Salem's Christmas Hound
Days_Allison: First of all, what breed is Zeus?
Gary: He's an English Staffordshire Terrier. He's a purebred dog. We usually don't work with pure breeds; we usually get mongrels. We like to adopt dogs from the pound. Sometimes productions specifically ask for a breed of dog and we did acquire him for a feature. I don't remember what it was because I didn't work on it. But that's why we have him.
Days_Allison: How many dogs do you have?
Gary: Our company is Birds and Animals Unlimited. We have facilities here in California, and also in Florida, New Jersey, England and Japan. We perform the live stage shows at the Universal Studios Parks. That's why we're so spread out. We also did the Harry Potter series in England, which is why that was set up. All together, there's somewhere around 100 dogs in the entire company.
Days_Allison: Where does Zeus live when he's not working?
Gary: We have several ranches that some of the animals live on, but Zeus works a lot. Because of his look he can play the really cute darling dog but he can also play mean and tough fight dog so he tends to work a lot. He's worked non-stop since we've had him. But, he'll stay with the trainer who's working with him at the time. He was actually acquired for our company by the lady who trains the dog on Frasier, who is also ours.
Days_Allison: How long was Zeus's training before he started working?
Gary: We try to get a dog at least three months prior to shooting so we can start prepping them. He was a year old when we got him for the feature. For the most part it depends on the dog and their aptitude. He's a very fired-up dog. The thing that comes easily for Zeus is a lot of action, doing things like chasing people around. It's just natural to him. You point at the guy you want him to chase and he's going for him. The thing that is difficult for Zeus is holding still for a long time. He's just that kind of dog.
Days_Allison: He seems like he's got the energy of a puppy.
Gary: He's five years old but he still has all of that. Long days with little action are rough on him. He gets very pent up. He gets frustrated. He loves to tug and pull, but it's not our company policy to train aggression. We train a gag or a joke. We simulate aggression, then the foley artist can put in growling afterwards. So for the bit where he had to grab a pant leg for today's shoot, Zeus was trained to just pick it up. Once he started to win, then he really got into it. We rehearsed it on a stationary leg; he just grabbed my pants and pulled on them. Then when we actually went to shoot, I let him actually pick my leg up and that really fired him up. He thought "oh, I got it, I win!" Then he started pulling everywhere.
Days_Allison: Is that particular for his breed?
Gary: Yes. They're very much into pulling and grabbing things with their mouths. As long as we keep it fun and it's all a game and don't let the aggression get into it, it's good.
Days_Allison: With dogs that are trained to be aggressive, is that all they can do?
Gary: That's all they can do. If you see a dog in a movie or television show that does true aggression and then, say, you see another shot of him with the kid or with the family, it's two dogs. And the dog that does the aggression, that's all he does.
Days_Allison: Are different breeds of dogs easier or more difficult to train?
Gary: Obviously the dogs like him are high energy so it depends on what you want for your show. Our favorites are still the mixed breeds. They're good all around and they really want to please, especially the dogs you get from the pound.
Days_Allison: I've heard of "capturing" as a means of training animals.
Gary: It's something that they naturally do. For example, when they teach them to bark on cue. It's something they do naturally, then you get them to anticipate that you're going to ask for it. You put a cue on it, then he does it. Everything that the animals do is an extension, at least, of something that they do naturally, if not just a straight capture.
Days_Allison: What happens when a dog like Zeus gets too old to work?
Gary: We do placement with our animals. Trainers within the company always have first option, especially the person who acquired the animal; they have the option of adopting the animal. If for some reason that doesn't happen, then we try to place them in a good home. We also have a retirement facility for the animals. A lot of the animals, especially the bigger dogs like the St. Bernards, will have medical issues so we don't want to adopt those dogs out. We want to take care of them ourselves, so they'll go into our retirement ranch.
Days_Allison: Do you work with any of the other animals, like birds?
Gary: Yes. Each animal, each species, they have their "deal." You just have to figure out what the deal is with this animal, what motivates them. It really just comes down to being able to understand the animal and the animal understanding you. You figure out what they want and just kind of steer the training that way. With a lot of the bird stuff, people want birds to fly to a certain specific spot. That's not very complicated; it just takes time. A lot of the birds are afraid of everything so it's a matter of raising the bird and training the bird so that it tunes out everything but what it needs to do. Parrots are very smart and we do a lot of work with birds of prey, hawks and falcons and vultures. With them, it's just a matter of conditioning. If you do a behavior repeatedly and repeatedly get rewarded for it, then they're going to do it. Mainly with that kind of training, it's not actually training the behavior; it's training them to ignore the distractions that accompany the behavior.
Days_Allison: You mentioned the Harry Potter series. It was difficult to tell with that if some of the action with the owls might've been real or digital.
Gary: Well, they're all real birds. The majority of the bird stuff, especially involving the children, is filmed on a blue screen and then cut in. There's one scene in Chamber of Secrets when the owl crash lands onto the dining room table then gets up. That owl -- which was a great gray owl -- is actually larger than that scene suggests. I think in the beginning, it was digital, then they had the real owl trained on his back and he had to flip up and fly off.
Days_Allison: What are some of the other things that Zeus has worked on?
Gary: Zeus has worked on Torque, a movie with Ice Cube that's coming up. He was in See Spot Run, he was in Stealing Harvard. He's been in a lot. He does a lot of background dog, dog in the pound kinds of scenes. Because of his look. He looks like a pit bull, but the pit bulls were derived from this breed. He gets a lot of roles like that, where you'll think "oh, that dog looks familiar" and it's him in the background, passing through