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No Love for the Holidays?

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And… action!

Allow me to share a series of events that took place a few months ago, but that are related to the current holiday season. I think some of you will find this story interesting!

Ken & Nico

Ken with Nico, an American bulldog rescued
from a shelter.
Photo courtesy of Brenna Hernandez/Shedd Aquarium

As summer ended and we were moving toward fall this year, I was contacted by a large marketing firm that was making a Chicago-area Public Service Announcement (PSA) encouraging people to consider adopting their next pet from a shelter. It was going to be a big-budget, well-produced commercial, funded by a generous benefactor. I have been a strong supporter of many Chicago-area shelters, and I am a big proponent of pet adoptions everywhere I speak and teach. I was honored to have the opportunity to be a spokesperson and trainer of several dogs for this high-profile television spot.

A veteran of film

I looked forward to my first meeting with the production team, to discuss my role in the commercial and to acquire a better understanding of the behaviors they needed trained. I am not new to the world of television and film production. I am aware that even a simple film-shoot can be filled with complications and prove to be challenging! The dogs have to be well-trained; desensitized to lots of people, lots of strange looking equipment, rapid movement of booms and trolleys, bright lights, and cables; and able to work for long periods of time with an unpredictable number of repetitions. (The behavior needs to look as good the 25th time as it did the 1st time it was performed.)

Usually the biggest challenge is the inevitable reality of the director changing his or her mind about what the dog should do—halfway through the shoot! The trainer and the dog must be adaptable, flexible, and ready for just about anything.

To be successful at this type of work, a trainer has to be more than just skilled at training; working on a set requires being a good negotiator. You have to put the animal’s needs first, deciding what is best for the animal’s health, training, and comfort. But you also have to be open to the many changes and types of direction that the production crew throws at you. Trainers who are inflexible about what the animal can do, and who are unwilling to accommodate any requested changes, will be labeled as uncooperative very quickly—and will likely not get any future jobs training on a film or video production. A delicate balance must be struck; protecting animal needs and comfort is a priority, but being able to work with the production crew and find solutions that will help the crew members get what they need is also important.

I thought I was well prepared for that meeting; I had no idea how wrong I was!

The animal part of this commercial spot looked as though it were going to be easy—simple shots of a variety of dogs playing with a number of different children in assorted locations. Before my first production meeting I had not received a script, just a shot list. That meant that I had no idea what lines I needed to say. I only had a full list of shots: which dogs doing what activities under what conditions. A few simple, but key, behaviors were going to have to be trained, but most of the shots would really be simple, natural play—getting the best shots from actual unscripted play interactions between dogs and kids. This approach does not guarantee any particular shot, but when you are working with dogs and children it often comes off more natural. You can get some really wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, gems. So I went into the meeting ready with questions and suggestions for how we could maximize opportunities to keep dogs and kids safe and get the best shots. I thought I was well prepared for that meeting; I had no idea how wrong I was!

A perfect start

The meeting started out great! We were doing a PSA for a good cause that all of us believed in. We had a good budget, a good director, a good production team, and access to some wonderful dogs. During the first two hours, our meeting flowed well; we all went into the first short break excited about this project. One of the writers from the marketing firm, who had designed and written the commercial, introduced himself and handed me an actual script. He explained that I had been given the key tag line and appeal to the audience at the very end of the commercial. Great! I was looking forward to reading the script. But the break ended, so I did not have the chance to review the actual script until lunch, a few hours later.

“Support your local shelter” was the name of this project, and I knew I was on board with that. The script was simple, straightforward, and very sentimental—it had the earmarks of a very effective and emotional ad that would certainly bring people into Chicago-area shelters (they were planning to shoot so that the PSA could be used nationally if it was successful).

After some wonderfully cute shots of dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens playing with kids in adorable settings, all with appropriate adult supervision and attention to good safety practices and set to emotional holiday-themed music, there would be a shot of me teaching two kids how to train their dog. I was even allowed to use a clicker! As I read the script, I remember thinking, “This is going to be great!”

