We Talk to Top Hollywood Animal Trainer Sue Chipperton
Unless you’re involved in the movie, television, or commercial industries, Sue Chipperton may not be a name with which you’re familiar. However, if you are looking for one of the best animal trainers for your next media project, Sue is the first person you would call.
Do you remember the Chihuahua who uttered those now famous words, "¡Yo Quiero Taco Bell!"? Maybe you remember the critically acclaimed Budweiser Puppy Love commercial, which was seen by millions during this year’s Super Bowl. How could you forget the famous duck, announcing "Aflac"? If these commercials have become part of your life and culture, then you know Sue Chipperton, who is responsible for training each of these animals and their characters and bringing them into our homes and lives.
Sue was born and raised in England and started her animal training career as a marine mammal trainer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, before moving to Hollywood. For the past 20 years, she’s worked for Studio Animal Services as a trainer extraordinaire.
And yes, Sue knows she's lucky. “It’s hard to come into the business nowadays,” she says. “You have to start as an intern and work your way up. It can take one to three years to make a living in order to support yourself. A lot of the new trainers have to have support from a partner or someone financially until they work their way up. You can't have a part-time job on the side and still do the job."
According to Sue, there are two typical types of days in the business. There's the one where you’re on set, filming and making money. The other is where you are required to take care of the ranch, where the animals are homed and trained. Ranch time involves cleaning, veterinarian check-ups, training, and anything else that needs to be done. All of this work is expected of the trainers and is not paid. Basically, if you’re not filming, you're not getting paid.
When working on commercials, the schedule can change quickly. Sometimes a production company will contact Sue on Friday for a shoot starting Monday or Tuesday. For example, with the Budweiser Puppy Love commercial, she and her team were given 16 days to train eight puppies they had never worked with previously, and this was considered a long prep time.
Although only one puppy seems to appear in the Budweiser commercial, Sue and her team needed eight Labrador Retriever puppies who looked alike so they could combine the filming. They finally found a breeder with the right number of puppies, and the production company and director were happy -- but there was a slight problem. All of the puppies had already been spoken for by eight different families.
So Sue and her team had to convince the families to loan them their new puppies for five weeks while they filmed the commercial, but keeping the theme and the Budweiser name secret. The families knew the name of the company that the shoot was for, but nothing else. Fortunately, all families agreed in spite of the fact that the puppies would not be in their new homes until after Christmas.
See if you can spot the difference among the different puppies in the ad:
Wondering how the animals you see on TV and in the movies become stars? Sue said that, in addition to their own animals and animals from breeders, they will visit local animal shelters in search of animals that exhibit trainable characteristics. “We look for the animal who is at the front of the cage door, with his foot sticking out the door and trying to grab at you," she says. "Signs of what some would call 'obnoxious behavior' at the shelter is a good thing."
Gidget was the female Chihuahua who played the male lead role for the now famous Taco Bell commercials. Gidget was one of the dogs picked out by Sue and approved by her boss at Studio Animal Services to be trained for future commercials. Gidget lived with Sue for 15 years and became her dog.
Gidget was originally cast as one of the background female dogs, but the director made a last-minute change on the first day of shooting. He wanted Gidget to take the lead role, despite the original plan. The rest is history and one of America’s most iconic figures was born.
Sue said that it is challenging working with a director or team that doesn’t provide critical communication and feedback before and during the commercial. However, when a shoot is successful, that makes up for it. Sue wants everyone involved to be part of the successful team -– director, crew and animals. “A positive experience all the way around,” Sue stated.
Sue enjoys all aspects of working with the animals and crew. However, if she had to pick a favorite, training puppies would be at the top of the list. “Training puppies is amazing. Their brains are like little sponges,” Sue said. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to work with puppies, Sue is at the front of the line yelling, “Pick me!”
It’s always great talking with Sue. I can always feel her passion for animals and the enjoyment she gets from the work that she does. Her incredible training skill, coupled with her big heart for all animals, makes her one of the best in her field.
You can find out more about Sue and Gidget in her book, A Famous Dog's Life: The Story of Gidget, America's Most Beloved Chihuahua. Also, check out Sue’s line of professional leather collars and leashes at The City Farm. Follow her on Twitter and follow Studio Animal Services on Facebook, where you'll also find the page for A Famous Dog's Life.
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About Tim Link: All-American guy who loves to rock out to Queen while consuming pizza and Pinot Noir and prefers to associate with open-minded people who love all critters. Considers himself to be the literal voice for all animals. Author, writer, radio host, Reiki Master, Animal Communicator and consultant at Wagging Tales.