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 ARTICLES > Clicker Training > Clicker Tips
  Clicker Training  Article:
Article By: Helen Schwartzmann       

Marley and Us: Clicker Training on the Movie Set – Part 1

With permission from the Karen Pryor Website www.clickertraining.com

NOTE: Some time ago, we had the book “Marley and me as our book of the month. This has now been made into a film and I found the story from one of the extras really fun to read. We’ll be giving you the full story over the next couple of months.

Film and fame

"Class! Collar your dogs!"

Most Americans would recognize the husky female voice that gave that command in a heartbeat

I followed instructions; bent over my Doberman, Leissl, and placed around her neck the 15-year-old choke collar I had taken out of storage. Then I stood up, as rehearsed, to listen for the next command from the class instructor, Kathleen Turner.

I never thought I’d be standing in a dog obedience class with such a famous, non-expert instructor, but there I was in a scene set right at the beginning of the 1990s—while around us, past the lights, cameras, and action, it was March, 2008. Leissl and I had landed roles as extras in the "Hero Dog Obedience Class" scene for the movie Marley and Me, due in theaters in December 2008.

A few months earlier, I had opened an e-mail with a provocative subject line: "Casting dogs and owners for Marley and Me." I read through, and decided I met, the requirements, which included having a flexible work schedule and the ability to work a 10-12 hour day. So I submitted the required discussion of the dog’s talents and pictures of the handler-dog team in natural light—and held my breath

Several weeks later, I had to peel myself off the ceiling when I learned that we had been selected for the dog obedience class scene in the film.

Leissl and I had landed roles as extras in the movie Marley and Me.

Rehearsal day—positive training for the three Marleys

Just prior to this exciting day of movie making was the rehearsal, where the handler-dog pairs met with all three of the Marleys trained for this scene. Mathilde DeCagny, trainer of "Eddie" the dog from the TV show Frasier, was head trainer of the Marley Labradors. Ray Beal was the Owen Wilson look-alike trainer who worked his magic handling the Labs, while Mathilde gave the commands from the sidelines that brought out the naughty in Marley. The third member of Marley’s crew was Mark Forbes, animal coordinator for this project and general manager of Birds & Animals Unlimited, which provided the animal talent.

Aside from offering time for Marley to practice, rehearsal gave the handlers and dogs a chance to get used to the three well-trained, wacky, adolescent Marleys. Nanci Little and Phillip Hoelcher of Trademark Animal Talent wanted to make sure none of the extra dogs they hired had issues with each other or with one of the Marleys. As rehearsal started, Nanci made an announcement. She did not want to see anyone forcing their dogs to do anything, and she reminded us that if clickers and treats had been brought, we should pull them out and use them.

Though no clickers were used to train Marley on rehearsal day, a representative from Birds & Animals Unlimited answered an e-mail from me about their training methods.

"We use clickers for some things but most of the training is basic positive reinforcement. We are very mindful of the importance of the dogs (sic) attitude. We are very careful not to let them get bummed out."

The yellow Marley Labs were obedient and upbeat, which testifies to their positive training method.

The yellow Marley Labs were obedient and upbeat, which testifies to their positive training method. As for the extras, I didn’t see a team among us using the force method. People were using treats to gain and keep their dogs’ attention, and the majority wore buckle or martingale collars.


Our rehearsal group consisted of an Aussie, a Benji-like dog, two collies, a Doberman, a German shepherd, a husky, black Lab mix, a Labradoodle, a Newfoundland, a Terrier mix, and a Weimaraner. Most of us had never seen a Labradoodle, so she drew a lot of attention. Her name was Gigi, and she is in a one-year foster home placement. Soon she will move on to formal training as her next step as a service dog.

Starting the rehearsal, Phil put us in a moving circle and gave us commands to see how we and our dogs did as teams, while Mathilde and her staff watched and evaluated us. Afterward, they put Abby the Aussie and her handler on one side of Marley, and Leissl and me on the other. (This was not the way it would be on shooting day, but it was a thrill during practice.)

The first test for the handler-dog teams was ignoring the Lab as he got into character as the hyperactive Marley. While Ray played tug with Marley around our drill-class circle, our dogs were supposed to keep their attention on us. This was difficult, as there had never been a well-trained but out-of-control dog in any drill class Leissl and I had attended. I used treats and conversation to keep Leissl focused on me. She did well, as did the other dogs.

Jump up for treats

After the drill class practice, we moved to where the scene would be shot. This was a much smaller space. For this part of rehearsal, Mathilde reinforced the Marleys on several behaviors. The question most new dog owners ask is, "How do I stop my dog from jumping on me?" But in this instance, Mathilde had trained the reverse.

"Up!" she’d say in an encouraging voice and with an added hand signal. Up went the Lab on Ray Beal. Ray squirmed and protested to get the Marley off, but Mathilde’s command was the one the Lab listened to. Until she gave the word, Marley remained an unrelenting adolescent with his big paws on Ray.

Pulling Ray through the middle of our drill circle was Marley’s next feat. Mathilde stood on the other side of the circle with the universal dog magnet—the stainless steel dinner bowl. When our drill circle started moving, Mathilde gave the signal and Marley hauled Ray through the center of the drill circle and out the other side to get to the treat waiting for him in that bowl.

I wasn’t close enough to see what treat was in that bowl, but I did get a peek into Mathilde’s treat bag when she was doing an arm signal for Clyde, the star Marley of the trio. (Both Mathilde and Ray wore bags, but not Mark Forbes.) In Mathilde’s bag was something that looked like toffee-colored beef sticks. I contacted Birds & Animals Unlimited to ask about the treats, and was told the trainers use Bil-Jac liver treats and cooked chicken breasts. Neither of these were the secret in Mathilde’s bag, but whatever treat the trainers used, the Marleys were working for good things, not to avoid punishment.

The Marleys were working for good things, not to avoid punishment.


About the author Helen Schwarzmann began training dogs in Southern California in 1979. Eighteen years later, she moved to Florida where she clicks and treats for fun and competition. Helen maintains the Florida Doberman Pinscher Rescue Ring website for orphaned Dobies, and blogs about life with her expansive family of canines at http://www.dobermannpinscher.org/

© 2006 TTouch - eugenie@ttouch.co.za.   All Rights Reserved.