By Nicholas H Dodman
A short while ago I had an opportunity to speak with top pet trainer Bash Dibra about his new book, Star Pet. Here's what he had to say:
My question: The title of your book is Star Pet Š how do you define a star pet?
Answer: Every pet, dog or a cat, is a diamond in the rough. We tell folks how to train it to make it shine like a star, whether a star in the home, at a local school, or on a movie set.
Question: Dogs have different personalities ... what "personalities" are best suited to a movie career and directors character cast, as they do for human actors?
Answer: Directors are very anthropomorphic when asking what they want. I have to bring them back to reality by telling them how dogs think and how different dogs and dog breeds behave. I work with those qualities to enhance them and bring out the best in the dog to make it a star.
Dodman - A breed like a Border Collie is driven, need a job, always works hard and is a quick study. Is that a good breed to work with?
Dibra - They are good but it's fitness for purpose that counts. If a scene involves going into water you shouldn't chose a breed that has no affiliation with water.
Dodman - In my line of work I encounter dominant dogs, dogs that are skittish or frightened, and ones that are compulsive, distracted or hyperactive. Would you exclude any of these from stardom?
Dibra - We try to bring the right dog with the right personality into the story line. All of those dogs might find work if you match the personality to the occasion.
Dodman - Okay, so directors tell you what they want and you make the decision about which pet might be best for the part?
Dibra - Right, we get all kinds of dogs that might be suitable and then have maybe a casting call to decide which one the director wants to enroll. It could be a sexy-looking dog or a very serious dog. Whatever.
Question: To what extent do looks play into being a star? Are most star pets attractive pets? Or, as they say, in the human world, they just have to have a special feature. And if that's the case, what are some features they look at?
Answer -Well, you want a pet whose expression in its eyes says "Hi, here I am, what can I do for you?." One that has a charismatic look that is wonderful, appealing, attractive for commercials or a movie. You want one with "pizzazz''; one with an expression that says "I am willing to work for you and will be pleased to work for you" versus the dog that conveys "I won't do this, I hate doing this, I won't look at the camera, I'll avoid you" or is shaking with fear.
Dodman - If you had, say, a Bloodhound whose nose was constantly on the floor and he had no time for the trainer, that dog might not be the best material for, say, and advert for pet food.
Dibra - Well, actually we did a commercial with a Bloodhound called Duke and it worked out great. He would stop and we'd say "Smell, smell and find, find" and he would act happy and become really animated as if he was saying "Woof woof, I'm happy," so that was perfect.
Dodman - I guess there's a time and a place for every dog.
Dibra - A Bloodhound's okay, as long as he looks at the camera when you make a sound. You could rattle a bag of food and have him look at it as if saying "Oh, smell that, oh yeah" - and you direct him to look to the camera. A different Bloodhound - one that doesn't have the right personality, isn't charismatic, or hides in the corner when you make a noise - might not be a suitable subject. You don't want a shy, timid dog that's afraid of the world.
Question: I have my own set of advice for people trying to train an unruly pet, but training for good behavior at home isn't the same as training to act on cue on a set. What's the difference? What kind of things is a "star" pet expected to do that a regular well-behaved pet isn't expected to do? And what do you do to get him there?
Answer: Well, in essence, it's the same training that makes him do well in your home. A star pet that has potential should be well-trained in your home but to make a star of quality we need to go one step further by extending the training to the outside world with all the distractions, activities, noises, etcetera. Eventually, we reenact the training in a studio situation with people dropping things, talking loudly, and so on. At that stage you should be able to say "Hey puppy" and still have the dog focus on you. So, what star pet training is is to take the pet and make a star pet in your home first but then we go one step further - making the leap from the home environment to the show biz environment.
Question: Can all pets respond to this "star"-oriented training? Say your pet is well-behaved already‹how do you know if she has what it takes?
Answer: Well, first you need to find out if your pet is willing to work and has all the training qualities you think it might need. Then you actually go to locations, like a casting call or a school, and give a demonstration on how your pet performs in this situation. If you find yourself as having a good time and the audiences is applauding your pet dog - who is showing his star quality - I think you have your answer. That is a perfect demonstration right there.
Question: If you think your pet has what it takes, what are the first steps? Get an agent? Make a tape?
Answer: The first thing you do is train your pet. Next put together a photo portfolio - head shots and full body shots. Create a track record of your pet's success by getting credits from your community. Go to a local school and give demonstrations of your dog doing some stunts and get written up in the local paper. Go to a nursing home; visit and do pet therapy. Then find an advertising agency for local businesses and tell them that your pet is available for print jobs. At After that stage, if you meet with success, you can hire agent.
Dodman - "Do you believe that any pet dog or cat can be a star? Isn't it true that some are quicker studies than others?
Dibra - With my philosophy, you first make your pet a star in your home - and if he's happy and you're happy - your pet has accomplished stardom. But if you want to go one step further and the pet has good potential, charisma, and wants to go further, then you go to the world outside. You don't push if he doesn't have enjoyment in doing it, but if he does, go for it.
Dodman - I remember seeing a show dog trainer selecting dogs on the basis of their energy and interest in tennis balls. Would you chose high-energy, play-focused dogs for more active roles and more laid back individuals for the supporting roles or just the beauty looks.
Dibra - High-energy dogs can do a thousand things fifty times. Especially if you have are training for one of those animal shows and you need the dog to come back every hour to do another show, you need that kind of dog. For the average pet owner, if your dog doesn't have high-energy all the time and doesn't want to do the same thing fifty times, you have to channel the energy at the right moment. How I do it is to get everything right - lighting, position, etc - using a stuffed animal, so we don't tire the dog out. Then I bring the real dog out at just the right moment and he comes across as enthusiastic and energetic. This saves time and repetition for the dog.
Dodman - Here at Tufts we are big proponents of not using physical punishment when training dogs or cats. Do you share this view?
Dibra - Yes, its my philosophy, too. I never hit a dog. It's all done with praise and reward and I follow the rule of the three ŚP's: be Patient, be Persistent, and give a lot of Praise.
Dodman - "Would you describe the method you use in training as "shaping," that is, rewarding progressive approximations towards the behavior you want?
Dibra - It's also depends on the dog. Each dog is different. Some have that ability to do what's asked immediately and I think, "Wow, this is amazing." Is this Lassie reincarnated? Think of me as a Lee Strasberg of animal acting. If I can teach a dog something in one take, that's great. If not, we need to use different cuts and it's all edited together it's like a flow.