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“In times of adversity, who can you always count on? Your dog,” says Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni. He should know, he has 25. Berloni, like so many, treasures his furry friends more than ever and leans on their comfort in this time of high emotion and uncertainty.
Berloni is the definitive animal trainer for Broadway and theatres nationwide. He got his start accidentally as a young 19-year-old actor, spending his summer as a technical apprentice at Goodspeed Opera House. It happened to be the year Goodspeed produced the world premiere of Annie and they needed a Sandy. Artistic director Michael Price turned to his apprentices. In exchange for keeping and training the dog, Berloni earned his Equity card. Forty-four years later, he hasn’t used it.
Instead, after Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 and became a massive hit, Berloni spun that experience into his life’s work. Though many people train animals, Berloni is the only one to train them to perform eight times a week in front of a live audience.
The Berloni Technique
The secret to Berloni’s success is simple: affection and respect. “Because I was an only child, and I had grown up with animals, I consider them my companions, not my property. I treat them with respect,” Berloni says. “If I was mean to my dog, he'd walk away. So if I didn't want to be lonely as a child, I had to learn how to respect what they did, treat them with kindness.”
As animal lovers nationwide have rushed to adopt pets in this time of self-isolation and stay-at-home practices (NYC shelters have seen 10 times the usual number of adoption applications; fostering rates through the Human Society have increased by 90 percent in multiple cities), Berloni’s approach is an important one—and especially effective for new dog owners.
“There’s this general attitude when you invite an animal into your home, [I’m] the master, you are the dog, you have to listen to me. If you did that to a partner or a friend, they’d walk away from you,” he continues. “When you look at a dog, it’s like, ‘How can I make this fun for you?’ As opposed to, ‘You have to listen to me.’ It’s that simple.”
Berloni says the most common mistake people make with their dogs is responding with frustration. Anger confuses a dog. Positive reinforcement, as Berloni practices, “comes from the fact that I respect them as intelligent sentient beings, and we’re going to work together to figure this out.”
Treat Your Dog Like Your Scene Partner
Berloni operates like no other trainer. Most trainers work so that the dog answers specifically to them; Bill has to train his pups to answer to their scene partners. Which is why Berloni is the ideal teacher for owners looking to bond with and train their furry friends.
“Prevailing common sense says that you can’t train an animal to do the same thing every night in front of a live audience, eight times a week. Right? Because it’s an animal. It can do whatever it wants,” says Berloni. “But I proved that you could.”
With each performance gig, Berloni is in charge of an animal actor but half of his job is to teach the human cast members how to interact with their canine scene partners, which is why Berloni is uniquely suited to help others train their companions. There must be a trust between human and dog, which Berloni says can best be culled through affection, positive reinforcement, and consistency. (See a full list of his best advice below.)
The Toughest Cases
To this day, Berloni is the go-to man to train animals for stage and screen. In fact, his farm in Connecticut continues to house dozens of our favorite stage and screen animal actors, which is why theatre community members started a GoFundMe to help Berloni and their furry scene partners stay afloat during this difficult time.
Most recently, he’s been working with Great Danes—a notoriously difficult breed to train—for the upcoming movie The Friend. He’s also the driving force behind the new musical Because of Winn-Dixie, which, for the first time, features a dog in a lead role.
“Sandy and Annie had 13 cues, and in Because of Winn-Dixie, which was done at Goodspeed Opera House last summer— talk about going full circle—[our star, Bodie] had over 120 cues,” he says. “It took three trainers (two off stage, one on stage), including the actress who was playing Opal, the lead, to make it look like this dog was acting completely independently as a character.”
But Berloni is nothing if not up for a challenge. And while he has become the singular leader in his profession, his philosophy is anyone can train as he trains. All you have to do is think: “What would make them happy?”
Bill’s Best Advice For Dog Owners
When adopting a new dog:
Choose the chill pup.
“When you look for a shelter dog, unless you want to hire a trainer to help fix something, there are three types of dogs.
1. There are the ones who are cowering in the back and you go, ‘Oh, look at that poor baby, it’s so frightened, I’m going to take that dog home.’ Chances are, that dog, for the rest of its life, is going to have fear issues.
2. There’s the dog who’s jumping at the gate when you come by, barking, ‘Take me, take me, take me.’ And people think, ‘Oh, look, it picked me. It’s so happy.’ No. It’s not dealing with the stress well, and he’s trying to get out any way he can. He’s probably going to be that excitable when there’s a stressful situation.
3. Go for the one who’s just hanging out and taking it in. That’s the dog for most pet owners who don’t want to hire a trainer to fix it. Because what it’s doing is, in the worst situation, it’s dealing with it well.”
When training your dog:
“Dogs don’t understand English. They understand sounds. So the phonetics of ‘sit’ and ‘sit down’ are completely different if you looked at them on a spectrograph. So, use the same words. Everybody needs to use the same words, so that the dog gets the same stimulus with the [expected] behavior.”
Train without anger.
“Say [the command] once and either reward it if it happens or, if it doesn’t, physically make the dog do what you’ve asked it to do without anger. By the time you raise your voice and they sit, for example, out of fear, the cue [has become] saying it four times and then they listen, as opposed to saying it once.”
Acknowledge when your dog does it right.
“Give some love, a ‘good boy.’ We don’t do this with each other. We only criticize each other when we make mistakes. With dogs, if you want good behavior, you have to foster the right behavior by showing them you appreciate it.”
Be the leader.
“When you’re walking your dog, it should be by your side or behind you. That says to the dog, ‘I’m physically the leader.’ When you get to a point where you want them to be free, you give them permission to be free to eliminate, or whatever, and then you bring them back by your side, and then you lead them, guide them to the park, and then you give them freedom. Every time you walk them, if you don’t walk them by your side, you’re saying, ‘You’re the boss.’ Then, they come in the house, and you expect them to listen to you because you’re the boss of your house. It’s just all this confusion. Be a consistent leader. If I hold the leash short enough, by my side, and the dog pulls and chokes themselves, whose fault is that? Eventually, the dog will learn, ‘Oh, it hurts when I pull, I better just walk by your side.’ You’re setting up the limits in which they learn by themselves. But you have to teach. You have to set limits.”