So writing scripts is much like writing a novel?
Yes, both tell a story. However, in movies, we have to be able to tell the story visually whereas with novels, scenes are described and each reader “sees” the story in her own way.
Once you have the storyline, where do you go from there?
I make sure that the story follows a pattern. A movie is basically in three acts. In Act One, the audience learns about the characters and what the movie is going to be about. In Act Two, we see what is motivating the character and find out how he is trying to resolve the conflict he faces. (There must always be some kind of conflict to make a good story.) Act Three is the climax where the central character resolves the conflict. The climax usually happens near the end of the movie followed by a short resolution of loose ends.
Although my stories are light-hearted and fanciful, they are always true to the character and personality of each dog. I consider movie-making a joint venture between me and the dogs.
How do you blend scenes so it keeps the audience's interest and doesn't just look like training clips put together?
That's where “story” and the way the dogs are trained comes in. Camera techniques and clever editing also play an important part. Adding music and sound effects blends it all together.
Is a scene shot in one long sequence or do you use several clips?
A scene is rarely shot in one long piece. The last thing I do before we start shooting the movie is to break each scene down and list all the camera shots I want for each scene. To do this, I visualize each scene from start to finish. In a completed movie, on average there will be about 16 different shots used in each one minute of screen time. Among others, these shots might include a wide shot (that includes the characters and where they are), a close-up (face or just eyes), a cut-away (to something else in the scene that relates to the plot), and camera shots from different angles, heights and distances. I learn a lot about camera techniques by studying books on videography and by watching movies and analyzing the way cameramen shoot different shots. The fun part as an editor is taking these shots and putting them together to tell the story.
Whew . . . I never realized so much was involved! So, at this point, are you ready to start shooting the movie?
Yes. This is where all my preplanning keeps me from wasting time, effort, videotape and the player's nerves.
So you put it all together, and then when you and the dogs are ready, you have someone come in to do the filming?
(Laughter) Professional camera crews are very expensive and not practical for how I make movies as I'm always in the process of training behaviors for future scenes while shooting current scenes. My husband does all of the filming. I have a shot list and he follows that. He also suggests ideas for shots I might not have thought of. Any one scene can take hours to set up and shoot so we only shoot when he can fit it into his busy schedule. That's why these 35 minute movies take several months to complete.
Many of your movie scenes seem to be shot in the real world rather than on a “set”. Does this ever cause a problem?
Oh, yes! In one location, there were two feral cats that refused to budge from nearby steps where they seemed to be particularly enjoying the 'entertainment.'
Another problematic time was when we were shooting clips at a narrow old single-lane bridge that spanned a river. In our movie The Wizard, the 'dark force' had taken Jyah's toy dragon and hung it by a rope twelve feet down from the middle of the bridge. We wanted to get three different angles of Jyah saving his dragon. (He did each shot so spectacularly that I ended up using all three.) Our problem was that although this is not normally a well-traveled bridge we had to keep gathering up Jyah and the equipment and dashing off the long bridge each time a car came across.
Do you ever use other people and dogs in your movies?
Yes, I like to do that as much as possible. Our visit to do a scene with you is an example.
If I have friends who are talented dog trainers, I also love showcasing what their dog(s) can do. In Paws to Dance, Sandra Davis and Attila Szkukalek each allowed me to use one of their superb musical canine freestyle routines. In our current movie, two friends perform a freestyle pairs routine, one with a Standard Poodle and one with a Miniature long-haired Dachshund. (I know it sounds like an odd pairing but the dogs work great together and their routines are wonderfully choreographed!)
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to make their own dog movies?
I have a few suggestions.
Write your story based on the personality of the dog rather than trying to make a dog act like something he's not. For instance, a dog with a bold personality does not play a timid dog very well and visa versa - the “look” is just not congruent. The role should be made to fit the dog, not the other way round.
You will need a cameraperson who understands how to compose shots and has a good knowledge of different shooting techniques. There are many books available that give practical advice on making great home movies.
Most of all, you need to have a passion for working with your dogs and making movies of them for no reason other than the joy of creating stories that you can watch and enjoy for the rest of your life. If other people enjoy them too, that's a bonus.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I know your website has training clips where you show how you trained some of the behaviors in the movies. I hope readers will visit you at
Thank you. It was my pleasure.
Most Poodle owners enter their dogs in various canine sport competitions to showcase or test their training skills. These venues were not interesting enough for Charlene Dunlap of Canine Horizons, who chose an entirely different route.
Charlene, what led you into the world of dog training and animal acting?
