Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen is all about the dog, the training, and the movie-making. It’s also about the strong bond that is developed between animal and trainer. We wondered if training animals for movies has changed since the 1920s when the Strongheart movies were filmed.
We contacted a highly respected animal trainer, Teresa Ann Miller, who is known internationally as the trainer of Rhett Butler, who portrayed Inspector Rex in the series by that name, shown from 1994 to 2004 in Austria and then produced from 2007 to 2015 in Italy, broadcast in 53 countries worldwide. It’s a police procedural with a highly intelligent dog detective. Teresa trained “Rex” for the series until 2012 in Italy.
In 2014, she worked on White God, a movie that featured an unprecedented 250 dogs! She trained the two dogs that played the main character, “Hagen.”
Teresa worked for many years with her father, Karl Miller, who was an animal trainer on countless movies and television episodes, including Magnum, PI, Stand by Me, and Babe: Pig in the City. Teresa’s father trained the St. Bernard who played Cujo in 1983 then later redeemed the breed for Beethoven, a family film about the breed. He was personally thanked by Stephen King for Cujo.
We invite you to read more about Teresa Ann Miller in this interview.
Q: Back in Strongheart’s day, trainer Larry Trimble traveled to Germany to find the right dog to star in these movies. For White God, you found a dog in Arizona who then acted in Hungary. How do you learn about these dogs? Do you have a network of contacts?
A: I searched hundreds of dogs to play the part of “Hagen” in White God. It was important to the director that “Hagen” stood out in the group of 200 dogs and it was equally important to me that we had a photo double for “Hagen.” I found Luke and Bodie on the Internet in need of a home.
Q: How do you recognize that an untrained dog will work well in a movie?
A: Usually there is a particular “breed” or look that production has in mind. I then search and acquire the appropriate dog to train for the role.
Q: Your father trained animals for the movies as you grew up. How has training animals for film work changed in the last 100 years since the Strongheart movies were made?
A: I can’t say specifically how “set etiquette” has changed since the days of Strongheart but I can say that it has changed during my career. The public is much more aware and they scrutinize what they believe is the behavior of the dog. Even if it is scripted that the dog is insecure or skeptical in its character’s role it is important that the animal is seen and observed in a comfortable and happy state so as not to show an unhappy animal. We specialize in “acting with animals in a natural manner.” All of my animals are treated with the utmost respect and with the proper training and conditioning time to allow for the most natural performance. I am always rewarding with positive reinforcement and encouragement of the animal.
Q: Are animals well-known in the movie industry so that a casting director might say, “We need the dog that Teresa Ann Miller trained for White God”? Is there a different process for casting a dog than a human? Can a dog appear in a second movie without the worry of being recognized?
A: Interesting question, I have been contacted because of my accomplishments on a certain project and also because of my reputation as being a very experienced set trainer and encouraging trainer when working with animals. I am currently working with, and supplying a dog for, The Art of Racing in the Rain with Milo Ventimiglia and Amanda Seyfried (Twentieth Century Fox). I was recommended for this project based on my previous experience. I feel that each script creates a new character for each “dog” role.
Q: Etzel, the dog who played Strongheart, lived at home with Larry Trimble and Jane Murfin. Do you usually bring a dog home while it’s in training? Does the dog continue to live with you once the movie wraps?
A: My dogs do live with me before, during, and after each production or “job.” I live and work 24 hours a day with my animals and they are my family. It is also possible that I work with other people’s animals depending of the project. My animals that I acquire will live out their natural lives with me. They’re family.
Q: What is there about your job that you love?
A: What I love about my job…the connection with the animals, The pride in seeing the finished project and story told. The life-changing homes that I can provide an animal in need and a wonderful purpose I can share with that animal. The legacy of continuing my father’s profession and upholding his good name, and the incredible collaboration of working with a film crew and together accomplishing the storytelling of a particular story and script.
Something Extra from Teresa: Since “White God” the boys, Luke and Bodie, have worked on Kirby Buckets, (Disney XD) and recently have a DirecTV commercial and Mercedes Benz Rescue commercial as of June 1st. Looking forward to what the future brings.
Thanks for sharing your experiences with our readers, Teresa. The next time we watch TV or a movie for which you’ve coordinated and trained the animals, we’ll think of you behind the scenes!