He Trained the Original Sandy from Annie—and Made an Entire Career Out of It

Outside the Theatre   He Trained the Original Sandy from Annie—and Made an Entire Career Out of It Animal trainer Bill Berloni chats process, canine mishaps, and the secrets behind his lengthy career on Broadway.
William Berloni
William Berloni Monica Simoes
William Berloni
William Berloni Monica Simoes

Who: William (Bill) Berloni, Tony-winning Animal Trainer, and Marti, Berloni’s dog and a performer in Rancho Viejo
Outside: Playwrights Horizons

How did you get started in the business of training animals for live theatre?
BB: I was a 19-year-old apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House and they were doing a new musical that needed a dog; they called me in and offered me an Equity card and a part in one of the plays if I would find and train a dog. I said yes. I went to a shelter, adopted a dog, and trained him—he was the original Sandy in the original production of Annie. A year later the show opened on Broadway and it became a huge success. Until then, animals in live theatre had only really been used as props. Since 1977, I’ve been training animals to be characters. I think the profession of turning dogs into actors is one I created.

What kind of dog were you asked to look for when you went to find the original Sandy?
BB: The script described a dog that was medium-sized and of indistinguishable breed and sandy color.

Were you confident when you took on the job?
BB: I was not confident at all. After I made the deal I thought: ‘What have I just gotten myself into?’ But I’m an only child; I grew up on a farm in central Connecticut and my companions were my dog, a cat, and a rabbit. I wasn’t lonely because my animals interacted with me. They were my friends, not my pets. I believe that I must have learned to understand their games so that they would want to associate with me. Instead of forcing animals to do my will, we played together. That became the basis of [how I train them for the theatre].

What is your philosophy, in a nutshell?
BB: Positive re-enforcement and training. I look at it from the animal’s perspective and figure out ways that they might want to do something eight times a week in front of a live audience. That’s basically the opposite of what most animal trainers are about. They think about coercing animals into doing behaviors from them. I just try to find ways to make it fun.

You’ve worked so long in the industry now—what’s been one of your biggest learning curves?
BB: My first job, with Annie, was teaching kids how to interact with animals. Then I moved on to adult actors, with sometimes big egos, and had to say ‘Come on! Let’s play with the ball!’… I noticed a big difference. I realized that children naturally love animals, but having to work with adults who don’t necessarily like animals—it started to fail. I had to start insisting that actors who were going to be onstage with the dog, had to love animals. That was a big learning curve and continues to be one of the biggest things I deal with.

So what happens if the actor onstage doesn’t like the dog?
BB: In Rancho Viejo for example, the affection and attention the actors give Marti is genuine, and she gives it back to them. If one of those actors didn’t love her, I’d have to put roast beef in their pocket. The dog would be all about the pocket, and not about the behavior. It would just want to gobble the treat and go.

So what do actors have to do to foster that relationship with the dog?
BB: On top of their rehearsals, they have to bond with the dog, and they have to be willing to take that extra time to create that bond. I teach them to do it, but we don’t force them.

How many dogs do you own?
BB: 31. All of the dogs we’ve rescued have had roles in plays. Once we rescue them, we give them a forever-home on our 90-acre farm in Connecticut. All of the dogs live in the house, which sounds crazy. Our home is specially designed and there are no cages. We have three dogs that play Sandy in Annie, five dogs that play Toto in The Wizard of Oz, three Chihuahuas that play Bruiser in Legally Blonde…and then dogs like Marti who we got for the Annie movie—Rancho Viejo will be her second Off-Broadway show.

Do you train any other animals?
BB: Having stumbled into this field and suddenly getting requests for a lot of other things, I started doing research. When I started meeting wild animal trainers—of bears and lions—I found the methodology very cruel. So I only work with domesticated animals: cats, dogs, birds, snakes, reptiles, horses, sheep, and rats.

Do the animals ever misbehave?
BB: Occasionally somebody may throw up onstage, or pass gas onstage, but rarely has it happened in front of an audience. The great thing about animals is that they have an absence of malice. Most of the time, they're just confused by the humans. Every behavior they do onstage has a really good reward at the end of it. They want to get to that reward, but if the actor gives them the wrong cue, they don't have the intellectual capacity to think: “I'll cover for him.” If the treat is in the wrong hand, the dog will end up on the wrong side—things like that. They are much more consistent than actors; they don't have marital problems, they don't come in hungover, they're not worrying about the next job. They just come in every night looking for the cookie.

Berloni’s Broadway credits include Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, The Audience, Frankenstein, and Awake and Sing! He is currently working on the Broadway-bound Because of Winn-Dixie, a new musical by Tony-winning songwriter Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Tony-nominated lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde). The pooch central to the story is played by Bowdie, Berloni’s dog and who television audiences may recognize as Nana from Peter Pan Live!

Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo is now playing at Playwrights Horizons through December 23.