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When Bill Berloni saw Mikey at a Connecticut animal shelter, the shaggy mixed-breed had just been rescued. Before that he'd spent five years confined to an outdoor pen with no protection from the weather and sometimes no water. After neighbors repeatedly complained to authorities about his appalling living conditions, the neglected dog was taken into protective custody. But Mikey's future still looked bleak. The pound that had taken him in was a "kill" shelter, and Mikey, a mutt who'd never been socialized to live with people, was the kind of dog that rarely gets adopted.
Fortunately, Mikey's luck was about to change. Berloni, who is the premier animal trainer for Broadway shows, was scouting for a dog who could play the role of Sandy in the musical Annie. Mikey, an expert on living a hard-knock life, was the only dog in the shelter who looked like the famous cartoon canine. Berloni sensed he had star potential and filled out adoption papers.
Back at his house in Haddam, Connecticut, Berloni coaxed Mikey inside with nonstop treats and cuddling. "He didn't trust anyone," Berloni says. "But gradually he caught on that he was safe and started enjoying the attention." After the dog had been in training for about a year, the understudy for Sandy in the 30th anniversary touring production of Annie suffered a stroke. Berloni drove Mikey to Seattle, where he joined the tour. The shelter mutt understudied for two years and was then promoted to the show's leading canine role, which he's still playing.
Mikey isn't the only dog out there with a shelter-to-stardom story: Whenever Berloni accepts an assignment to find and train a dog for a show, his next stop is the pound. He picks rescue dogs partly for humanitarian reasons, since his day job is director of animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York. But altruism isn't his only motive. Berloni believes that throwaway dogs actually make the best animal actors. "After a life of despair, they're finally treated well -- and they're grateful," he explains. "They respond better, they're easier to train, and they're more excited to perform than dogs from happy homes."
The chief star quality Berloni looks for is a calm demeanor. Dogs who can keep their cool in a dirty, noisy, overrun shelter will easily cope with the stress of performing on a stage. He bypasses both shy, cowering pups and slobbery, overenthusiastic loudmouths in favor of friendly, laid-back dogs who "hang out, stretch, and eventually trot by to say hello." A sweet disposition is also key: "I want dogs so good-natured that if a toddler shoves them," he says, "they'll be apologetic rather than cranky."
A mutt can actually be easier to train than a purebred, says Berloni, who has worked with both. "Toto in The Wizard of Oz, for example, needs to be a cairn terrier, historically bred to pounce on vermin," he explains, "but I need a dog who'll just sit quietly while Dorothy sings 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' I have to find a cairn terrier too lazy to look for a rat."
Over the past 30-odd years Berloni has coached animals for 23 Broadway shows, 21 off-Broadway productions, and 13 national tours. But it was his first training job -- and his first Sandy -- that proved to Broadway that dogs could step up to stardom. Flash back to 1976, when 19-year-old Berloni was interning at the Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam, Connecticut. Its production that summer was an unknown new musical called Annie, which included a substantial part for a dog, an innovation that no one was quite sure how to handle. Berloni was drafted to train the dog, a mutt he bought from the pound for $7 and named Sandy, after the character he'd be playing.
"Before Annie the conventional wisdom was that you couldn't depend on an animal to perform," says Berloni. "But I didn't know that." He took only two months to train his Sandy to play an important character with a real personality and a major impact on the plot -- not just a furry prop. The dog and costar Andrea McArdle, who played Annie, bonded instantly, and Berloni based his training methods on the simple idea that if the dog loves the person who's onstage with him, he'll go to her.
Soon after the show closed in Connecticut, director Mike Nichols asked Berloni to train Sandy for Annie's debut on Broadway, and a star was born. The rescue dog performed in 2,377 shows over seven years -- and paved the way for many more canines to come. "For the first time people saw that you could depend on a dog to deliver a flawless performance eight times a week," Berloni says. "And they started writing more roles for dogs."
That meant that Berloni was increasingly in demand, too. After Sandy's success, Berloni was asked to train a stray sheepdog to work with Richard Burton in Camelot. One assignment led to another until he became the go-to trainer on Broadway, a role that's taught him a lot about animals' acting abilities. Dogs thrive on repetition and pleasing the people they love, says Berloni, so they can, in some ways, be better performers than their human counterparts. "And dogs don't usually get opening-night jitters, because the animals ignore the audience and focus on the other actors, feeding off their emotions and energy."
That sensitivity can be a problem, Berloni admits, when the human cast's nervous energy rubs off on the animals. Take the Broadway debut of Chloe, a bulldog Berloni got after she'd been rescued from a crate in her original owner's auto-repair shop. Chosen to play the role of Rufus in Legally Blonde: The Musical, the outgoing dog loved performing so much that the director gave her a second scene. But the new scene and new costars must have overstimulated Chloe. In a preview performance she was so worked up that she bounded onto the stage -- and vomited. The actors were horrified but the trainer wasn't fazed. "That's exactly what bulldogs do when they're excited: barf," Berloni says. Equally unconcerned, Chloe kept right on going and had a long, successful career.
Today Chloe lives with Berloni and his family -- wife Dorothy and 12-year-old daughter Jenna -- in Connecticut. Part acting school, part retirement colony, his house is home to 23 dogs, including four Sandys, four Totos (from both The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz), and, from Legally Blonde: The Musical, three Bruisers (main character Elle Woods' chihuahua) and four Rufuses. And that's not even counting the horses, llamas, donkey, pony, and cats.
But no matter how grateful these dogs are for their new lives and their permanent home, Berloni is just as thankful for the opportunity to work with them. "Every day I pinch myself because I can't believe that people are paying me to do what I love," he says. "For me the animals are my companions and artistic collaborators. Every new dog teaches me something."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December/January 2010.