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by what movie animals, dogs in particular, are trained to do. The range and variety of their trained behaviors is what interests me. However, when I was young, the only dog training courses available were standard obedience classes where we were told to jerk the leash sharply to get the dog's attention and to pinch the dog's ear until he screamed to get him to take and hold a dumbbell. (These requirements were the reason I discontinued classes.) The few “trick” training books available at that time did not give details on how to train behaviors other than stating something like, “make the dog do” this or that. Although I read every type of animal training book I could find, I was busy with a job and didn't think much about training specialized movie-type actions and behaviors until the late 1980s.
In the mid 80s, I read a book by Karen Pryor (a former marine mammal trainer) titled Don't Shoot the Dog. This was not a book about dog training per se, but rather about the principals of using positive reinforcement. Because of the title, dog trainers read the book and asked Karen to give seminars on the subject applying the principals to dog training. After attending a couple of seminars by Karen and one by Ted Turner (of Sea World), I was able to understand how to apply positive reinforcement principals to the actions and behaviors I wanted to teach my dogs . . . although I still had to learn by trial and error how to use these techniques since no one I knew was teaching what I wanted to teach.
What background in training dogs did you have prior to learning these techniques?
Before learning positive reinforcement principals, the only type of training I did with my dogs was teaching them manners and how to navigate obstacles. I had designed, and my husband Glenn and I built, an obstacle course in our small suburban back yard. Learning to navigate the various towers, tunnels, and jumps gave the dogs a feeling of confidence and achievement and added a new dimension to our relationship. Each time we moved, we built bigger and better courses up until the extensive course we currently have.
When we moved to our present location, agility was just becoming a sport, so we built an agility course too, and I taught the dogs to navigate these obstacles. This was also about the time positive reinforcement training was being discovered by dog trainers. Upon learning positive reinforcement training principals, I taught my three young Standard Poodles all of the standard obedience exercises up through the top levels and began teaching them some of the behaviors and actions I had seen movie dogs perform. As I became more skilled at training, I began teaching them more complex and difficult behaviors and actions. Soon I was looking for ways to document what my dogs could do.
For several years we gave demonstrations at schools and retirement homes but this did not satisfy my objective of showcasing how talented my Poodles had become. Soon thereafter video editing on the computer became a reality and (as we did with so many things in our lives) Glenn and I taught ourselves how to use a program that had just come on the market. Along with my love of working with my dogs, I found that I enjoyed writing scripts which used the dogs trained actions and behaviors to tell a story. I made movies as a way of recording what I taught my dogs. I gave copies to friends who then wanted to purchase copies to give to their friends who, in turn, wanted to purchase copies for their friends.
Does how animals are portrayed in movies affect and/or differ from how you make your own movies?
In many commercial dog movies, the dogs don't actually do much and, from a trainer's standpoint, are not very interesting. There are, of course, some outstanding exceptions where the training is brilliant and the stories enjoyable. My whole purpose in making movies is to showcase my Standard Poodles and what they have been taught; however, I wanted to do this in a way that is enjoyable to watch. My stories are fanciful but still a “semi-true” representation of the dogs' lives.
The majority of commercial dog movies are made for children. Actually, it's often a child who is the main character and the dog is just a mentor who helps the child through a difficult time. My movies are about the dogs: humans are in them no more than necessary for the plot.
Another thing a lot of commercial dog movies do that I never do is have something dreadful happen to the dog: he's abandoned, gets sent to a research lab, someone is horribly cruel to him, etc. before the (usually) good outcome at the end of the movie. I don't want to see movies where dogs are in dire circumstances: I see that (too much) in real life. My movies are more like sitcoms--where the only problems the dogs face are light-hearted instead of life-threatening.
Have you ever considered getting an agent and having your dogs work in commercials or movies?
No. It's the whole movie making process and interacting with my dogs that I enjoy, not the fact that millions of people might see my Poodle on screen for a few minutes (or seconds).
Our only commercial experience was when my black Standard Stoney was cast in Family Dog, a dog training video. His description was that of a “professionally trained and arrogant” Poodle owned by a “pompous and equally arrogant” owner. Stoney was featured doing advanced actions (mailing a letter and getting three soft drink cans from the fridge), but it was a Labrador Retriever who was the star. Dogs with whom the public can easily identify are cast in starring roles: Poodles are not usually on this list.
Poodles are nearly always typecast to fit what moviemakers perceive as the public's view of the breed. To quote the late Capt. Haggerty (movie dog trainer), “In movies, Standard Poodles are silly, foppish, and extravagant.” (Although let me hasten to clarify that he himself admired the breed.) They are usually cast to let the audience know that whoever is with a Poodle is either a snob . . . or is ridiculous in some way.
It's currently popular in animal movies to use computer graphics to manipulate the images of animal actors, to give them human expressions and have them do impossible things. Do you do things like this in your movies?
