There used to be an adage in show business about never working with animals or children, but for Violetta Hessing, there’s nothing more fulfilling than finding a dog that wants to be on set and training it to deliver just as much emotion as its human scene partners.
Hessing owns and is the head trainer at V’s Talented Animal Performers, and her latest gig is as the animal wrangler on the CW drama “In the Dark,” in which the protagonist, played by Perry Mattfeld, is blind and depends on a guide dog. But rather than hire a real guide dog, the show tapped Hessing, who trained a retriever named Levi to act as one.
The decision to not use a certified guide dog was in part because it would mean taking one out of rotation for a person who actually needs it, says show consultant Lorri Bernson. Additionally, training guide dogs is different from training canines as performers.
“When we repeat things, it’s because he made an error,” Bernson says of working with her guide dog, Captain. But on sets, all actors, even the canine ones, have to be able to repeat behaviors multiple times for different takes. In such a situation, she adds, “a guide dog in acting wouldn’t know what he’s doing wrong and could start to lose other elements of his training as he tries to figure out what you want when you’re asking him to do it again.” A performer dog, on the other hand, “waits for cue words” — such as “yes” or “good” — “to know she’s doing a good job, even if it’s over and over,” says Hessing.
The rules around how a guide dog must act when it’s in a harness are very specific, Hessing and Bernson both note, so Hessing had to train Levi (who plays Pretzel) “to act that part.” This includes using the concept of “intelligent disobedience.” For example, if a guide dog is walking with his or her person and they come to an obstacle the person doesn’t hear or feel, the dog must stop. The person may say, “Forward,” but the dog will still refuse to follow through with the command because it is not safe to proceed. “Once I tap and find out what it is, and reposition so we can go around or wait if it’s a passing obstacle, then I’ll repeat the command, and he will go if it’s safe,” Bernson says. “It really is teamwork.”
This was far from the only behavior Hessing needed to teach Levi for the show. Additionally, she got the dog to emote certain scene-specific moods, as well as to perform tricks that ranged from jumping out of a window to limping.
Per Hessing, positive reinforcement is the key with any dog working on a set. “We use toys and food and praise. It depends on the energy of the scene. If we need high-energy, I’ll use some food; if we need low-energy, it will just be a pat or a kind word,” she says.
One of the bigger challenges, Hessing says, was getting Levi into calm states of mind for certain scenes because the dog naturally “goes from zero to 60 in an instant.” The trainer took time between scenes to work on behaviors that are “confidence builders,” such as barking on cue or backing up.
“This keeps their energy up and their happiness on set,” Hessing notes. “There’s so much crazy that goes on in this industry, and to find a dog that takes it all in stride and loves every minute of it, it’s like winning the lottery.”