Going To The Dogs: What It’s Like To Be A Hollywood Dog Trainer

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Going To The Dogs: What It’s Like To Be A Hollywood Dog Trainer

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If you think training your own dog is difficult, think about how hard it would be to train dozens of pooches at the same time.

That’s the daily reality for Mark Forbes, one of Hollywood’s most respected animal trainers, and the man responsible for the canine actors in A Dog’s Purpose.

Besides the four main dogs showcased in the film, there were three other “supporting canines,” and also puppy versions of each character.

“We used 28 or 29 dogs to play those characters, and then we had 50 to 70 background dogs. It was quite a menagerie,” Forbes said, laughing.

While the task of handling that many dogs would be daunting to most trainers, Forbes didn’t blink an eye. The head trainer for Birds & Animals Unlimited has worked on almost every major Hollywood animal movie in recent history, including Marley & Me, We Bought a Zoo, Eight Below, 101 Dalmatians, Hotel for Dogs, Dr. Dolittle, and Evan Almighty, which featured more than 150 species of animals in Steve Carrell’s ark.

Forbes worked primarily with the four animal characters in A Dog’s Purpose: Bailey, a red retriever, Ellie, a German Shepherd, Tino the Corgi, and Buddy, a Saint Bernard/Aussie Shepherd mix.

And out of those very different breeds, you may be surprised to hear which one caused him the most grief.

“The Corgis were actually great. We really had more problems with the Shepherds than anything else—and you would think it would be the opposite,” he said.

Part of that stems from the very different on-set challenges the dogs were tasked with, ranging from simply standing and wagging their tail to fetching a deflated football to saving people from highly explosive situations.

“We had a big sequence at a dam with vehicles going over us and raging water underneath and dogs working on steel platforms where they can see the water—so that workload is much more challenging,” he said.

A big part of Forbes job on the set of A Dog’s Purpose was “going with the flow” when director Lasse Hallström wanted to change direction on the fly. It can literally mean teaching an old dog new tricks, and being able to have the animal ready to be on camera straightaway.

“You have the script months in advance so it becomes a challenge when you’re suddenly asking the dog to do something he’s not prepared for,” said Forbes.

But Halstrom said Forbes rose to the occasion in a film where there were a lot of last-minute decisions and improvising.

“If it wasn’t scripted, it took him about five minutes to train the dogs. It was incredible to watch,” Halstrom said.

Actress Britt Robertson said unlike many trainers, Forbes would allow the actors and crew to spend time with the pooches between takes. She called the experience "amazing."

"The dogs worked a lot so whenever we would all have downtime then I would just hangout with them, cuddle, and help keep them relaxed," she says. "I was spoiling them in the best way."

Not only does Forbes train the dogs that will appear on camera, he also finds them. Pooches for A Dog’s Purpose were plucked from shelters, rescues, and breeders across North America, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Midwest. With the exception of the character Buddy, the Australian Shepherd/Saint Bernard, all the dogs in A Dog’s Purpose were acquired and trained from scratch.
He estimates 70 to 75 percent of the dogs and cats he uses in films come from shelters and pounds.

Next up for Forbes is a remake of Benji, the beloved 1974 film classic about a scrappy and fearless stray dog that springs into action to save kidnapped children.

And just as the original Benji was a terrier-cross with mixed ancestry, the new Benji will also be a lovable mutt—Forbes found his star in a local shelter in Virginia, “brought in as a stray that was found in the parking lot of a grocery store,” he proudly notes, adding that through his work he has become a huge advocate for animal rescue.

“In my experience shelter dogs are easier to train—and I think a lot of them appreciate being rescued,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

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