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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 19: Heidi learns to play dead

November 24, 2008 |  8:00 am

HeidiThis is Heidi. She was "discovered" this year in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was the result of seeing a biscuit just out of reach.

Heidi doesn’t have a professional resume yet -- but when she does, we are proud to say that, after almost six months of training, many delicious treats (freeze-dried beef liver, yum) and a great deal of frustrated sighing and whining (me, not her), she has mastered an impressive list of behaviors. She may not be ready for prime time, but she’s getting there.

Heidi doesn’t really do anything fancy, but her trainer, Sue DiSesso, says that doesn’t matter: The idea, Sue says, is for the aspiring canine actor to learn to do the kind of things a dog does naturally, but on cue. Exits and entrances; picking up objects; carrying objects from place to place and dropping them; looking left, right, up and down; sitting; standing; laying down; and, most importantly, learning to stay, stay, stay. The 10-minute stay is a must.

First off, Heidi would like to announce –- and does, fairly often -– that she has finally learned to speak.  This is very exciting, particularly for me, because now I don’t have to stand in my kitchen barking up a storm while waving a beef liver treat -- hoping the dog will get a clue -- while Heidi stares at me silently, head cocked and a quizzical expression in her limpid brown eyes.

Actually, even though barking at my dog made me feel like I was accomplishing something, the way to teach the speak is to reward the animal immediately for making even the smallest noise until he or she begins to make the connection.


Heidi is also very fond of playing dead; in fact, she has raised this trick to an art form. The way Sue teaches this behavior is not to say: “Play dead,” but rather to make an imaginary gun with one hand and shoot the dog: “Bang!” The dog then keels over, alas, never to “speak” again (the photo above is of  Heidi’s not-quite-successful attempt).

Heidi does not go gently. It usually takes four or five “shots” to take her down, including a final bullet to the temple when she inevitably pops her head back up to check to see if she’s really dead. I am trying to cure Heidi of this habit by sliding the liver treat along the floor toward her mouth so she has to keep her head down in order to eat it.

Because of her slow and languid demise style, I figured that “play dead” would never count among Heidi’s best behaviors. But then a generous friend observed that Heidi wasn’t doing it wrong, but rather milking her death scenes in the grand tradition of Greta Garbo or Eleonora Duse. Thinking this way makes the “dead” Heidi appear a little more like a star, a little less like road kill.

Now that she is closing in on her goal of being ready to audition, Heidi has a question for all the dog owners out there whose pets are trying to make it in the acting or modeling business, and Googling the topic proves there are many of you: How are you proceeding, and can you offer her any tips? If you have anything to say...speak!

Photo: Diane Haithman /Los Angeles Times

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