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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 26: Heidi meets 'Marley'

January 12, 2009 |  8:22 am


After weeks of having her ego soothed with Buddy Biscuits (they're shaped like people), Heidi has finally gotten over being snubbed by Rusco, the famed Chihuahua who portrayed Papi in Disney's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." And now Heidi has moved on to take a meeting with another celebrity dog: a 3 1/2-year-old sweetie pie named Jonah, one of the 22 yellow Labradors who played the role of Marley in the holiday hit tear-jerker "Marley & Me."

"Marley" trainer Mark Forbes of Birds & Animals Unlimited was more than happy to bring Jonah to Johnny Carson Park in Burbank to meet with Heidi and compare training notes. Once the dogs had given each other the sniff test, it didn't take long for Heidi to abandon me completely to head off with Mark and her new boyfriend Jonah to let Mark put the pooches through their paces.

We learned a lot.

Like other Hollywood trainers Heidi has met along the path to stardom, Mark reiterated that it is rare to see a privately owned dog appear in a movie. Though many of the dogs used for "Marley"
were "green" -- that is, had no prior training, not even obedience training -- they were still, like Jonah, owned by professional animal companies.

The reason?  Mark said it can take "thousands of hours" of training to get the dog ready for the movie, three to four months, and most people don't want to surrender their pets for that long.  In the rare cases when a private dog gets a major part, usually the dog goes home with one of the trainers for the training period and the duration of the movie shoot. For "Marley," though, some private dogs were used to play Marley in his old age. Those dogs, Mark said, were leased from their owners.

Should the opportunity arise, would I be willing to turn Heidi into a rent-a-dog, and have her leave home for months? Maybe a more flattering metaphor would be sending one's gifted canine off to an elite boarding school. Either way, it would mean not having the pitter patter of really big feet around the house for weeks on end. And would she begin to think of someone else's house as her home?

I decided to worry about that later and instead proudly watched Heidi perform basic behaviors alongside Jonah, who shared the beef liver treats I'd brought along for Heidi. While Jonah had some fancier moves -- backing up, rolling over -- the pair did their sits and stays and lay down next to each other in perfect unison.

Mark was impressed with Heidi's "focus," or ability to pay attention, by her outgoing personality, and by the fact that she had already learned to hit a "mark" -- although she remains guilty of "creeping" back toward the trainer, rather than staying still. Shepherds, he said, are "bred for a purpose, not a look," so tend to enjoy the training process: "It's the best thing for her," he said.

Heidi's overall grade from Mark?  B+. She needs to work on distance and on breaking the habit of automatically sitting after completing a behavior, he said -- my fault; I thought she was supposed to do that. But we were both proud of getting a Very Good grade from the man who trained all those Marleys. And, as Mark said, "She just needs more time."

A stage mother's note: When the dogs said goodbye to each other at the end of the session, I couldn't help but notice that Heidi's "speak" is much louder than Jonah's.

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Mark Forbes works with Heidi and Jonah. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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