No, that takes special computer skills that I don't have. I doubt if I would do it even if I could. Unless the movie is a definite cartoon made with live animal actors, I find it more than a little disturbing to see animals with human facial expressions and doing actions that they are physically incapable of doing.
I am always amazed at the behaviors your dogs perform, not just in your movies, but also when you have been kind enough to do training demonstrations at seminars. Can you tell us a little about your training methods?
Thank you. I appreciate that.
As for training methods, no one was available to instruct me in the things I wanted to teach my dogs so I had to figure them out for myself. This worked quite well, but I still had problems figuring out some of the more advanced behaviors I wanted to teach. Then, a few years ago, I learned about body targeting and the intermediate bridge.
Body targeting consists of teaching the animal that certain parts of his body are targets - the hips, shoulders, feet, nose, etc. - and that moving that body part towards another target (connecting the targets) is the goal. The intermediate bridge is a verbal signal that tells the dog he is on the right track but has not arrived at the goal behavior. It also gives the dog information on how he is doing in the process by variations in the tone and pitch of the handler's voice. Using body targets and the intermediate bridge opened up a whole new dimension for me.
In what ways does your training differ, and in what ways is it the same as that of a typical dog sport trainer?
Our initial foundation training is much the same. I teach all of the standard obedience exercises, all types of retrieving, nosework (finding articles, tracking), and navigating all types of obstacles.
Then our paths diverge. For each discipline they compete in, competition dogs are trained a limited number of tasks and the handler works for more and more “perfection” of each task. Points are given or deducted for how swiftly, crisply, and efficiently the dog performs each exercise. For instance, in obedience, there are a finite number of exercises the dog must perform and each is always done in exactly the same way. For example, “stand” always means stand in a certain narrowly defined posture.
With my canine actors, early in the training process they learn to respond to combined cues that become a conversation between me and the dog. The initial foundation behavior of “stand” is rarely ever used again as a single function action. I might cue “stand - cross your leg” or “stand - look left, look right” or “stand - put your head down” (sad dog).
My objective also differs from competition training. The competition dog gains confidence by doing the “perfected” behavior exactly the same way over and over. My dog actors' confidence grows by becoming proficient at putting new combinations of actions together. Everything the dogs do must be fluid in nature as I strive to have them always look as though everything they are doing is their own idea.
Also different from sport training is that I teach my dogs to target different things in their environment. A simple example might be: “go” (to a tree), “put your feet up” (on the trunk), “look up” (into the tree), and “speak.” This scenario has the dog targeting the tree (orienting himself toward it), putting his feet up (targeting the trunk with his feet), looking up (targeting the direction of his eyes upward), and speaking.
I also use body targeting which involves the dog targeting another target with a part of his body (or another part of his body i.e. touch your hip with your nose). For instance, I might have him target his chin to my knee - laying his chin (a body target) on my knee (a location target).
Additionally, unlike in most sports competitions, I want as much of my dog's personality to show as possible. Expression is important. By blending different cued behaviors or actions, I'm able to have the dog portray “emotions.” In a scene where I want the dog to look offended, I might have him “sit” with his back to me, put his “head down,” and “look back.”
Every action or behavior the dog performs in a movie is there to move the story forward in some way. My dogs have to be believable in whatever the storyline suggests.
I would love to talk to you about how the process of integrating your training into a movie, the actual process, but, before we go into this, perhaps you would share with our readers why Poodles are your breed of choice. When did you get your first Poodle?
In the past, we always had working breeds - Doberman Pinchers, Bullmastiffs, and German Shepherd Dogs. As much as I loved our dogs, I knew that none of these breeds were my perfect fit. Glenn showed our Bullmastiffs for many years and I would always wander around the show grounds looking at different breeds. I also took a compatibility test based on our lifestyle and what traits I was looking for in a dog, ultimately being paired with German Shepherds, Standard Poodles, and Portuguese Water Dogs.
One day at a show, I was walking around the grounds looking at dogs. I stopped 20 feet away to stare at a beautifully groomed white Standard Poodle (in sporting clip) who was reclining gracefully on a quilt behind her family's chairs. She was watching people and dogs walking by - much like I was doing. Her gaze swept over me then, startled, flashed back. Why are you looking at me?! Had she been a person, I would have immediately politely looked away; however, her expression was so interesting that I was mesmerized. Her face showed the same type of emotion I might have felt had I caught someone staring at me . . . a mixture of self-consciousness and discomposure at being the source of such intense scrutiny. I thought: Any breed of dog with such a refined sense of self is definitely worth knowing! And I have never looked at another breed.
