The Tricks of the Trade : In Show Business, the Blair Bunch Succeeds in Teaching Dogs and Cats Thespian Flair
With his starched red cape snapping smartly as he flies through the air, Mighty Dog has handled some daring rescues in his time.
He’s saved sailors from mutiny on a Caribbean pirate ship and calmed rebelling students at a Midwestern college campus. He’s headed off a confrontation among picketing protesters on a New York sidewalk--all in the name of dog food.
But Mighty Dog pulled off his most amazing feat four years ago in North Hollywood when he saved himself from death at the East Valley Animal Shelter.
There was no flying involved when the shaggy-haired pooch looked brightly from the dog pound cage, stuck his face through the bars and licked Bob Blair Jr. on the hand.
Blair, 29, is vice president of Blair Bunch Inc., a Van Nuys-based animal training company that has become the top dog in the highly competitive field of pet-food commercials.
Blair had gone to the animal shelter in search of new talent. “That’s where we get most of our animals. I could tell right away he was a sweetheart,” he said.
“He literally had three days to go at the shelter before he would have been put to sleep. Now he’s got a big contract, fans who watch him on television, stuffed animals modeled after him.”
Fourteen of the firm’s animals were on the job last week, working in a Gravy Train commercial that depicted dogs searching for water to make gravy for their meals. The dogs were trained to work with such things as a boat, a swimming pool, a fire hydrant and canteens.
Blair Bunch trainer Lori Folsom jumped into the swimming pool herself to give a dog named Fred his signals during filming at an Encino home.
“It went just like butter,” said Chuck Sloan, president of Plum Productions, which filmed the 14-scene commercial.
Fifty dogs and 100 cats live in the air-conditioned, music-serenaded Blair Bunch kennels tucked between a wood shop and a heating company office in an industrial area off Sepulveda Boulevard.
They are stars of commercials for makers of pet food and other products such as Budweiser beer, Seagram’s wine coolers, Nestle foods, Hawaiian Punch beverages and Kodak film and for Sears stores, McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants.
Some of them even help sell more than one brand of dog food. “They’re generic dogs,” said company president Bob Blair Sr., who formed the animal training company 12 years ago. Before that, he worked nearly two decades with well-known Hollywood animal trainer Frank Inn.
Blair said he decided to specialize in dogs and cats and leave the more exotic animals alone because of the competitiveness of the advertising business. There are about 10 Hollywood animal trainers and another eight who work out of New York.
“They do the bulk of the commercial work in this town. I rarely see other people doing commercials,” said Carmelita Pope, director of the Hollywood office of the American Humane Assn.
Pope’s group is the film industry’s official watchdog for animals. Her state humane officers monitor all filming involving animals to make certain they are in good health and not worked beyond their capabilities.
“Blair Bunch animals are always excellent--well-trained, in good condition on the set and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Pope said.
“We’ve never had a bad experience with the Blairs. I can’t say that about everybody.”
Bob Blair Sr. said his company’s dozen animal trainers use a simple repetition and reward system to train dogs. Rewards are a combination of pats on the head, kind words and food treats.
“A dog wants to please you. That’s the whole secret of training. It’s all repetition,” he said.
“On the other hand, a cat wants to please himself. He strictly goes for the reward right now. It’s not harder to train a cat, just different. It’s not a voice reward but a food reward. We reward cats with baby food.”
It takes less than a week to train dogs or cats to do tricks. “You don’t work past the point of boredom for the animal. But you don’t stop until they do it right,” Blair said.
Blair said his hardest commercial was one that was filmed 20 years ago and involved cats that did not have to be trained at all.
Trouble was, there were 1,000 cats in the 60-second commercial.
‘A Tough Shoot’
“Oh man, that was a tough shoot. I don’t even like to think about it. It took a couple of months to track down enough cats. We cleaned out the local pounds,” he said.
Another time, Blair trained 50 dogs to sit in bleachers and raise first their right paw and then their left on cue for a pet-food maker.
These days, the commercials are only 30 seconds long. But story lines are more complicated and visually sophisticated.
“Every year, it gets harder,” Bob Blair Jr. said. “The agencies come up with some outrageous tricks. When a new story board comes in, you always take a deep breath before you open it up. Some of them are really crazy.”
The father-and-son team vetoes dangerous tricks suggested by ad agencies, however. “Our animals are not disposable animals,” Bob Blair Sr. said.
Before Mighty Dog sunk his teeth into this first role, he was trained to be film-set-broken, although not actually house broken. Handlers also took him to a studio to get him used to lights and cameras.
The Blairs’ animals rest in cages between takes, the way human film stars hang out in their dressing trailers.
They do not get paid like two-legged performers, however.
“They don’t get residuals for commercials like actors do,” Blair said. “Actors have a stronger union.”
On the other hand, the dogs and cats get plenty of free food from the pet-food manufacturers they work for. Blair said the freebies “condition them for the shoot"--and also help limit his monthly pet-food bill to about $1,000.
Rates of Pay
Blair will not discuss his animals’ rates. “They’re as custom as the job itself,” he said.
Although trainers sometimes rent pets from private owners to fill a specific commercial role, Bob Blair Jr. said Valley-area animal shelters remain the best place to find dogs and cats with star quality.
That is where he found a mixed-breed dog named Charlie seven years ago. The likable mutt went on to become the dog called “Freeway” on the weekly television series “Hart to Hart” for six years.
Most dogs can be trained to do an on-camera trick within a week, he said. There are some exceptions, however.
“There are dumb dogs,” Blair conceded. “I’ve got three of them at home. They’re my pets. I get attached to them and don’t want to give them away.”