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Pet models will work for food, praise

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Bocker the Labradoodle models an outfit at the Skybark Pre-Westminster Fashion Show in New York. (Photo courtesy of Marie Shelto)

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Bocker the Labradoodle has appeared in numerous ads, including this one for Tommy Hilfiger. (Photo courtesy of Marie Shelto)

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Bocker the Labradoodle has appeared in numerous ads, including this one for Target. (Photo courtesy of Marie Shelto)

Twice a week, in a dim church basement in Queens, N.Y., a veritable Who’s Who of the New York modeling scene gathers. For about two hours, they go through exercises with their trainer, John Monteleone. They’re an unlikely bunch, with little in common besides gorgeous hair and an eagerness to work.

There’s Ryder, a golden retriever whose portfolio includes shots for Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. There’s Ernie, a shaggy brown-and-cream Australian shepherd, best known for the American Express print ad in which he plays poker with Ellen DeGeneres. And Starla, a white standard poodle who once graced a Times Square billboard for Target.

Backstage in the world of pet modeling, the pay is peanuts (sometimes literally), and fame doesn’t come easily.

“It’s not overnight. It takes years to train a dog,” says Dianne Pietrovieto, whose 3-year-old Cairn Terrier, Nemo, once appeared in a Comedy Central pilot. “It’s knowing what to do and knowing what the dog is looking for.”

Nancy Novograd, owner of the All Tame Animals agency in New York, says she is constantly fielding queries from owners who want to get their dog or cat into the business. During interviews, she screens not just the animals but the humans, to gauge their commitment. Owners have to be available to take last-minute jobs, chauffeur their pets to shoots and put in hours of preparation.

“The working ethic between the animal and the owner is what’s most important,” Novograd says.

Back in the church basement, Monteleone leads the dogs in heeling, figure eights and recalls (teaching a dog to come when called). During a drill in which the owners tell their canines to stay from across the room, the dogs simply stare back serenely. For three full minutes, there’s no barking, no sniffing, barely a twitching paw.

“Looks are important,” says Novograd, “but this kind of focus and ability to do the job is crucial.”

Any dog off the street can shake your hand. A highly trained pet model can sit patiently in a tub of water and smile for the camera as Joy Behar cleans its ears for a segment on “The View.” Or bark on command while looking forlornly in another direction from inside a locked vehicle—all to pitch, say, car insurance.

Some owners are hoping their pets have another talent: bringing in extra cash. Agencies around the country report that more people have brought in animals over the past six months.

“Some people say, ‘I got laid off,’ and they’re more flexible with their schedules,” says Barbara O’Brien, founder of the Animal Connection agency in Stockholm, Wis. O’Brien spends a lot of time batting away misconceptions about the field. “We’re not gonna fly you in from Europe, no matter how cute your dog is,” she says. Visions of retiring on your canine’s irresistibly adorable looks? Not so much. “It doesn’t pay enough to make it worth it, really. Nobody makes a living with one dog.”

One agency in California estimates anywhere from $50 to $300 per job, depending on the client and what is expected of the animal. Work is irregular, catering to the whims of art and casting directors searching for a specific look. For every Lassie, Benji, or Morris the Cat, there are thousands of pets who never land a gig.

“The sad part is, as people are making less commercials, there are more and more” pet owners “wanting to make commercials with their animals,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. But “the chances of one becoming wealthy with one’s pet are probably about the same chances of winning $10 million in the lottery.”

As advertising companies trim budgets, parts for animals have been shrinking or disappearing as well. Novograd laments that an opera that previously hired four of her clients—two horses, a donkey and a dog—have axed the dog part because of budget constraints.

The fashion industry in particular has taken a hit, she says. “I hate to say it, but a lot of people treat the animal talent like a prop, and that’s unfortunate because I think that we work hard.”

An upside to these slow times, Novograd says, is that there is more time to train—so that the animals will be all the more ready whenever a call comes, sometimes out of the blue.

Such was the case for Bocker, a 5-year-old golden Labradoodle whose portfolio got a boost this past political season. When the “Morning Show With Mike & Juliet” did a segment called “If the Candidates Were Dogs” that matched Hillary Clinton with a Labradoodle, Bocker was brought on. His star brightened further after the Obamas announced that a Labradoodle and Portuguese water dog were the final candidates for first dog. Since then, Bocker has been in the pages of GQ magazine, in an ad for Chase bank and on the back cover of the Barney’s New York catalog.

“From when he was a puppy, everybody said he had human eyes," says Marie Shelto, Bocker's owner. "And they said he should be doing this type of work.”

E-mail: abw2124@columbia.edu