|Dog Training for the Early Movies
Dog trainer Carl Spitz (1894 –1976) was a German immigrant who made his way to Los Angeles where he founded the Hollywood Dog Training School in 1927 and became famous for training many of the dogs used in the movies. The Spitz family dog, Terry, played the role of Toto in The Wizard of Oz. (More about Terry/Toto next week.) Spitz was also a major participant in training dogs for World War II.In the 1930s Carl Spitz teamed up with writer Bernard Molohon to write Training Your Dog, published in 1938 by the Marshall Jones Company. The book was intended as guide to families who wanted to raise obedient, well-mannered dogs; it was not intended to teach tricks, just to create good family members.Luckily for us, however, Spitz included one chapter on training dogs for the movies, and it is a delightful chapter because it provides great insight as to the process of animal-and-trainer and the camera.Right away, Spitz makes a couple of important points:
- The dog who performs on stage learns a routine. The same tricks, the same people, the same performance is what is expected night after night. Spitz considers the challenges for dogs in films to be greater than this.
- The movie dog is trained to give natural reactions in situations that are no longer natural to the dog. For example, the scene may call for the dog to greet his long-missing master; in reality the dog and the actor have been working together on other scenes for the previous three days. The challenge to dog and trainer is to inspire the dog to greet the actor with the excitement he would show if his master actually had been gone for a long time.
As a trainer, Carl Spitz bridged the era from silent films to “talkies,” and he noted that this greatly changed the communication methods that could be used between trainer and dog. The pair had to transition from verbal cues to totally silent ones.
Sound Films Required a Change-Over to Silent Cues
To illustrate the process, Spitz noted that teaching a dog to bark, growl, or whine on command is very difficult to do when the master is not going to utter a word. Spitz describes the process of re-training a dog to silent cues: “As you start on the ‘Silent’ cue, you will still use your voice for giving this command, but at the same time you shake your right forearm in front of you as a cue. Little by little you drop your voice, until your dog obeys the command just on the cue of the arm.”
Spitz uses one of his experiences to describe what is sometimes necessary in film work. He was in charge of a dog in a movie called River’s End, and the dog needed to follow four different commands on cue at an exact time…in one take. It was a scene in a bedroom involving Charles Pickford and Junior Coughlan, and the set was tight—three cameras, many lights, the technical people and the actors and the dog left scant room for Spitz. Every time Carl moved to a location everyone thought would be better for him, he would hear a cameraman holler: “Carl, you’re in the scene.”
Finally the only logical option was for Spitz to crawl under the bed and give cues from there. The scene began, the actors acted, and the dog just sat there…
Carl crawled back out from under the bed and had to work with the dog so that he understood that signals given by someone under a bed were the same signals as someone standing upright! Ultimately, the scene was shot successfully.
Call of the Wild
Spitz also describes the challenge of a dog accomplishing simple feats. “The dog is lying in a ‘down’ position in the middle of the room. On the trainer’s cue he has to get up, walk over to a certain door, open the door and go out.”
Spitz notes that it requires training and rehearsal so that the action is correct—and correctly timed to fit with the actors’ dialogue, which is meaningless to the dog.
Another example Spitz uses concerned Call of the Wild with Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Clark is sitting at a table; Loretta Young is kneeling at the fireplace making pancakes, and Buck, a St. Bernard, is asleep next to Young.
Gable says: “did you hear a noise outside?”
The moment Gable says “did” Buck needs to raise his head very quickly and give an alert expression looking toward the window. Young responds with, “Maybe the wolves are around again.” And by this time Buck is to have jumped up, raced toward the door and gone out.
Buck’s greatest challenge in this scene involves “playing asleep” while being alert to the expected cue… with Spitz outside the house.
Acting “Like a Dog” Isn’t Easy
Spitz notes that when people have been to a movie where the dog simply acts like a dog, that he’ll hear people say, “My dog could have done that, too.”
Spitz writes: “I can only ask these folks not to forget that it is much, much harder to teach the dog to perform like a dog, than it is to teach him circus or stage tricks.”
And remember, too, that in one film the dog is a lovable companion; in the next film he may be a villain… or in one scene he is expected to refuse food; in the next scene is to steal it!
Spitz concludes the book with this sentiment: “I firmly believe that humans could well afford to stop a minute now and then and think just how fine it is to have companions and friends as loyal, trusting, courageous and, above all, as intelligent as dogs.”
Carl Spitz founded the Hollywood Dog Training School, run for the last 33 years by Rick Karl. The school was featured on this site last week: (To read about it, see The Hollywood Dog Training School.)
Later this month I will be visiting a currently-operating animal training company and will report back to you as to whether the methods Spitz used have been changed in any way.
Questions? Thoughts? write me: email@example.com
The Story of Toto/Terry
The 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz is memorable for many reasons, and one of them is certainly the presence of Dorothy’s adorable dog, Toto.
