Veteran Hollywood animal trainer Bill Berloni said it was “gut-wrenching” to watch the leaked footage from the set of “A Dog’s Purpose” showing a German shepherd named Hercules being forced into turbulent water — and that the trainers didn’t act properly to get the shot.
“If an animal isn’t willing to perform, you have to stop there … for whatever reason,” Berloni told TheWrap.
That’s not what appeared to happen on the set of “A Dog’s Purpose,” which prompted an insider to expose the footage and PETA to call for a boycott of the Amblin Entertainment feature, which Universal plans to release on January 27.
So what is the right way to film that scene? According to Berloni, whose animal training credits include “The Wiz Live” and “Billions,” everything in the dog-training game is about positive reinforcement, repetition and making it fun for the dog. Oh, and you have to have the right animal.
“What I would do is have a swimming double dog, who loves jumping into crazy water,” he said. “Not knowing the situation, [Hercules] might have been that dog. But what I want to have is a dog that I’m holding back [from jumping in].”
“If that dog in that moment isn’t telling me, ‘I want to go in,’ then it’s like, ‘OK, guys, I don’t think we shoot this today.'”
That takes guts because it costs the production money. In addition, Berloni noted that the trainer tends to be the lone advocate for an animal’s interests on most Hollywood sets.
Still, safety and comfort is an animal handler’s No. 1 concern, and that’s not what Berloni saw out of Gary Gero’s Birds & Animals Unlimited, the provider of Hercules and Hollywood’s go-to for all sorts of animal actors.
(Birds & Animals Unlimited did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. In a statement, Amblin said, “While we continue to review the circumstances shown in the edited footage, Amblin is confident that great care and concern was shown for the German Shepherd Hercules, as well as for all of the other dogs featured throughout the production of the film. There were several days of rehearsal of the water scenes to ensure Hercules was comfortable with all of the stunts. On the day of the shoot, Hercules did not want to perform the stunt portrayed on the tape so the Amblin production team did not proceed with filming that shot.”)
It’s important to prepare animals for scenes that might frighten them or put them in danger. “No animals walk into my life and say, ‘Hey, I want to be put in stressful situations,” Berloni explained. “And so I believe if we’re going to use animals we have a moral obligation to keep them safe.”
“Replace that dog with a child,” he continued. “Would we have done that with a child? Would we have struggled that much to push a child in? No. And everybody ethically would have backed us on it.”
And if Hercules isn’t much of a water dog — German shepherd’s probably aren’t the best breed for such a scene, Berloni said — the production could have looked for more-willing participants.
“Go to Long Island Sound — you see them jumping in the water all the time,” he suggested. “That’s what you would double that dog with.”
Beyond being heart-broken over the footage, Berloni is also just plain bummed. He said he had been looking forward to seeing “A Dog’s Purpose” in theaters next Friday, but now he’s among planning to boycott the film.