Training Animals for Stage

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5437615336_f6dd453c3d_bEarlier this month, a New York Times article described Toby the white rat, a furry companion to a teenager with autism in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” currently on Broadway. It made us wonder – how do certain animals end up in the spotlight? And how are they trained?

Unlucky Break…to Breakthrough Star. Animal stars often started on the tough streets, until good fortune stepped in. Toby’s trainer, Lydia DesRoche, adopted her from an animal shelter, saving the rodent from an ignoble end: a snake snack.

Eliciting shrieks – mainly of laughter — Toby has stolen the hearts of audience members and many (but not all) cast members with her clever antics and inquisitive nature. Indeed, her curiosity inspired DesRoche’s primary training method: rewarding Toby’s good behavior with the opportunity for exploration and friendly interactions. (Although food is not Toby’s primary motivator, she does enjoy noshing on fresh roses in her dressing room.)

Noah’s Ark of Talent. Animal trainer and 2011 Tony award winner William Berloni has made a career transforming rescued animals into stars, beginning with Sandy, Little Orphan Annie’s canine companion, adopted in 1976 for $7.

According to his company’s website, “animal actors can be trained for any media” with “the proper preparation, trust and a comfortable atmosphere.” (The original Sandy performed for eight years without missing a show!) Berloni has since trained dozens of Sandys, with Toto from “The Wizard of Oz” also a staple. He chooses rescue dogs primarily out of principle, but also because it’s often hard to find adult dogs to train.

Berloni’s company has expanded over the years, today offering a veritable Noah’s Ark of furry and feathered talent, including cats, dogs, horses, pigs, cows, parrots, snakes, turtles, rabbits and rats like Toby. Most major shows require two animal stars – one as understudy.

Training Challenges. In an interview earlier this year, Berloni said mutts are the easiest dogs to train, because their mixed genetics usually ensure that one particular trait – like hunting, herding, pointing – isn’t overly dominant. Other animals are more challenging, because most were not domesticated to live and work with humans. Species like penguins, pigs or pigeons may be “cute” but are not willing performers.

Surprisingly, he said the greatest training challenge is often educating the humans involved in the show – mainly writer and director – about what behavior can realistically be expected. “Man thinks we have the right to dominate…any creature and bend it to our will,” said Berloni.

Spoiled Actor? As noted earlier, Toby the rat is eager to please; rats are considered one of the smartest small animals and also easiest to train. As she became more comfortable, Toby’s stage role expanded to include scampering up the lead actor’s arm, across his shoulders and down his other arm. After performances, Toby enjoys sleepovers at the homes of willing cast and crew members.

Her freedom to roam outside her cage has also increased. Toby’s trainer isn’t worried the rodent might run away, rebel or demand a renegotiated contract… “because rats don’t leave when they have it good.”

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