We got our first Standard Poodle in 1988. She was a six-month-old white Standard whom we named Keila. (She would ultimately cause us untold grief due to her horrific epileptic episodes.) Stoney, a six-month-old black Standard male, was added in 1989, and April, a six-month-old apricot Standard female, in 1991. In 1990, we had also rescued Molly, a small fluff of a Lhasa-type young adult dog, and these four were the first dogs I trained . . . and were my first canine actors. By the time we made our first movie in early 1999, all three Standards were getting older: when we released the second movie in early 2000, Keila was no longer with us, having died that past December from epilepsy complications at age eleven.
Have you ever considered breeding Poodles?
Not for one nanosecond.
(Laughter) Who are your current movie stars?
In 1999, I discovered that a few breeders were trying to bring back the parti-colored Standard Poodle. I had admired historical paintings of partis but thought the chances were slim to none I would ever see one in my lifetime. Somewhere in the late 19th/early 20th century, the governing body of the Poodle Club of America arbitrarily made the decision to disqualify the parti-color from showing in conformation. Since the breed ring is where breeders test their stock, and since the solid color was all that was allowed, the parti Poodle soon disappeared from the scene. However, genes are interesting things, and partis would pop up unexpectedly from time to time in Standard litters. Finally, a few breeders were brave enough to say: “Hey, these pups are beautiful. I'm not going to 'get rid' of them just because they're not a solid color,” and the parti-colored Standard Poodle began making a comeback. In American Kennel Club shows, partis may be shown in any class except conformation; however, they can be shown in all classes, including conformation, in United Kennel Club shows.
In 2000, I acquired a seven-week-old traditionally marked (white background, black head and ears with white forehead blaze and black patches on the body) parti male Standard whom I named Jyah. A year later, at eight weeks old, his tuxedo-patterned half-sister Sydney came to live with us. These two, along with Molly (now about 18 years old) are my current movie actors.
Back to the movies! Can you give us an idea what is involved in making movies? How do you decide on a storyline and how does it all come together?
For me, there is a lot involved since I do everything except run the camera: I write the script, train the dogs, direct (cue) the dogs in the scenes, edit the video footage, add all the sound effects and music, put together the final movie project and print it to DVD, design the DVD labels and covers, and package and send out the final product.
When I begin working on a new script, I establish what the overall theme will be, and then decide on a title. Once I have my title, I write a one or two line 'mission statement' explaining the gist of the movie. My idea for The Birthday Caper (our fifth movie) came from a royalty-free CD I had purchased of a magician's routine for children. The routine was created by Oscar Munoz with music and narration by 2007 Grammy award winner Arthur Stead. Using the audio from the CD, I created a video scene with Jyah and Molly as the actors. The message of the routine was: “No matter how small you are, if you believe in yourself, you can do anything.” I used that idea as the theme for my movie. My mission statement was: The dogs find that obtaining birthday gifts for their mum is next to impossible; however, they learn there is always a way to attain a goal if they just believe in themselves.
Once I know what my movie is about, I list all of the behaviors I want to showcase and began imagining ways I can use each one in my story, always keeping in mind the type of story I want to tell, and making sure every action falls under the umbrella of my title and my mission statement.
For instance, in one scene I wanted to show Jyah getting an egg out of the refrigerator, so I wrote a scene where he bakes a birthday cake. In another scene I wanted to show both dogs carrying items (birthday gifts) that could not all be carried at one time, so I wrote a scene where they pushed the items onto a towel and then each dog held either end of the towel carrying the items in between.
Once I have my outline for how and where each action will be used, I then begin filling in a story that flows toward a logical climax. Every scene in the movie (usually eight to ten scenes in a 30-minute movie) asks the question, "Will the dogs be able to find their mum the perfect birthday gift?” Once that question is raised, everything that happens in the story relates to that question. (However, there may also be a scene or two that basically just tells the audience more about the personality of the main characters.) I also know how I want the movie to end, and this helps me direct every scene toward that conclusion.
© 2007, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, Knowing Dogs
This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission. Melanie can be reached through her website at:
This interview was conducted at Canine Horizons on December, 5, 2007, by Melanie Schlaginhaufen.
Stoney painting Bleu's portrait in Sweet Dreams of Bleu
Leaving the dog psychologist
The Fuzzy Fairy Incident
Jy selects a book in
Jy doing house work in The Wizard
April and Stoney in
The Fuzzy Fairy Incident
Sydney dancing in
Paws to Dance
Sydney hugging freestyle legend Sandra Davis in Paws to Dance
Above: Teaching Sydney to "Scoot Back."
Below: Teaching Sydney to "Touch Your Nose."
Stoney learning freestyle routine
Jyah doing the ironing in The Wizard
In The Fuzzy Fairy Incident, Molly pulls a doll up to the top of the table by a rope.