As a 20-year-old apprentice actor at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, Bill Berloni was given an important task: find and train a dog to play Sandy in the original production of "Annie." It was an assignment that would change two lives. The dog he rescued for $10 would go on to play Sandy for seven years on Broadway, and Berloni became a Tony Award-winning showbiz animal trainer who went on to work with almost four decades' worth of Sandys and other critters for Broadway shows and regional theater.
A tireless dog adoption advocate, Berloni is the director of animal training and behavior at the Humane Society of New York. His work there is part of "From Wags to Riches," a new TV series premiering Aug. 6 on Discovery Family Channel. (It's part of the channel's "Pawgust" pooch programming, which will be hosted by Betty White.)
The series premiere of "Wags" focuses on Berloni's life on his Connecticut farm with his wife, teenage daughter and a menagerie that includes many of the now-retired dogs he has trained. The show offers a glimpse into the training methods that have transformed shelter dogs into stars. It also tells the story of Little Lowell, an abused, badly battered Shih Tzu who was slowly rehabilitated at the Humane Society and ultimately adopted.
In this interview with MNN, Berloni talks about his life and all things canine.
MNN: How did the show come about, and why did you want to do it?
Bill Berloni: Our family has been approached for reality shows over the years, but nothing was ever quite the right fit. We only wanted to do a show that would authentically represent our entire family and the work that we do — so we were delighted when last winter, after 10 years of development, Discovery Family Channel and Earth Touch USA came together and offered to produce our show. They agreed with us to make a reality show about good people doing good things, which feels so unique in today's world. In the end, our goal is to raise awareness about animal rescue, and "From Wags to Riches" is an amazing opportunity to show viewers — and potential adopters — how wonderful shelter pets can be.
What are the characteristics and qualities of a good showbiz dog? What do you look for?
Dogs that perform in entertainment have to be "super dogs." They have to be smart, willing to work with humans and able to deal with crazy situations. If you use positive reinforcement techniques for training like we do, they can really shine. All the dogs we train are rescues and the shelter is a great testing place. The dogs there have been uprooted and under a lot of stress. If a dog is not handling the stress of the shelter well, it probably won't do well in entertainment. But if a dog is in a shelter, calm and taking it all in, not only does that dog have the potential for becoming a great performing dog, but also a great pet.
Are some dogs more trainable than others? Are certain breeds or mixes better? What's the ideal personality?
There are two aspects to trainability: nature versus nurture. On the nature side, pure breeds were genetically engineered to do one thing well and that is what they are good at. On the nurture side, how a dog is raised, whether properly or improperly, effects who it becomes as an adult. And you add in the fact each creature has it's own unique personality and there is no solid rule to determine if one dog is more trainable to another. I just meet them and they tell me their story and I listen. I have found that mixed breeds tend to be more "jack of all trades" because they do not have one dominant genetic breed trait and sometimes that is easier to work with. And for personality, we look for the dogs that want to have fun and please humans. The minute a dog stops having fun at work we retire them. But with our method the dogs go on working until the end. They love it because they love being with us.
Have any of your other non-canine animals been in shows? How difficult/different is it to train them? Is it a different approach than dog training?
For live theater I have trained cats, pigs, sheep, pigeons, songbirds, rats and snakes. We do not believe in training wild animals for any form of entertainment. We only believe in working with domesticated animals. What is common between the animals I train is domestication. The difference between those species is their intelligence, physiology and social structure. When working with non-canine species, I spend a lot of time getting to know the needs, likes and intelligence of those animals and design the training around that.
What do you consider when you're matching a rescue dog and a potential adopter? What's the key to a good match?
There are many factors we consider when matching a rescue dog with a potential adopter. Dogs are very honest about who they are and what their needs and limitations are. Humans are a little less honest about their needs and limitations. Humans usually just want what they want. When humans marry someone, they know it is a "death till you part" arrangement. But when it comes to the same lifetime commitment with an animal, humans usually say "I want that one" without being honest about what dog they need. So the hardest part of a good adoption is getting to know the humans and helping them understand what the right dog is for them.
Little Lowell's recovery was miraculous, but have you ever had a dog you couldn't rehabilitate?
In my work at the Humane Society of New York and in our personal lives, we always run into cases where we can only rehabilitate so far. And it is in direct relation to the extent of the cruelty man has brought down on these creatures. Most people can't always handle the truth about the trauma these animals have lived through so they think rehabilitation is easy. We heal many dogs and many traumas and then work very hard to find homes that are willing to take in these dogs and give them a forever home with what issues remain.
What is your current/next show training assignment?
Right now, we have two dogs touring with the national tour of "Annie." In the fall we train two dogs, Nigel and Nessa, for a new national tour of "The Wizard of Oz." Dusty is on USA's "Mr. Robot." We are training our dog Marty for the new series "Billions" and two productions of "A Christmas Story" this Christmas, as well as daily commercials and photo shoots. We are also working with NBC on "The Wiz Live" for later this year.
What will we see in upcoming episodes?
You'll continue to see a little bit from each part of our lives — from our life at home on the farm with nearly 40 animals (30+ dogs, a host of farm animals, ducklings, a cat and a macaw!) to hitting the road for our first original production "Because of Winn-Dixie" to the star-studded annual pet rescue event Broadway Barks, to working with heartbreaking and heartwarming cases at the Humane Society of New York.
What accomplishments are you proudest of? What's on your to-do list for the future?
I am most proud of the presentation of the Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2011. I was the first animal trainer to ever be awarded by the Tony committee and it meant a lot to be honored by my peers. It also elevated animal training to an art and presented me as a professional. On my to do list is to get Hollywood to acknowledge the trainers in film and television as professionals as well. Only then can we are animal trainers be taken seriously when it come to the protection of our animals.
What do you want viewers to take away?
Ultimately, I hope that viewers consider adopting shelter animals. The way they have enriched our lives over the years are beyond measure. They are truly a part of our family and each dog’s transformation has brought much pride, hope and happiness to our world. I also want the audience to remember when they see our wonderful dogs, anyone could have gone into the shelter and adopted them the day before we did and have these wonderful pets in their home. So go and adopt a star of your own.
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