How the dog came to be cast in the starring role is a perfect Hollywood story as it involves unkind, deadbeat owners, the rescue of the little dog by a trainer and his family, and of course, it involves little Terry herself, a female Cairn Terrier, who seemed to understand that succeeding in show business brought with it a guarantee of a good home and never having to go back to her mean owners again.
In the Beginning
But let’s back up a bit to explain what happened. Terry is said to have been born in 1933 in Alta Dena, California. She was adopted by a married couple from Pasadena who had no children and evidently no patience for puppy training. Terry had a problem with wetting the rug, and the couple became very frustrated, eventually calling Carl Spitz, who was running the successful Hollywood Dog Training School which trained regular people’s pets when required but specialized in training dogs for show business.
Spitz accepted Terry, and within a relatively short time Terry was housebroken and ready to go home. When Spitz notified the owners, they had no intention of picking up Terry—or paying the bill. Spitz had acquired a new pup. Terry was an occasional guest in the house (located on the same property as the kennels), and soon she was finding laps to sit in and endearing herself to the family.
The first audition to which Spitz took Terry was one for Bright Eyes (1934) starring child star Shirley Temple. After the choice of possible dogs was narrowed down by the casting people, the final test was meeting Shirley and her own dog, a Pomeranian named Ching-Ching, and when Terry did well with Ching-Ching. Shirley turned to the adults observing the scene and gave her approval: “She’s hired.”
The Wizard of Oz
Five additional films followed for Terry before The Wizard of Oz. Carl Spitz heard that a new film of the book was to be made, and he researched the story, running Terry through all the types of training that might be necessary if Terry were cast. Ultimately, Terry was selected to play Toto.
The success of Toto in the film is to Spitz and Terry’s credit. Terry played a part involving a vast cast (think of the Munchkins, the Winkies and the Flying Monkeys) as well as major stars dressed in animal and fantasy costumes. It could not have been easy for a canine to remain cool and collected, yet Toto appears in almost all the scenes of the movie.
It was also the first time when a film was made of The Wizard of Oz that no one tried to write the dog out of the script partially or totally. Terry, however, excelled at everything from listening intently when Judy Garland sang him/her Somewhere over the Rainbow to withstanding three wind machines mimicking a tornado. There was one bad incident; a large Winkie accidentally stepped on Terry’s foot, and Terry was given a few days off to recover from the injury.
For her work, Terry was paid $125 per week—more than the Munchkins received.
Toto’s performance even merited specific and detailed mention in at least one review. This appeared in American Girl Magazine in March 1940: “The hardest thing this little dog ever had to do was during the drawbridge scene in the Wizard of Oz, when she was chased by the huge Winkie guards of the Wicked Witch. Toto had to come running out of the castle and was trying to cross the drawbridge. She had almost reached the middle when the drawbridge was pulled straight up. The only safety Toto had was by clutching the edge of the bridge with her little paws and balancing herself thirty feet in the air. One of a dog’s greatest fears is the fear of falling, so it took a great deal of courage to follow her master’s orders that time.”
Terry Becomes Toto Officially
By the end of the film, everyone was calling Terry Toto, and at that point, Spitz decided the only thing to do was to officially change Terry’s name. From then on she was known as Toto.
While Toto will always be known for the Wizard of Oz, the dog went on to make seven more films. In addition, in 1942 Carl Spitz mounted a bus tour for his canine stars to perform and make “personal appearances.” In addition to Toto, Spitz took Buck (Call of the Wild), Prince Carl (Wuthering Heights), Mr. Binkie (The Light that Failed), and Musty (Swiss Family Robinson).
Toto’s last film came out in 1945 and Toto was getting ready to retire by that time. She lived comfortably in the Spitz household on Riverside Drive until the autumn of 1945 when she died. The Spitz family buried him in their backyard, never thinking that one day they would have to move.
In 1958 the Ventura Freeway being built and the Spitzes were forced to find a new location, eventually buying a kennel property that belonged to Rudd Weatherwax (trainer of Lassie)—the location on Vanowen in north Hollywood where the Hollywood Dog Training School is still located. (For more on the story of the school, click here.) The family moved, having to leave behind Toto and the remains of other dogs buried in their pet cemetery.
Today, however, there is a place to visit and remember Toto. In 2011 a memorial at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, funded by an active group of Toto fans, was unveiled in memory of Toto.
A dog’s life is not always easy to research but writer and director Willard Carroll (1955- ) was determined to track down everything he could and has put together Toto’s story by writing Toto’s autobiography in the dog’s voice. The facts are what you read above but the voice Carroll creates for the canine star is quite amusing. You might want to check out I, Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, The Dog Who Was Toto. Carroll is also thought to own the world’s largest collection of Oz memorabilia.