Life is crazy in the house that Steve Solomon and Guin Dill share in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Not only does the couple live there, but their company’s office is there, as are about 40 animals of many species – dogs, cats, birds, snakes, insects and fish.
Why would anyone – other than zookeepers – live with so many animals of such variety? Well, they either really love pets or, like Steve and Guin, they train and handle animals that appear in TV shows, movies and commercials. Their young business – the couple launched Good Dog Animals in late 2010 – has grown so much that they just bought another piece of land in nearby Leona Valley where they can house, care for and train their in-demand four-legged, feathered, slithering and swimming actors.
Guin and Steve didn’t just decide one day, “Hey, let’s train animals for show business.” Each had a long history of loving and living with animals, and brought years of experience to Good Dog Animals.
“Steve was one of those kids that just had this knack with animals,” Guin says. “He would bring home everything under the sun.” While still in school in Canada, he worked in a pet store. In those days, wild macaws were taken into the country, then sold to people as pets. In the shop where Steve worked, he would tame the macaws so they could be pets. “It was kind of a natural thing for him.” After moving to the United States, he worked for Siegfried and Roy of Las Vegas fame, then freelanced for various animal trainers in Los Angeles for 18 years.
Guin says she “always wanted to be a vet. I tried to get really good grades in school to get a scholarship,” but she didn’t get one. She also loved business and accounting, so in her 20s she “dabbled” in different things business-wise. “I was never satisfied.” Because she missed working with animals, she volunteered with a trainer in the business of providing animals for TV and films. “As soon as I started doing that, I knew that was it. I started taking all my friends’ dogs and anything I could get my hands on to train to get experience.” She worked for a company like Good Dog Animals for a number of years. While recovering from back surgery, she and Steve decided to make a go of it on their own.
“Literally we filed the DBA and within a week, I got a call for a film,” Guin says. “We still had a reputation as individuals, so that really helped our business.”
‘Stella’Is a Big Hit on ‘Modern Family’
Good Dog Animals has actors on 23 different TV shows right now – mostly dogs. Perhaps bestknown is Beatrice, the French Bulldog who plays “Stella” on “Modern Family” on ABC.
“The producers came to me and said they were going to add a dog to the show,” Guin explains. The executive Guin worked with said they needed a totally trained dog, in other words, a dog that not only has all its basic obedience down pat, but will know how to behave on set – not look at the trainer, focus on the human actors and respond to hand cues. Guin knew they were interested in a small, purebred dog, possibly a French Bulldog. “So I put together a group of dogs for them. They auditioned four or five. I did tell them about a new Frenchie, but that she was a puppy and didn’t know anything.”
The executive wanted to see the Frenchie anyway. “He just kept staring at her and staring at her. Fifteen minutes after meeting I got the call: ‘They have to go with her.’” Guin told the executive that if he really liked the dog, they’d have to adjust the script for the dog’s appearance in the last three episodes of the season to allow for her lack of training.
Instead, Beatrice was written into 11 scenes, and the executive told Guin, “You can pull it off.”
It’s that kind of development that keeps Guin and Steve hopping.
Beatrice won a Golden Collar award for Best Dog in a TV Series last year when she was just 10 months old, and still appears on the show regularly. Good Dog Animals also handles the cat that now plays “Larry” in the show.
L.A. Is Full of Animal Actors
Because so many TV and film production companies are based in the Los Angeles area, it takes many animal trainers to fulfill their animal actor needs.
Good Dog Animals is what is known as a “full-service” company, meaning if a production company needs something, Good Dog either has it or will get it. “You can’t own everything,” Guin says. “All of the businesses kind of have agreements with each other. Animals are sublet to each other. It’s how we help each other out to keep everything working.” She estimates there are 10 to 15 full-service companies in the L.A. area and another 45 or so that are smaller or are specialists, such as one that only handles elephants.
On any given day, Good Dog will have 10 to 15 trainers on sets somewhere in Southern California or any other location a show or film might be shooting. Steve is often on sets and takes the lead on training animals to perform specific behaviors.
When Steve or Guin is on a set, they get paid by the production company. They’re members of Teamsters Local 399, which represents workers in the motion picture industry, including firms that produce feature films, television programs, commercials and live theatrical productions. So, the trainer “gets paid their wage,” and the animals make a “rental fee” that goes to Good Dog. How much that rental is depends on the production company, what Guin negotiates for a specific show, or the contract Good Dogs has with the production company. She won’t say what that rental fee range is, but says, “All animals make different amounts of money. It just goes for the care and feeding of the animals.”
