Bill and Dorothy Berloni of William Berloni Theatrical Animals
Bill Berloni got his start training dogs for the role of Sandy in the 1976 Broadway hit Annie and has been bringing wagging tails to audiences ever since. Currently he has Roxie helping Audra McDonald in Lady Day, Trixie in Bullets Over Broadway and is in pre-production of Because of Winn Dixie with his wife and partner, Dorothy. Both have given their lives over to finding, training and providing a home for their canine stars as well as finding work for other animal actors. In addition, Bill is a behavioral consultant for the Humane Society of New York and does lectures all over the country.
I was lucky enough to catch the two in-between shows and caring for their pack of dogs at their farm in Connecticut.
RV: Discovering Sandy and learning how to bring out the performer in shelter dogs has been an adventure for you. What does it take to do what you do?
BB: I like to have a year to get a shelter dog ready for a role. That includes getting it healthy since most shelter dogs have health concerns, giving it 3 months to socialize and learn basic obedience then 6 more months for me to develop their natural talents. But often I’m given a limited amount of time depending upon the director’s needs. In those cases, I tell the director they’ll get what they get because I won’t push a dog.
DB: It’s basically a 24-7 lifestyle. We keep most of our dogs here at the farm when they aren’t working a show. I’ve got a full-time assistant who does much of the socialization and acclimatization work so I can take care of administrative details like making sure the dogs and their handlers are at the right place. Bill has to oversee every job as well to make sure the dogs are being treated fairly.
BB: It takes a lot of good people doing good things.
RV: You have to have 2 dogs for each role generally as well?
BB: Yes, everyone has the right to get sick so we have to make sure there’s a back-up ready just in case something goes wrong. Plus we have all the retired dogs here. They’re part of our family. Also, any dog that I’ve brought home that did not like performing will stay here until we find a good home for them.
DB: Our life is largely organized around our dogs because their work requires them to do 8 shows a week, 52 weeks a year for several years. In order to keep them used to their work schedules we feed after 11 p.m. because that is when the show is over. But otherwise when they are home they are off-duty, so they get to be dogs.
BB: Letting them be who they are—that is, allowing them to express their breed characteristics and individual personalities—is key to their mental health but also to the type of work they do when they perform. Ethically, I can only get them to do what is in their nature to do.
RV: What do you mean by ethically?
BB: My animals aren’t robots and don’t just do tricks. They are beings who deserve the same respect given to human actors—well, maybe better! I don’t care who the director is or how important it is to get the shot, I will not ask my animals to do something that isn’t good for them. If my dog is stressed, then they’ll have to wait until it’s ready. I like to tell directors that if they do it my way, they’ll get it in one take. You can’t force nature.
DB: That’s why Bill is so good at what he does- he has an instinctive sense of what is really going on inside the dog. He’s not a dog-whisperer, he’s a dog-listener because he brings out the true nature of that dog. It shows in their performance.
BB: There’s no point in asking anybody, especially an animal, to do anything that makes it unhappy. It is a challenge however because it has cost us jobs. It’s something everyone has to think about: how to make a living and be ethical at the same time. But our family, our employees and our dogs are more important to us than fame or fortune.