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Who Let the Dogs Out?

A look at how “The Bumpus Hounds” and other animals get ready for the spotlight with animal trainer Bill Berloni.


Bill Berloni with Bowdie the titular dog in 'Because of Winn-Dixie'. Photo by Jenna Berloni.


Jethro plays a Bumpus Hound in 'A Christmas Story, The Musical'

Two furry friends are taking the stage in this month’s production of A Christmas Story, The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre. But “The Bumpus Hounds,” played by two Bloodhounds named Jethro and Reba, are not just regular dogs—they are trained specifically to appear on stage and screen.

Their trainer, William “Bill” Berloni, has been training animals to perform for over 40 years. His career began in 1977, when he was a young apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House. To have a chance to perform and gain his Equity card all he had to do was wrangle a dog for a new musical called Annie. And the rest was paw-story. Now, he trains a variety of animals, reptiles, and insects for theatre, television, and film.

From cats to horses to parakeets to cockroaches (yes, cockroaches), Berloni said that training a live creature usually goes back to the simple concept of meeting their basic needs. He specifically trains animals that are partially domesticated, like cattle, sheep, rabbits, and birds, as opposed to “exotic” and wild animals like bears, big cats, or primates, since the latter often invite harsh techniques and loose standards. He also works alongside animal, insect, and reptile experts to ensure that the specific needs of each unique animal are met.

While meeting an animal’s needs sounds simple, it can be complicated during a production or film set. “[The animals are] sort of like Olympic athletes,” he said. “They have to be at the top of their game in order to be happy to do the things we need.”

Dogs, in particular, need about 12 to 16 hours of sleep a day. So Berloni makes sure that they are well rested before rehearsal and keeps them mentally and physically stimulated and socialized during their time awake. “When it’s time to [train], it can be the best part of their day,” he said. “They get all this attention and all these cookies—they go to a place where they’re admired not just by me, but by so many other people.”

Jethro and Reba appeared in the Broadway production of A Christmas Story, The Musical, so they are returning to their roles for this production. But there were two dogs before them, Pete and Lily, who originated the roles. To cast all of these dogs, Berloni said he needed to first assess their temperament—which dogs seemed like they could handle the stressors of traveling and being onstage. From there, they could begin to train. The dogs’ big scene involves them eating a holiday dinner straight off of the kitchen table, which Berloni said is a complicated behavior to teach. Bloodhounds in particular are known for their keen sense of smell—they can be easily distracted by the variety of new smells in a theatre on any given night. But through training, he said he was able to teach them to follow their noses to the dinner table.

Reba plays a Bumpus Hound in 'A Christmas Story, The Musical'

Berloni said it is often easier to train animals for film and television. “[Movie dogs] will be looking at me off camera—and if it doesn’t work, we do another take,” he said. “In the theatre, they have to do it right once and listen to someone else.”

He also encourages artists to advocate for animal safety precautions in theatre, television, and film. “There should be more transparency about how animals are used in entertainment so we can set some standards that will protect them,” he said. “One of the biggest forms of cruelty is ignorance,” he said.

Jethro and Reba are rescue dogs, which Berloni finds to be an important part of his work. Reba was found in Boston as a stray and Jethro was found tied to a tree in Indiana. The dog who played Sandy in the original production of Annie was also a rescue dog, which sparked a lifelong dedication to animal adoption and working with rescue dogs for training. He’s pleased with how attitudes toward animal adoption have changed since he started working with animals, but he hopes that people continue to support shelters and adopt animals. “There are beautiful, wonderful animals that ended up in shelters that need homes,” Berloni said.

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