the very first thing we learned was that it was going to take two people to work a dog for the camera.

Glenn set up the mailbox at the top of the driveway in front of a large, pretty bush. The mailbox was black industrial plastic with a red plastic flag. It was mounted on top of a white post that was attached to a base. We wanted to use a plastic mailbox, instead of the home owner's metal one as metal heats up very quickly under the August sun, and Stoney had to use his nose to push up the lid and the flag. A block of wood served as a step so Stoney could reach the mailbox. We then covered the base of the post and the step-up block with ferns to give an appearance of permanence.

Then we went to the house next door, which had a fairly level driveway, and they videotaped Stoney carrying the letter from the house out to the street. (The crew did not shoot scenes in the sequence of the final video.) For this, Glenn put Stoney on a sit/stay with the letter in his mouth and stepped out of camera range. I stood by the mailbox next to the cameraman. I called Stoney and he came flying off the steps, across the lawn, and up to the street (supposedly to mail the letter). They shot this scene three times from different angles. The whole mailbox sequence had gone very well, and I breathed a little easier. I congratulated Stoney on a job well done.

ACTING IS ABOUT reading cues. To make a story believable, actors must be able to relate to other actors by responding, in a realistic way, to their physical and/or verbal cues. Therefore, I was amazed how poorly the actors gave cues to and read cues from the dogs. Throughout the day, there were several scenes in which Stoney (Pierre) had to appear next to (or relating in some way to) his "owner," Mr. Fenster. It seemed to me that the actor who played Fenster treated Stoney more as a prop than as a fellow actor. Stoney, being the discerning and sensitive soul that he is, picked up on this immediately. Nonetheless, he did every behavior I asked -- EXCEPT the one thing I had been sure he would do.

In Pierre's final scene, Stoney is supposed to put his feet on Mr. Fenster's lap, and (appear to) be ashamed by hiding his face. But, when I cued Stoney "Feet up" and he put his feet on Fenstor's knee, the actor visibly stiffened. My polite Poodle responded by saying, It's okay, Mister. I wouldn't dream of imposing myself on you. Visions of Stoney's fame dwindled.

After an awkward few moments, I asked if another behavior would suit the director's purpose. I stood behind the actor while Stoney sat in front of him (so it appeared as if Pierre was looking at Fenster) and I cued Stoney to "Touch your nose." So, while his owner is telling him off (for not being as smart as the Lab) Pierre raises one front paw, lowers his head, and covers his nose with his paw.

THE STORYLINE'S final scenes were shot in the family room. This was with Mr. Fenster, Pierre, and the Goode family (husband, wife, son, and now grown Lab). The Goode family is proudly showing off to Mr. Fenster the dog they'd trained themselves.

Stoney had to lie (or sit) by Mr. Fenster, amid cameras and lights, while the actors said their lines what seemed like a thousand times. Then, the Lab, Tar (in the story), picked up toys off the table, sofa and floor and put them into a basket. In another scene, she walked in carrying two soft-drink bottles. The Lab was well trained and exuberant and I enjoyed watching her work.

Stoney and I waited on the sidelines while the production company shot footage of Tar turning off the TV, and of her actually getting the bottles out of the refrigerator. Each of the "tricks" was shot over and over from different angles. This footage would later be cut into its correspondending sequence for the final rendition. Stoney's last scene of the day (which would be one of the first in the actual video) would be at another house, and we left to go practice before the crew arrived.

The new location was to be Fenster's home. The crew shot several scenes in the living room. They had Pierre walk into the scene carrying the three cans of soda and of Fenster taking the drinks and offering them to his guests, the Goode family. Then Fenster handed Pierre a letter to mail. Stoney had to carry the letter out of the scene to me on the opposite side of the room. He did this through two cameramen, the script girl, the audio man, lights, cables and around an ottoman. I knelt and hugged him, thinking happily that I had the most wonderful Poodle in the entire world!