Good intentions gone wrong

Then, I turned the page to read the last scene, with the final spoken message. It was scripted that I would look into the camera and say, “Give a little love for the holidays! Visit your local shelter and give a deserving pet a home!” This statement would be followed by a touching scene of a little girl hugging a cute puppy. Powerful stuff, created by a famous and effective marketing team!

Well, it had never occurred to me that I might have an issue with the script; that was not even in the realm of possibilities as far as I was concerned. I was focused on the animal part of the commercial, which is where I expected to have challenges.

You see, I have strong reservations about promoting pets as gifts. January is one of the months when shelters receive the most animals. When someone in a home receives a dog or a cat as a Christmas present, many times the family is simply not prepared for all that is involved in adopting the animal and being a pet parent.

Far too often pet gifts are surprises that the recipient has not had the time to consider or prepare for.

The commercial spot was almost too good! I feared it would be much too effective at getting people to choose a pet as a gift; gift-givers would not consider fully the careful thought and preparation needed. Far too often pet gifts are surprises that the recipient has not had the time to consider or prepare for. Pet parents need to be well-informed, ready for the care and training required for a good safe home.

I was concerned that the commercial sent the wrong message, and would ultimately be responsible for the wrong result. My prediction was that Chicago-area shelters would see a huge increase in adoptions during the month of December because of this PSA, and then set new records for dogs returned to the shelter in January!

I wondered who had approved this commercial? Had a specific shelter paid for it or advised on content? I needed to find out. I was going to have to pull out my best negotiating skills to navigate through the landmine that the production team, especially the team that created the commercial, didn’t even know they were facing. On that production meeting day, I felt compelled to make my case when we returned from lunch.

Explosive reaction and a new name: Scrooge

The fireworks I set off in that fancy conference room that afternoon in downtown Chicago could be felt and heard for miles! The creative team members who designed the commercial were furious with me. It was very late in the process to make changes. But I had not received a script until that morning and the PSA was never referred to as a holiday spot, just a “support your local shelter” spot. (It turns out that no shelter or adoption organization had approved the message; the PSA was being paid for by a wealthy benefactor who wanted to do a good thing.) I offered alternative positive messages about pet care and training for the holidays, but those did not go over very well.

Next, I proposed a number of compromises, and encouraged the creative team to bring in a few leaders from Chicago shelters and solicit their opinions. If the shelter folks disagreed with me, then I would step aside and let them proceed; I wouldn’t be the spokesperson. But because the local shelters were not the clients, the creative team refused to “waste their time” doing that. I suggested that I to speak with their client, the benefactor, and help him understand what was wrong with the PSA concept. But by then I was already perceived as a troublemaker; no one wanted me to go near the man who had given them so much money for this project.

After being called a Scrooge and accused of being someone that “did not believe in love for the holidays,” I was placed on the naughty list by that particular ad agency. I had ruined what they were certain would be a CLIO-award-winning ad (the CLIO is an international award given to commercials and other forms of advertising).


I doubted myself for a few days and wondered if I was being too strongly opinionated, which is not normal for me. I always have opinions, but am not usually the first to voice them. But when I consulted with several of my contacts at local shelters, they agreed with me that the direct, holiday-themed appeal was probably not the best way to get the “visit your local shelter” message out there.

Fortunately, the funding for the PSA was not lost. After several weeks of negotiating, finally it was decided to re-script the appeal; a slick, high-profile, and emotional PSA is now planned for sometime in 2015. I probably won’t be part of that project, but that is fine. At least a better message will be out there.

The truth: I support shelters and have holiday spirit!

Coral Counting

Coral, an Airedale mix adopted from a shelter,
resting in front of her counting apparatus.
Ken will explain how she learned to count
at ClickerExpo 2015!

I am a big supporter of shelters, and always encourage people who are looking for pets to consider their local shelters. Some of my most exciting training projects have been accomplished with dogs that I have adopted from a shelter. (Those of you planning to attend ClickerExpo 2015 in either Portland or Dearborn/Detroit will be the first to see the progress I have made teaching a shelter dog the concept of counting!) As much as I want to see every animal in a shelter find a forever home, I want to make sure that finding homes for shelter dogs is done with thought and care. We shouldn’t be satisfied with any message—it needs to be the right message.

I really do wish you and your pets all the love possible for the holidays and beyond!

Happy training,


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