Four-legged stars get a leg up from Broadway trainer
- Last Updated: 7:45 AM, May 20, 2012
- Posted: 7:16 PM, May 19, 2012
Ballet dancer Joaquin De Luz takes his place center stage and throws out his arm melodramatically, gesturing with what will be a bouquet of flowers.
They’re Nigel’s cue.
The cairn terrier jets off, landing squarely in between De Luz’s spread legs, front paws on his chest, licking him lovingly and slobbery on the cheek.
“I have some serious acne thanks to you, buddy!” laughs De Luz.
Nigel, 6, has hit his mark. And he’ll hit it again and again thanks to Bill Berloni, Broadway’s premier animal trainer.
“The kissing was probably the hardest part,” says Berloni, 55. “He’s one of those macho, funky terriers. He’s just too cool to kiss. A little peanut butter, and we’ve changed his way of thinking.”
Nigel is in his seventh month of training for his stage debut in this month’s revival of Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature” at the New York City Ballet.
But this isn’t Berloni’s first pas de chien. Berloni got his start in 1976 while working as a technical apprentice for a regional theater. Strapped for cash, the production offered him an equity card in exchange for finding and training a dog to be the original Sandy in “Annie.”
“I trained him as I had trained my own pet growing up,” says Berloni. “I created what was a positive reinforcement method of training.”
The success led to a Broadway transfer and for Berloni, a new career.
For the past 36 years, he’s trained animals for countless stage productions and revolutionized what people thought dogs were capable of onstage.
“Up until ‘Annie’ a dog had never really played a role in a theater piece. They had been props and sight gags and carry-ons,” he says. “But nobody had ever thought that an animal could do the same thing eight times a week.”
Through all those productions, though, one thing’s never changed: All of the animals Berloni works with extensively onstage, he adopts. As a result, he and his wife now happily reside on a 90-acre Connecticut farm 120 miles from Times Square with 25 dogs, four horses, four chickens, two cats, two llamas, a donkey, a pony and a macaw.
“The year that you put into getting a dog up to speed for a project, you fall in love with it,” says Berloni. “He becomes another part of the family.”
Berloni finds most of his “family members” through Petfinder.com.
“The dogs that we use for this type of work really have to enjoy working and wanting to please,” he says. “This is a dog who will play ball with you for hours. You just keep throwing the ball, he’ll just keep bringing it back.”
To avoid competition — for both his fatherly love and his masterly praise — Berloni keeps the 25 dogs in four groups: large, medium, small and cairn terriers. (America’s need for Toto is limitless.)
Each group lives in one of four rooms in the 600-square-foot “dog wing” Berloni and his wife built three years ago.
“We rotate them into our living area so they get socialization time throughout the day,” says Berloni, “Some of them sleep with us, some of them watch TV with us, some of them come to the office with us.”
They all go out for relief once every three hours. Breakfast is between 8 and 9 a.m., training time is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner is served promptly at 9 p.m.
“I’m the go-between, between what the creators want and what the animals are capable of doing. And then I create what’s possible,” he says.
So when a photographer at rehearsal shouts, “Can you make him jump higher?,” Berloni’s on the defense.
“As an acrobat, he just jumped three times his height, nine times.”
And Nigel wags his tail in agreement.