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Furry, Fabulous and Photogenic: A Glimpse Inside the World of Pet Modeling

Sharon Montrose

On a Manhattan street a man stopped them. “There’s God in his eyes,” the man said, looking from the blonde dog wagging his tail to the woman at the other end of the dog’s leash.

It wasn’t the first time that someone had stopped Labradoodle Bocker and guardian Marie Shelto because of Bocker’s eyes. “There’s always been something in his eyes, like he was destined to be more than a pet from the very beginning,” Shelto says. “I’ve had photographers say it. Everywhere we go, everybody says, ‘His eyes … ’ His spirit is in his eyes.”

For the past six years, Bocker has been one of thousands of pets in the United States who model. They work in movies and print publications. And as proven during this year’s Superbowl, people tend to favor advertisements featuring animals. Nine of the 68 ads that ran in this year’s bowl involved animals, ranking among the most popular.

But not every pet is model material. Photographer and agent Barbara O’Brien of the Animal Connection agency in Minneapolis, MN, auditions every pet guardian and pet before she agrees to represent them. “Mostly I see what the people are like, because that’s important,” she says.

Once a woman and her Maltese in matching pink bows auditioned. “Fifi, sit,” the woman coaxed in a tiny voice. But the dog wouldn’t sit. Finally, the woman let out a scream that rocked the room. In that case, the guardian was a less than ideal fit, though her dog passed the test. “[Dogs] have to have the personality that enjoys being on a set—strobes, lights, confusion, people. I look for temperament first. Trainability we can work with.”

At home, about 150 miles north of New York City, Bocker’s temperament eases deer and rabbits enough that they approach him in the backyard. Dogs fighting at the park calm down if Bocker steps between them. And on set, he goes right to his spot and quietly watches everything.

Shelto, however, never envisioned a career for her pet. “It’s just that when Bocker was very little he would always pose for the camera. Everybody’s first comment was that he should be in magazines and movies,” she says.

She began researching agents and emailing them. Then, at 18 months old, Bocker had his first interview on the streets of New York City with an agent from All-Tame Animals talent agency. As cars and people rushed past, Bocker heeded commands. “What they really want to see is a dog who’s not going to be distracted by anything going on,” Shelto says, because on set the distractions are limitless.

Lights, camera, pose

Los Angeles-based photographer Sharon Montrose knows the pet modelling world well. “You have to be calm. If you start to get stressed, then the animal starts to get stressed. Even if a caterer comes on set and he has a fear of dogs, I’ll notice a difference in the dog.”

Pet guardians, too, need to stand back and let the photographers and trainers focus on their pet. “A lot of times [guardians] want to hover right over the photographer. They get kind of star struck over their own dog,” O’Brien observes.

Montrose estimates that she has photographed thousands of animals over the past 12 years. She has been charged by a yak, come perilously close to lions and tigers, and has seen more than her share of messes. “There’s a lot of poop in my world,” she says. “As much as I hit the shutter, we’re cleaning up poop. We’ll smell something in the air, and there’s always a story that goes along with it. It’s all over the equipment, or we don’t have enough buckets.”

In her early 20s, Montrose began exploring photography. At that same time, many of her family members were getting dogs. In an attempt to “stay connected to a part of photography that I could get joy from,” Montrose photographed the new dogs in her life. She also took on her first puppy—6-week-old Simon. “He was there through a lot of my formative years. He was my little muse,” says Montrose.

After publishing her first book, Dogtionary, in 2001, Montrose’s career began to take off. Today she primarily photographs commercially for companies such as Iams, Pedigree, Warner Bros., and Target. She also photographs exotic animals such as reindeer, servals, and alligators for her personal fine art. Montrose sells the prints on Etsy.com in addition to managing her own blog at SharonMontrose.BlogSpot.com.

Of working with animals both exotic and domestic, Montrose says, “No, I’ve never been nervous. When I pick up my camera, I could walk into the middle of the street without knowing. I’m just in the moment.”

The trainers on hand at the shoots warn Montrose not to make eye contact and to remain still if an animal charges. Once when she was photographing an alligator, Montrose came within a foot of the animal, and her husband slid his fingers through her belt loops to keep her grounded. “He knew I didn’t care. If the alligator eats me, the alligator eats me.”

