People ask Bill Berloni for advice all the time about their pets, and for good reason. Berloni is Broadway's leading animal trainer. In the past 30 years or so, his charges have included such stars as Sandy, the lovable mutt in Annie; Toto, the Cairn terrier who accompanies Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; and Bruiser, the chihuahua with attitude who is Elle Woods' constant companion in Legally Blonde, whose national tour is now at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Ever since finding the first Sandy in a dog pound, Berloni has trained many rescue animals to be in shows. They often turn out to be his best performers. In his recent book, Broadway Tails (Lyons Press), he sings the praises of five "superdogs'' that he trained for Annie, Legally Blonde, Contact and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All came from shelters.
“Those dogs came from really abusive situations,'' Berloni said. "They were ready to be killed. Somewhat against my better judgment, I adopted them and they actually became the best dogs I ever trained. It seems like the more they're abused, the better performers they end up being. When I brought them back from the abyss, they were that much more in tune to me.''
He is a fan of petfinder.com, an Internet search engine on which shelters from around the country list the animals they have available for adoption. "You can search on the type of animal, breed and gender, and get a list of all the matching animals close to where you live,'' Berloni said in his book. "It's probably one of the best uses for the Internet I know and a great tool for helping animals.''
Berloni's training methods are completely positive. "We don't force animals to perform,'' he said. "We figure out ways to make them want to do something. When I get a creature, I go, 'Will you enjoy this? Will you get stressed out by it? Do you like people? Do you like food? What can I motivate you with?' Whether it's a dog or a cat or a rat or a pig, I learn what the creature's limits are and adapt the play they're going to be in to what they can do.''
Naturally, Berloni gets asked a lot about how to deal with house breaking, barking, biting, chewing and other common problems with pets. His answer:
"I have two things to say to people: Before you get an animal, really do your research. Don't impulse buy a dog or a cat or any pet because you're visually attracted to it. Pick the right dog for your lifestyle so they don't end up in a shelter. And two, if you have problems, go to a training class. Get help from a dog trainer, as opposed to buying books or videos and trying to figure out from there.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.