Article written for the German-language
Author: Charlene Dunlap
Using positive reinforcement techniques, many people are now teaching their dogs a variety of clever and unusual actions and behaviors . . . and, they enjoy showing others what their dogs can do. However, rather than simply having a dog demonstrate these actions and behaviors to an audience as isolated units, it is much more interesting to see them presented in a context that is creative and entertaining. Two ways to accomplish this are through live entertainment shows and “home” movies.
I prefer movies for three reasons: 1) I can incorporate anything and everything I've trained my dogs to do - as long as I make it fit into the story, 2) I don't have to be part of the entertainment so the presentation can focus entirely on the dog's performance, and 3) movies allow a dog's “acting” skills to reach out and connect with an audience in a way that few other venues can accomplish.
Most dogs trained for live entertainment shows are specialists - that is, they are trained to perform a limited number of tricks, moves, or stunts. In many cases, these dogs are pattern - trained and have their routine memorized. Since they have only one chance to impress an audience, they must learn to perform their tricks and stunts as quickly, flawlessly, and energetically as possible. In live shows, the handler is of equal importance to the dog since the person is part of the presentation: she or he has to engage the audience, set the pace and tempo of the performance, and cover any mistakes the dog makes.
A dog trained to star in his own movies is a generalist: that is, he is taught a little bit of everything - some actions or behaviors are taught to “perfection” while others are taught just well enough to get on film. Unlike in live entertainment, the human partner of the movie-dog team is invisible. It is entirely what the dog does on-screen that will affect the audience. The handler can be just outside the frame of the camera giving directions, but the audience does not want to ever feel that someone is cueing the dog: they want to believe in the story that is being presented on-screen.
I have been making movies of my dogs for over ten years and use the clicker as a positive reinforcement tool for training many of their movie behaviors: professional trainers have successfully used the clicker to train commercial movie dogs for over fifty years. Using the clicker, trainers are able to isolate and capture nuances in dog behavior that are difficult to train with any other method.
THE CANINE ACTOR
The objective for a good canine actor is to look as natural as possible while doing any action or behavior in a scene . . . as if he were doing it as an innate part of his everyday repertoire. The dog's actions and appearance must be consistent with what is being presented in the storyline, whether it is a dramatic scene, an action scene, or a comedic scene. The behaviors you have the dog perform on-screen must tell the story, much like how a Hollywood director uses an actor's repertoire to create a character for films .
To help an audience better understand and relate to the canine actor's actions, it is really helpful if the trainer teaches her dog behaviors that look like emotions. (Like the human actor, a dog would look rather silly if he always had the same demeanor in every situation.) For example, what would you need to train your dog to make him look (or induce him to look) sneaky, curious, playful, frightened, angry, confused, embarrassed, naughty, lost, sad, surprised, or proud?
Professional trainers have used the clicker to train dogs for commercial movies for over fifty years. Home-movie makers also find clicker training an invaluable tool for training "acting" nuances.
DIG: In this video clip, I used a small cloth and wiggled my hand under it to elicit my dog's “dig” behavior, clicking for any attempt she made to dig at it. Training the dig behavior may be easier if you put a toy in sand and encourage the dog to dig for it, clicking/rewarding until the dig action is on cue. This clip also shows how I used the “dig” in our movie "Pinocchio.
The head “Tilt” can be captured and put on cue; however, when I want Jyah do this behavior, I simply use my voice in a way that I know he will respond to with a head tilt. Sydney has never done a head tilt in her life and, since I am unable to elicit it from her, I think it would be difficult to train her to do it so that it looked natural.
Each person who makes movies will have difference requirements for which foundation behaviors she wants to teach her dog; however, the more your dog knows, the more behaviors you will have to work with, and the more entertaining your movies will be.
BASIC SKILLS: Come, Sit, Down, Stand, Stay, and Heel
RETRIEVING SKILLS: Take it (from person), Hold it, (Go and) Get it, Bring it, Give it (to my hand or to another person), Drop it (on or in), Pull it, Put it there (designated location), Catch it
NOSEWORK: Tracking, Finding hidden objects, Discrimination scent work
OBSTACLES: Over, Under, Through, Jumping (any cue used for agility or obstacle courses)
DIRECTIONAL: Go to a person, place, or mark, Go in, Go up, Get off, Go around (an object or barrier), Go left, Go right, Go straight, Go back
TARGETS: Almost anything can be a target that the dog goes to or touches with a part of his body. (The directional “look right, look left, watch it,” as well as the head up and head down behaviors can also be taught using targets.)
Targeting Behaviors Video
I call the process of adding behaviors to existing ones “layering” -- that is, the dog must hold the stand, add the tail, add the bent ankle, lean forward to touch my hand, and then freeze in position. Each new cue is layered on top of the previous one.
Using this pose in a video, you can either train the dog to go into the birddog pose
or you can set up the pose and then video the dog in that position. This sequence can be trained to a single word cue or set up by using individual touch cues. A touch cue is where I touch the part of the body I want the dog to react with rather than saying a cue word to get the reaction.
“TRICKS” are unlimited. (Many behaviors called “tricks” are simply foundation behaviors used in different contexts, or foundation behaviors combined with something new.) A few of my dogs' basics “tricks” are: Back, Crawl, Roll over, Sit up, Curtsy, Limp, Cover nose with paw, Say “Yes,” Say “No,” Head up, Head down, Talk (open and close mouth without sound), Feet up (on whatever indicated), Speak, Hind leg walk
MODIFYING FOUNDATION BEHAVIORS
When I make movies of my dogs, their trained behaviors are frequently used in different contexts. Whereas when a competition obedience dog is asked to sit, it will always be in the same way - tightly tucked, front feet aligned, eyes on the handler - when the movie dog is asked to sit, it will often be different in some way. For example: sit with head hanging down and eyes closed (sleepy dog), sit and look left then right (which way did she go?)
or sit facing away from the person with his head down and looking back at the person (sulking). The movie dog should be well schooled in foundation behaviors as he will be asked to combine foundation behaviors in many different ways throughout a movie.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As much as possible, I try to shoot most shots for a scene two or more times because even when the dog performs the behavior correctly , the “look” may not be right. One of my shots will have just that “something” I was looking for that the others didn't have. This means that the dog must be adaptable and able to do the same action or behavior over and over correctly - only with slight variations.
This video clip is an example of a micro-movie. That is, it is very short but tells a story . . . it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. On average, there are around 16 individual clips in one minute's worth of movie. This one has 13 clips. Generally, I like to have more close-ups; however, the main purpose of this movie was to show how to use trained behaviors to tell a story. (Notice how music tends to pull all the video clips together so they are not seen as individual units.)
Clip 3: Running through woods - cues: “Stay,” “Come”
This sequence makes a story because it has a beginning (dog searching for something - sets up what's to come), a middle (the dog locates quarry and is stalking it - the action in the scene), and an ending (the dog achieves her goal of finding the rabbit - resolution).
See Part II Hansel and Gretel -- the Movie
NOTE: This video starts with body targets and then segments described (at left) are added.