But Montrose doesn’t only work with animals. She often works with people too. With animals, however, “There are no inhibitions, no insecurities.” Communication also differs “because they don’t speak English. You have to have a lot of tricks in your back pockets.” With dogs, she uses their love of food, as well as their noise drive—squeakers, stuffed animals, water bottles—“everything and anything to make them look somewhere, react, make the ears go up.”

Bocker’s first time on set, after All-Tame Animals took him on, was for a Tommy Hilfiger spot. The shoot lasted days. “If it’s fun for the dog first, do it. If it’s fun for you and the dog, then great. But if [Bocker] seemed stressed or didn’t enjoy it, he wouldn’t do it,” Shelto says.

According to O’Brien, animal models “realize that something’s going on. They go bonkers when they see me because they’re like, ‘There’s that woman who gives me roasted chicken! We get to play that game where I sit still and you give me chicken!’”

O’Brien has seen the difference between an animal who enjoys the work and one who doesn’t. At a commercial shoot one afternoon, one of the trainers used a shock collar on a Jack Russell Terrier. The method failed repeatedly, and O’Brien stepped in with hotdogs to save the shoot. “That dog was so happy. He would do anything. It has to be fun for the animal,” she says.

The pet perspective

“It’s OK, I’ll love you no matter what. It’s up to you,” Karen Biehl told her Chihuahua, Eli, before he crossed the stage at the Barking Beauty Pageant in New York City. She wanted to let him know that they were doing this for fun. Biehl had found 2-year-old Eli on Craigslist in 2005 and entered him in his first beauty contest in 2006.

Eli won that pageant, and Biehl, a former opera singer, got the chills. In short succession, Eli graced the front of Milk-Bone boxes everywhere, played Paris Hilton’s dog Tinkerbelle in an A&E documentary, and had a cameo on the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—all before landing an agent. Like Bocker, Eli also auditioned on a busy New York City street.

Agents typically keep logs of hundreds of clients. Bill Casey started working with animal models (including the original Morris the Cat) as a trainer 35 years ago in Chicago. Today, he runs Animal Talent Chicago, and his clients have appeared in more than 60 movies, hundreds of commercials, and thousands of print ads from coast to coast. “A producer might contact me, a production company, a prop master for a motion picture, art directors, photographers,” he says.

Sometimes an outlet will ask for a dog who can bark on command or one who will grab someone’s pant leg and shake it. Casey goes through his files and chooses an assortment of animals who fit the request. If the outlet wants a dog who will sit by a family and watch TV, Casey recommends ones who have the control training to do long sit-stays.

Casey is always looking for new talent and often supplements his client lists with animals from shelters. “I’ve gotten a lot of really wonderful animals whom I’ve ended up adopting myself,” he says. “As animal lovers first and foremost, that’s how all of us get into this. We all have that at our core.”

Casey mentions a cat he found in a shelter who starred in a CBS show called Early Edition for five years. “That cat looked so bad, so I brought him home,” he says. After a trip to the veterinary school at the University of Illinois, modeling became a possibility.

Although agents like Casey and O’Brien are great outlets for work, Biehl and Shelto don’t rely exclusively on them for publicity. They network, maintain Facebook pages, and, as Biehl adds, “A really good way to get publicity is to go to an event with your dog dressed to the nines.” Because of the amount of time involved, Biehl calls Eli her “chastity Chihuahua.”

In 2009, Eli won New York City Celebrity Dog. And because the pet modeling community is relatively small, Eli and Bocker know each other. Both volunteer, using their fame to raise money for various charities. Eli has garnered more than $7,000 in the past five years for the American Cancer Society. Bocker inspired the Million Doodle March last year and donated the money raised to autism research.

“He knows he’s special, and he knows when he’s going to do a certain thing,” Shelto says. “And when we’re going to the park, he knows that. Sometimes we write on Facebook, ‘I get to be a dog today!’”

Through it all, Bocker watches. “There’s just something human going on in his eyes,” Shelto reflects. “I knew he was going to be very special or very stupid.”

Montrose adds some perspective: “At the end of the day, they’re just dogs who want their bellies rubbed.”

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