Sorry, cats: when it comes to TV and film, pooches will forever be top dog. While felines are mostly remembered for lazing on the lap of some spinny-chaired villain, dogs have unleashed some of our favourite figures on screen, from EastEnders’ Wellard to The Artist’s Uggie and The Wizard of Oz’s Toto.
However, despite providing audiences with some much-loved characters, we don’t know an awful lot about pooch performers. Performers like Sonny the Pug, for instance.
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Although most recognisable as the spy dog JB from the Kingsman films, he’s no one-trick-puppy. Sonny has appeared in a string of adverts for major brands and is known to UK audiences for playing Horace the pampered pug from Poldark.
— Official Poldark (@PoldarkTV) July 28, 2018
So, who exactly is the real pug behind the fame? Where does Horace end and Sonny start? And what is it that drives his creative process?
Unfortunately, we’re not quite sure: Sonny apparently wasn’t up for answering these questions. However, Gill Raddings, Sonny’s trainer and director of Stunt Dogs & Animals, did give us plenty of insight into what life is like for canine stars – and how to get your pet in the industry.
Sonny really is just an ordinary dog
We Shih Tzu not. Although used to gallivanting around the world with Hollywood’s biggest actors, four-year-old Sonny leads a down-to-earth life away from the cameras. And like most dogs on screen, he wasn’t bred specifically for the job, but lives with his original owners – a family with two children – when not filming.
“The bulk of my dogs aren’t my dogs – they’re family pets,” explains Raddings, who has been training pooches at her agency for 29 years. “[The family] allow me to train him – which I do and then use him for film work.
“But when Sonny’s not working – which could be for months at a time – he’s just an ordinary dog. He goes for walks every day and sleeps on the sofa.”
Not all four-legged stars start out with such happy beginnings, however. Uggie, the scene-stealing terrier of The Artist, started life in a pound and was rejected by two families before being rescued by a dog trainer. Peanut, the dog who played Baxter in Anchorman, was also rescued from a shelter after living with neglectful owners.
It’s a similar story with many pooches Raddings trains, including Barley, AKA Demelza’s dog Garrick from Poldark, who first started life on the streets.
“The only dogs I get in are from rescue homes like Battersea Dogs & Cats Home,” Raddings said. “I train dogs like Garrick and then find them a permanent foster home. I won’t have any of my dogs in kennels – they have to live in the house with a family and have at least one walk a day.
“The families get a free trained dog and I pay everything for that dog for the rest of its life. I’ll just take it filming every now and then. The owners won’t normally go on set, but I’ll come back with a cheque.”
Dog stars aren’t as pampered as you’d think
Yes, Sonny has been at the forefront of film posters and trailers, but his life on set isn’t as glamorous as you’d think. For starters, he’s not even technically an actor, but a prop.
Although groups like the American Humane Association (the one that certifies films can use the “No Animals Were Harmed” end-credit declaration) have campaigned against it, dogs officially come under the same production cost as lamps and chairs. And because of this, filmmakers are under no obligation to list Sonny in the credits.
However, this isn’t to say they’re not treated well on set – Sonny was even offered his own trailer while working on Kingsman. Raddings, however, says Sonny and her dogs will never be found in a plush dressing room.
“We’ve been offered them, but quite honestly, [the dogs] are happier in our van where they know where they are,” she explains. “They’ve got their bed and we’ve always got other dogs with us so they’ve got company, vet beds, water bowls and a smoked bone.”
Sonny won’t automatically be treated to a special meal on set, either. “He’ll just get his ordinary dog food,” Raddings explains. “The dogs have their treats and just breakfast and dinner.”
However, there are some major job perks that could stroke any dog’s ego. Firstly, there’s a lot of lounging about and chilling with celebrities. Sonny, in particular, enjoys plenty of attention from the Poldark crew when playing Horace. “A lot more people are dog-friendly than [not] – put it like that!” says Raddings.
They also get to tour with the stars for publicity events, with Uggie the dog being known for flying first-class to honour such commitments. Quince the dog, who played peanut in Anchorman 2 even got to answer press questions (well, bark at journalists) all by himself.
Meanwhile, Sonny got his own spot on the Kingsman red carpet, posing for an entire bank of photographers like the star he is.
