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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 36: People skills

April 13, 2009 | 12:24 pm

Heidi money bandanna This is Heidi. Last year, she was "discovered" 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 Diane Haithman. And this is her "head shot": That longing look was achieved by placing a biscuit just out of reach.

I recently taught Heidi to fetch the newspaper -- she is, after all, a reporter's dog.  She still needs encouragement, but once I've pointed out the morning L.A. Times on the path to our front porch, she's thrilled to grab it by its plastic wrapper and charge off into the house. She thinks it's fun to drop it in a different place each time so that later she can watch me running around trying to fetch it too. 

Heidi learned this classic house dog trick just in time to retrieve her own story: The tale of Heidi's adventures in Hollywood was our Column One article last Wednesday. I didn't ask the dog to sign my newspaper, but it may be the only copy autographed with Heidi's teeth marks.

But enough about the encouraging fact that Heidi still prefers to get her news in print. In the previous chapter, we were chatting with animal trainer Brandon McMillan, star of the adventurous new Animal Planet series "Night," about his K9 Mind dog training program. He had left us with the intriguing statement that he can tell in 30 seconds whether a dog is cut out for a Hollywood career. Here's what he had to say:

Brandon McMillan 2

(I know, that's not a dog in the photo with Brandon; that is a bear. But if he can wrangle that puppy, I figure he can take on a German shepherd.)

Brandon stands out from the pack in the world of Hollywood trainers because he doesn't believe that only professional dogs owned by animal companies can get work. He prefers to go into the home and work with so-called private dogs. The idea of the program is to give owners a well-trained dog, but he says he sometimes offers the dogs the chance to work in film or TV after training if there is a call for it.

His reasoning? "That way I don't have to have a facility with a big overhead; I don't have to have 100 dogs. I've done that in the past, and it was too much work; there's not enough of me to go around." In the home, he says, he has more control over a select clientele.

Would Heidi pass Brandon's 30-second test? She may not always pay attention, but in her stage mom's opinion she has what Brandon says it takes: personality and people skills.

"You should ask yourself simple questions: Is your dog a people's dog, or a dog's dog?" he says. Chances are if he's a people's dog, he'll do very well on a set. Movie sets are full of humans, not dogs." Tricks, he says, are less important than the ability to stay calm in the background. "If the product is Pepsi, they do not want the dog taking over the commercial," he says.

Heidi has a few close dog friends, and gets on just fine at her doggie day care because she's the self-appointed alpha dog -- the staff jokingly refers to her as "Officer Heidi." But in general she's much more interested in the attention of people, provided that those people understand that their main reason for living is to throw Heidi's ball for her.

I'm less certain that Heidi could handle the many distractions on the set; Brandon says he often takes his private dog clients along when he's working on a set for some other reason, just to see whether they can handle the noise and commotion.

But if you don't have that opportunity, Brandon suggests grabbing a handful of training treats and taking the dog to a shopping mall or park to run the basic behavior training amid passersby and shopping carts and rewarding the dog for not going after the distraction. Just make sure to pick a spot where the dog will be safe from cars, and be sure to use a leash. 

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Brandon McMillan and bear. Credit: provided by Brandon McMillan

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