Cathy Pittman, founder of Performing Animal Troupe and owner of 200 animals, provides animal actors and trainers for movies and television shows.
Have you ever wondered where the animals in movies and on TV come from? One answer: Cathy Pittman, founder of Performing Animal Troupe, home to 200 animal film and television stars.
“I’ve been an animal lover all my life,” Pittman said. “As a kid I was bitten by dogs many times but didn’t mind. All I wanted was to love them whether they liked me or not.”
Cathy was happy to speak to Petside about what it’s like to supply trainers andanimals in movies, TV shows, commercials and videos. Whatever anyone needs to rent—lions and tigers and bears, oh my—Cathy’s got ’em all. We’re talking dogs, cats, birds, elephants, monkeys and yes, even lions and tigers and bears! It can be a lucrative business and Cathy has a seemingly endless list of credits including long-running TV shows the likes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dexter and major motion pictures like Scary Movie,Home Alone and I Am Sam.
While the presence of an animal in a movie or on a TV show may seem fluid, the process of training animals for the role and filming those adorable scenes can be quite lengthy. Additionally, filming requires constant supervision by the trainers to ensure the animal actor’s comfort during shooting, which translates to success on-screen.
“A trainer always goes with an animal to a job,” said Cathy. “We trainers are like puppeteers. We’re pulling the strings because animals can’t read a script. We are the voice telling them what action needs to happen. We talk in between the actors’ lines so our voices will be easy to edit out later. The animals are trained to listen to vocals and obey hand signals. Sometimes, if there is no break in the dialogue and an animal needs directions we can do it with only hand signals, but whether it’s voice or hands, ideally a trainer should be positioned right behind the actor. That way the animal will appear to be looking right at the actor.
“We also encourage actors to create a relationship with the animal. The actors are instructed to reward the dog with a treat. Animals will obey a command without a food reward but it’s just like with people—if you say to a person, ‘Hey, go dig that ditch for me.’ it’s not the same as saying ‘Hey, go dig that ditch for me and here’s $500 dollars.’ That gives them an incentive.”
Cathy emphasized that training animals for filming is not an exact science. Just as teaching and rewarding children is not a one-size-fits-all process, neither is it with animals.
“Just as every child is different,” said Cathy, “so is every animal. That’s what makes my job so much fun. There’s always a new challenge, a new surprise. I love training and I love animals. I wouldn’t do well at a desk job. I’m like a Golden Retriever—all over the place. I give a big hello then I want to flounce off and do something else.”
Bonny the Shih Tzu: Cathy’s Latest Project
Bonny the Shih Tzu is Cathy’s most recent celeb. Bonny stars in the movieSeven Psychopaths along with Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell. The movie plot revolves around Bonny the Shih Tzu as played by a Shih Tzu named Bonny.
“We didn’t have a Shih Tzu at the time,” said Cathy, “and they wanted a certain type of dog, one who was quiet and unaffected by chaos.”
Although dogs can be trained to do almost anything, Cathy told Petside she wanted to find a special dog with a compelling face that naturally possessed the right chill attitude. One more stipulation was that the movie folks needed a Shih Tzu who was small enough to be carried around throughout the film. Shih Tzus can grow up to 18 pounds but Cathy’s Bonny is a compact eight pounds.
Like any casting director, Cathy said it took a lot of time to find the right actress. She looked at 30 wannabes before finding the right dog. She even looked at aMaltese mix and Shih Tzu mixes during the search. When Cathy still hadn’t found the right dog to play Bonny, she ended up falling for and buying a Japanese Chin, but not for the movie.
“I bought her because her owner didn’t like her,” said Cathy. “He was only using her to breed. He didn’t love her. Emotionally, I couldn’t take it. I had to rescue this dog. So I bought her. I think it was good karma because right after that I went to see yet another Shih Tzu and miraculously, she was the perfect Bonny. She was 11-months old and named Bonita which is Spanish for Bonny. It was kismet.”
Cathy purchased little Bonita for $250, began calling her Bonny, and informed the little doggie that she was about to be a movie star. Next came Cathy’s frantic rush to train Bonny in time for filming the movie which was only weeks away. Oh, and she also had to train 100 rabbits for one scene in the flick. It was a major overdrive push but she did get them all ready in time.
“Fortunately Bonny didn’t have to do any complicated moves—it was nothing like what was required of the dog in The Mask. That movie had many advanced dog tricks. I would’ve needed much more time for that. With some jobs, if there isn’t enough time, then either we have to simplify the actions or use dogs that are already trained to do the advanced commands.”