Scene: Ahead of her new film, Hollywood dog trainer Sarah Clifford talks animal magic.
by Larushka Ivan-zadeh Published July 7, 2020
RECKON your pooch is the new Al Pacino? Could your hound be the next Halle Berry? With Hollywood dogs commanding around £300 a day, propelling your pet in front of a movie camera might sound like a sweet meal ticket. But as top Hollywood dog trainer Sarah Clifford explains, it takes more than a wagging tail and a cute furry face to make it in the movies.
‘Pretty much every dog owner thinks their dog is the next Meryl Streep,’ says Clifford. ‘People show me endless photos of their dogs on their phones but it takes a special animal.’
Confidence and people skills are essential but the first thing Clifford sniffs out is attitude.
‘You want a dog that’s high energy — sometimes those dogs that are too high energy for a normal pet at home,’ she says. ‘But you want that enthusiasm on set because they will have to do a lot of takes.’
With more than 150 screen credits to her name including Think Like A Dog, a new family film about a telepathic Labradoodle co-starring former Transformers actors Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox, Clifford is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand animal trainers.
‘I don’t describe myself as a “dog trainer” because I have worked with all kinds of species,’ she says. In fact, she’s worked with mice, bunnies, cats, birds, llamas, iguanas (including the one in Marriage Story) and even trained cockroaches.
‘I use the term “wrangler” when it comes to insects,’ she says. ‘There are no verbal cues such as “Stay.” With insects, the warmer they are, the faster they go. If you want them to stop, you draw a little line of Vaseline. They really don’t like Vaseline.’
Discreet about her private clients, Clifford reveals she recently babysat actress Brie Larson’s dogs as a favour — but being a celeb’s pet nanny was never her dream.
‘I was always one of those little girls who had every pet imaginable,’ she says. ‘I wanted to know how they communicated.’
It was only when working on The Matrix 2 that she discovered movie-training animals was a real job. She interned at an agency for a year, ‘picking up a lot of poop’, before landing her first animal gig on Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Since then, Clifford has trained some of the biggest canine names in the business, including Uggie, the Parson Russell Terrier who won the coveted Palme D’Og for his star turn in The Artist.
‘Uggie was unique,’ says Clifford ‘He wasn’t super personable. He was more business than pleasure but he was this tenacious, confident little dog.’
Jack Russell-types are a popular casting choice as ‘they are a good vocal dog’. Apparently, however, Afghan hounds are trickiest.
‘It’s hard to find that motivation with them,’ says Clifford.
Speaking of which, how does one coax an Oscar-worthy performance out of a dog? According to Clifford, ‘a great trainer is what makes or breaks an animal actor’s performance.’
That and a sackload of treats!
‘Uggie was so food-motivated — all he wanted was treats,’ she adds. Her secret weapon is ‘hot bait’, which amounts to bits of warm hotdog.
For Think Like A Dog, Clifford supplied three identical chocolate Labradoodles (Jaycee, Jovi and Jedi) to play Henry. This meant when one was demotivated, another could bound in.
‘You can’t ever get a dog to do what it doesn’t want to do,’ she says.
Two out of the three of those doodles still live on Clifford’s Californian ranch, along with 22 other animals — ‘mostly dogs,’ she says, ‘but I also have horses, a goat and a pig’. To her, Think Like A Dog is a philosophy, not just a movie.
‘Dogs are pure, beautiful souls,’ she says. ‘They are simple, they are honest and they are always present. They never manipulate you. They just want love and affection, food and a warm place to sleep at night. If humans thought more like dogs, the world would 100 per cent be a better place.’