How to train a film star like Sonny
Crawling on his stomach, barking on command, standing on his back legs, walking to a mark, shaking his head, barking on a hand signal, playing dead, holding an object: not an impressive portfolio for a human actor, but this bag of tricks make Sonny one of the industry’s pedigree pup talents.
And better still, it turns out that Sonny can do all the above without ever relieving himself on set. “Touch wood, I’ve never had that happen with a dog I’ve trained in 29 years,” claims Raddings. “But we always make sure we know where the nearest bit of grass is just in case!”
So, how do you get a dog that well behaved? Depending on the pup, it can take several months of training (up to 20 minutes at a time, only a few times a day), with many starting at a young age – Sonny, for instance, started his work with Raddings at twelve months.
“The optimum age for me is one or two years, but you can start play training from a couple of months old,” she says. “All dogs are trainable, to lesser or greater extent.”
But rather than age or breed, there’s one factor above all that determines if a dog will become a film star or not: they have to love food. “They’ve just got to have a good food drive. That’s really what I’m looking for. I’ll turn a dog down if it’s not interested in food.”
Raddings explains: “All our training is based on a positive food reward system. Initially you bribe a dog to do something with food and then you don’t bribe and the dog does it by itself.
“For instance: the eye-hiding trick: you just keep putting the dog’s paw over its nose and paying it [with treats] underneath its paw.”
While a few tricks are more difficult to learn, most dogs won’t forget them in a hurry. Some dogs that haven’t worked for a while might need some refresher training a day or two before filming, but Sonny – like the true pro he is – is normally good to head straight to set.
“He’s outgoing, really likes people, super-bright and keen on everything – he loves working!” Raddings says.
However, there are some tricks that Sonny simply can’t pull off. For instance, you know that eye-hiding trick? As a pug without a nose, it’s simply not possible for him to learn.
Other tricks, too, can cause difficulties with even the brightest four-legged stars. For instance, picking up an object off the floor and dropping it elsewhere can be a particular problem for some.
And there’s actually a way of spotting any command that was difficult for a dog to carry out on screen: plenty of cutaways. If you see shots of the dog interspersed with an actor’s reaction, it’s likely the trainer has had to cut down the direction into much smaller chunks.
There is, however, a special trick that can’t be pulled off using that method: humping a leg.
Fortunately, there’s a trainer who’s known specifically for this staple of almost every comedy film featuring a dog. “That’s become known as my speciality! It’s like making porn films for dogs!” laughs Sandra Strong, veterinary nurse, dog trainer and director of canine agency Dogs on Camera.
Now, getting dogs to hump legs isn’t solely what she does – Strong has provided pooches for many esteemed TV, film, stage and commercial productions, from Inbetweeners 2 to the Bafta-winning comedy Chewing Gum, since 2003 – but she says productions call her solely with this shot in mind.
— E4 (@E4Tweets) February 2, 2017
What are her secret methods to getting this trick done? Your guess is as good as ours. “Sorry, it’s quite secretive – I want the work and don’t want to give it to the other agencies!” Strong says. “But I will say I learned it while I was taking a Jack Russell to the vets for somebody who wanted their dog artificially inseminated. I watched and learned the vet’s, um, technique of getting the dog rowdy.”
Whatever the mysterious method actually is, Strong has used it to pull off her crowning achievement: she took just 15 minutes to teach Dolly, a Norfolk Terrier, how to hump a leg during the filming of 2009’s St Trinian’s 2.
And in 2008 the winner was Dolly in Saint Trinian's
For her effort, Dolly was even awarded a FIDO award (For Incredible Dogs on Screen – a doggy Oscar) and was a contender for the Palm Dog (the canine Palme d’Or awarded at Cannes). And not even Meryl Streep has won one of those.
How can I get acting jobs for my dog?
Although we can’t guarantee your dog could collect a coveted FIDO, it’s perfectly possible they could follow in Sonny’s pawsteps – whether they’re a pug or not.
“Terriers are very intelligent. Labradors too,” explains Raddings. “However, the intelligence varies from dog to dog within the same breed. It really depends on the individual dog.”
And what if you think your pup is bright, independent, loves food, picks up direction quickly? Sign them up! You can reach out to Raddings at the Stunt Dog website or the Sandra Strong Dogs on Camera casting agency.
If their talent is sniffed out, there’s every chance your pooch could be unleashed on the big screen. Just know it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to pull off a red carpet looking as cool as Sonny, though.