It’s not uncommon, Guin says, for people who love animals or who want to get into the business, to volunteer with companies like Good Dog. They can get experience and hone their training skills in preparation for joining the union and either freelancing for a company or getting a job with one.
A lot of the work at the Good Dog “ranch,” is animal husbandry, Guin says. Good Dog has in-house trainers and also uses freelancers. Guin handles most of the business-type functions, such as going to meetings with producers, participating in phone conferences, public relations, doing paperwork and making sure every animal – and its trainer – gets to the right set on the right day at the right time. “You have to have a really clear board [for tracking projects, people and animals] and keep yourself organized.” She also does training and works on sets. Steve spends most of his time training animals and working on sets.
Once on a set, Guin says you “never know what’s going to happen. Things change.” She might have a call time at 7 a.m., and be on the set for 13 or 14 hours. With the drive to and from the location, it can easily be an 18-hour day. “You have to really go with the flow in our industry. Everybody works tons of hours. It’s just the nature of the beast.” Typically, trainers will take animals with them that aren’t in the show to socialize or train during the inevitable down time. “You always have a menagerie,” she says. Andthe couple’s friends know that any plans to get together are tentative. “We always tell people, “Don’t expect us for dinner.’”
Since launching their business, TV has been the hot ticket, but Steve’s had a lot of experience on feature film productions as well. “You can be on a feature [film] for six months solid. When we did [Sony Picture Classics’] ‘Darling Companion,’we were in Utah for eight weeks.”
Must Love Animals
While Guin and Steve must watch their company’s bottom line, the real bottom line is about the animals, Guin says. A lot of people think it must be glamorous to be on TV and film sets, but “the glamour kind of subsides after a while,” she says. “I got into it because I love animals.”
To that end, she says she always wants to make sure Good Dog animals “get the best care. A majority of our job is husbandry.”
As with most people who train animals for the entertainment industry, Guin and Steve get most of their animal actors from shelters and rescues. “We just got a new Pom. Her owner died recently, and nobody wanted her, so she ended up going back to the breeder. We went and got her. She’s phenomenal.” They call her Lucy Liu.
Some of the dogs live with Steve and Guin; others live with the trainerwho is handling them for a particular show. Guin’s current “Velcro dog” is Yorkshire Terrier Milo, who plays “Baby” on “How to Live with Your Parents//Link “How to Live with Your Parents” to http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/how-to-live-with-your-parents// (for the Rest of Your Life).” “Milo is my little man. He sleeps on my neck.” She likes to keep him with her so he doesn’t get stomped by another dog or animal, and on the set his trainer protects him from equipment and workers. “A little dog like that could ‘blow out’ really easily – get scared. You have to really take your time with the little guys.
“We’re always swapping and moving, so the dogs get very social. We want them to be able to go up to anybody. They can’t be getting anxiety by leaving me. We’re constantly rotating.Everybody’s always on the move.” But every dog lives with Steve and Guin in their house for some period of time.
One of the risks associated with using shelter and rescued animals is that they may not develop into actors. Guin says if you take 12 or 13 cats, maybe two or three will be able to work, though dogs are much more predictable. Regardless of species, “sometimes they just don’t like it,” she says. “It’s too much for them. So then we work out their quirks, and find great homes for them. We still are able to save a life. To me it’s a win-win situation.”
Guin admits having a soft spot in her heart for elephants, so she enjoys any time she’s on a set with one. “I find it really neat to have the crew members go up and touch them, and have that experience.”
Good Dog uses conditioned response training with its animals. Guin says she loves seeing the animals’skills develop. “Then you take them to set, and they accomplish what they need to do. I get really proud of them. They’re like my kids.”
An important part of Guin and Steve’s work is “recognizing the ones that want to do it and those that don’t.” And when animals get older, Guin says she lets them tell her when they’re done working. If I find the perfect home for them, then sometimes we place them, but we have access to them. I like to keep tabs on everybody.
Since starting Good Dog, Guin has sometimes felt like she’s drowning. “There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ Then you just breathe, and a dog comes and gives you a kiss, and you go, ‘This is why.’”