Finally -- the refrigerator scene. I was confident now that Stoney would get the sodas, IF he would pull open the door. As I said, Stoney does not like to pull. But, when the cameras were rolling, he did pull -- and each time he did, he pulled with more vigor. Although he would pull the door open far enough to get the soda cans out, the director wanted the door to swing all the way open to make a more pleasing picture. So, Glenn tied some fishing line to the top of the door and one of the helpers stood in the next room out of sight. The director also wanted the door to swing shut as Stoney walked away carrying the three-pack of sodas.

Shooting the whole sequence was accomplished in just a few takes. Stoney pulled the door open. As he did, the helper pulled the fishing line so that the door opened all the way. Stoney picked up the cans off the lower shelf of the 

I took Stoney to different friends' houses to practice getting sodas out of their refrigerators.

Stoney practicing mailing a letter at home.

"DON'T WORRY." You've got plenty of time -- six weeks."

"Six weeks?" I have only six weeks?!!"

The owner of a local dog training facility, where I had taught a couple of canine acting classes, told me that a producer had contacted her looking for a "trick Poodle." The producer wanted a black Standard Poodle for a new video he was producing. The video was to be one in a series he had produced and directed based on dog training books by Richard Wolters. The new FAMILY DOG project called for a Standard Poodle to: 1) Mail a letter, 2) Get three cans of soda from the refrigerator, 3) Act ashamed.

The Poodle's role in the story was that of the "professionally trained" and "arrogant" Pierre. Pierre and his "equally arrogant" owner, Mr. Fenster, are the catalysts that compel Fenster's neighbors to train their own Labrador Retriever puppy. The story then follows Mr. and Mrs. Goode and their small son through the training of their Lab puppy to a fully trained adult. Most of the Poodle's scenes would appear at the beginning of the story, and he also would have a couple of scenes at the very end. The scriptwriter, Billy Fields, had been a writer for the sitcom TAXI, and his FAMILY DOG script was both humorous and informative.

The only behavior I felt we had nailed down tight was "acting ashamed." For this I would have Stoney sit, put his feet on the actor's lap and hide his face between his front legs. Stoney had been doing this behavior for years. The "ashamed" behavior was to happen (at the end of the story) when the owner is chastising Pierre for not being as smart as the Goode family's now fully trained Lab. I wouldn't have to work on this behavior. Or, so I thought.

I BROKE THE MAILBOX TRICK and the refrigerator trick down into their individual components and made a list of how, and in what order, I needed to accomplish each step. After Stoney had learned each separate step, I would then link them all together in a chain for each finished trick.

Stoney had to come up the driveway holding a letter, then loop sharply back to come straight up to the mailbox. We accomplished this by having him hold the letter out of camera range while I placed myself behind the mailbox and Glenn stood out in the street. Glenn called Stoney and when he was almost there, I called so he turned back towards me (and the mailbox). I told him, "Mail the letter." He put his feet on the wood block, pawed the mailbox lid open with one foot, and dropped the letter inside. Then he nosed the lid shut. A couple of times the lid flopped open because the letter got stuck, and a couple of times Stoney's feet slipped off the block, but he enthusiastically repeated the sequence as many times as I asked. It didn't take long for the crew to get shots from several angles of Stoney carrying the letter from the driveway to the mailbox, pawing open the lid, putting the letter inside, nosing the lid shut, and pushing up the flag with his nose.

refrigerator and turned to walk towards the camera (and me). As he did, one of the actors, who was hiding behind the wall in the adjacent room, pushed the refrigerator door closed and quickly withdrew her hand before the closing door revealed it. As Stoney carried the cans past looming cameras and crew members, I relaxed for the first time that day. Stoney had performed all of his scenes remarkably well, and under stressful and confusing circumstances. I'm sure everyone there thought I was just a little crazy because I kept gushing, "Stoney, EXCELLENT boy! GOOD JOB! I'm SOOO proud of you!"

Poodles had once again involved me in an intriguing adventure. Because of Poodles, I have opened myself to new ways of thinking, to new activities, to new goals. Poodles are a joyful and essential part of my life. The FAMILY DOG video project was yet another thing I could not have done without my (almost famous) Poodle.