When filmmaker and dog trainer Larry Kay lost Higgins, his 15 1/2 year old Golden Retriever, in 2012, it took him nearly a year before being able to part with the dog’s belongings.
“Before Higgins, I had in my head that I wasn’t a responsible pet owner,” Larry explained. “When I was 5, I had a pet canary and he died. I had in my head that it was my fault. So getting Higgins was a huge step, and little did I know it would change my life.”
And little did Larry know that in 2013, when he went to donate Higgins’ things to Pet Orphans, an animal shelter in Van Nuys, California, that just two years later he would be training the shelter dogs there to perform in short videos and eventually a longer one called P.I. Woof, complete with costumes and animation. It seemed to be a great fit — shelters can always use help promoting their animals, and Larry had created and produced Animal Wow, a dog care DVD for kids, and has worked on animation for The Pink Panther TV cartoons, as well as computer games for Disney and The Muppets.
Since he first connected with Pet Orphans, Larry has trained 36 dogs for the videos, and all of them have been adopted. Some of the video shorts feature a dog doing tricks, like Butter the Salsa Dancer, while others just show a little behind-the-scenes footage of what they are training a dog to do, like training a Pit Bull to give kisses. They are also creating video shorts for national and pet-related holidays, like National Chip Your Pet Month .
Larry, who co-authored the award-winning book Training the Best Dog Ever with President Obama’s dog trainer, Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, says that some of the rescued dogs have “major triggers, while others are really easy. We just don’t know what we’re going to get.”
To prepare the dogs for the silver screen, Larry and the Pet Orphans team “do an initial assessment, and then work with the dog wherever he or she may be.”
Take Mozart, for example. “Mozart was a young Lab/German Shepherd mix who had a sign on his kennel that said he could only be handled by certain people. Within three sessions, he could sit, kind of stay, and walk on a leash. Within a week of filming, he got adopted.”
Perhaps the best success story is Trusty, the star of P.I. Woof. “Trusty had been there for over a year and had been adopted and returned a couple times. He became a project of the entire shelter, which meant that in addition to becoming solidly trained, everyone fell in love with him. The shelter caretaker, who lives on the grounds, started taking him home at night and eventually adopted him. Now, he goes to work every day at the shelter.”
Larry told us that the videos he makes have three main goals:
- They train specific dogs.
- They spread awareness about how awesome rescue dogs are.
- They raise awareness about Pet Orphans and highlight that they have adoptable dogs who are trained like TV dogs.
“What I love to do is reframe a problem so that it goes from the worst thing in the world to the best thing in the world. I want to show people that every shelter dog is a superhero in disguise,” he said.
Having a sponsor like Halo, Purely for Pets is a huge help as well. Larry got connected with the company because “in addition to having a good business, they want to be good in society, too. They are helping shelters and donating 30,000 bowls of pet food to Pet Orphans. They have a superior product, and we have an aligned cause — it’s a perfect match.”
And as you can imagine, this story has a happy ending for Larry, too. Spider, a 2- to 3-year old Australian Cattle Dog, was the star of last year’s 4th of July video. As Larry visited the shelter to volunteer and work with the dogs, he and Spider bonded. Several weeks later, Spider was still available and went to his forever home with Larry.