WOOF: Americans Talk About Their Dogs

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Bill & Sandy

Haddam, Connecticut

Interview by Mojie Crigler 

This is the fourth interview in what will eventually become an oral history called WOOF: Americans Talk About Their Dogs, edited by John Bowe. The goal of the project is to interview as radically diverse a group of people as possible, to get them to talk about dogs from every angle possible, and, in so doing, to describe what it means to be a human living in the United States at this moment in history. 

I’m an only child. When I was two and a half, my mom asked if I wanted a brother or a sister, and I said, “A dog.” So they got me a big beautiful Collie named Rexie. Collies are herding dogs. My mom would put me out in the yard, and if I started wandering away, the dog would grab me by the pants and pull me back.

My dad was a horticulturalist. His job was growing plants and designing parks for the city of New Britain, Connecticut. We lived on a beautiful farm, but it was somewhat secluded, and there weren’t a lot of kids around. I spent a lot of time hanging around the house with my dog, my cat and my pet rabbit. I must have found a way to interact with these creatures. Otherwise I would have been a very lonely child.

When I went to school, I didn’t know how to get along with other kids. I was sort of small and awkward. I wasn’t interested in sports. I got through my school years as a shy kid, a geeky kid, very quiet. I couldn’t wait to get home and hang out with the animals.

In tenth grade, I was walking by the drama club and there were twelve girls and one gay kid, and I thought, “My chances of getting a date here are probably pretty good.” Being up onstage, saying other people’s words made me sound intelligent and funny. I decided that’s what I was going to do with my life. First summer after high school, I applied for the apprenticeship at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

We got board, we got a shared bedroom, and we got to work seventy hours a week building shows, running shows, being around professionals–for no money. I learned about having relationships with as many girls as possible and partying and staying up late and pulling all-nighters and being part of a team that’s trying to achieve something. But also embracing people’s individuality. The theatre is very accepting. I thought “This is fantastic. I’m not so weird here, because everybody’s weird.”

The next season, 1976, the new musical at Goodspeed was Annie. And you know, it was fate, the way things lined up. I was called into the executive producer’s office, Michael Price. He had never really spoken to me, so I thought, “Am I in trouble?”

He was very cordial. He had this antique barber chair that was his prized possession. Nobody sat in that chair—ever–except for him. He motioned for me to sit in it and began to compliment my work and offered me my Equity card and a small part in the show. And I went, “Oh my God, he recognizes my talent by the way I’ve been moving scenery and doing walk-ons! How brilliant is this man?!” Well, it turned out that after signing up the show and publicizing it, he’d realized, “Oh. There’s a dog in it. What are we going to do?” He’d gone to the paid staff and everybody, the prop guys, the carpenters, and they were like, “That’s not our job.” They all threatened to quit if they were forced to get the dog. So he needed someone who was gullible enough to accept the responsibility.

He said to me, “All you have to do is find and train a dog for the new show. And all we have as a budget is 35 dollars.” As a young actor at 19, I didn’t hear any of that, I just heard “Equity card.”

I was too naive to be worried about it.

In my experience, you either got dogs from a farm or you went to the pet shop. I started calling people, asking them to rent their dog, and found out that you can’t rent dogs.

Someone said there were cheap dogs at the pound. I had never been to an animal shelter. The nearest pound was in a town north of us called Middletown. So one sunny morning, I drove up to the address I had.

The dogs were kept behind a garage in chain-link fence runs. They were hot. They were dirty.  They were jumping around in their own excrement. I was just appalled. I never knew that we kept animals in those sort of conditions. As I kept proceeding north on my path to different pounds, town after town was the same thing.

About four o'clock, I ended up at the Connecticut Humane Society. There was a cement row and cages on either side, filled. As I started walking down, the din of the barking, and the stench and urine splashing in my face, I was so upset, because to me, animals had been companions. They were things I had cherished, things I thought everybody loved. I felt the pain in every one of them that was screaming to get out.

One dog caught my eye. He wasn’t barking. He was sandy-colored. He was cowering at the back. I knelt down, and slowly he came over to me, and I petted him through the cage. And then one of the caretakers came back. The dog saw the caretaker and ran to the back of the cage again. And this guy yelled, over the barking, “That one’s been abused. He’s really afraid of people.” Well, he’d reached out to me.

We went back to the office where it was quiet and there were two guys in uniform. I said, “My name is Bill Berloni. I’m from the Goodspeed Opera House. I’m looking for a dog for a new play.” I had my Polaroid camera, and my idea was to take pictures of the dogs, to cast them.

They’re like, “Do you want the dog?”

“I have to take a picture of it, because I have to show it to the director.”

“He’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow.”

“What does that mean?”

“He’s going to be killed tomorrow.”

I was mortified that animals were killed because nobody wanted them. I said, “I can’t take him! He has to be approved! Can I put a deposit down on him?” I reached into my pocket. I had three dollars. They said, “The fee is seven. Get out of here.”

I went running back to the Opera House and there was nobody there to okay the pictures of this dog. All that evening, I was moaning to everybody, “What am I going to do? This dog’s going to die!” Finally, about ten o'clock that night, my roommate said, "Idiot, if you really want the dog, here’s four bucks. Go adopt him.” I went back the next morning, they leashed him up, and we dragged him to the van because he was terrified.

He had been a stray for a while. No history. No name. He was very thin. His coat was matted. There was a McDonald’s a block away, so I got two nineteen cent hamburgers. He was in the back of the van, cowering. I threw the hamburgers to him and he gobbled them up. We got back to the Opera House and I was dragging him into the shop. “Everybody look! This is Sandy!” The dog was frightened, shaking, a mess. They looked at me, “How are you going to train that dog to be onstage? He doesn’t even want to come near you.”

He was very freaked out. But you know, when you’re young and a dreamer, you just take on tasks and you go with it. Whatever I have in terms of being calm with animals, whatever it was, he recognized. He started reaching out to me. It was less about the show at that point, and more about this feeling: I have just saved this animal’s life. He was alive and it was all going to be okay and we were doing a show. It was that boundless optimism of youth.

I remembered how my mom would open the drawer to get the can opener for the dog food, and no matter where the dogs were, they would come running. I knew they understood cues and repetitive behaviors. Sandy was starving, so food was a good motivator for him. I thought maybe, if we make Sandy think that the theater is his home, and dinner time is around the show, that will work. Maybe if we can get him to love the little girl who played Annie, he’ll just follow her around.

I’d bring him to the shop every day and everybody would share their lunch with him and he started to bond with the crew. And then I would bring him to the Opera House at night and bring him up to the stage so he could hear the audience. After two and a half months of that routine, he became comfortable with it.

Annie would feed him his dinner at night. She fell in love with him, he fell in love with her. And he did follow her around, because he liked her. When we got to opening night, she had a little dog biscuit and she showed it to him before she went on stage, then went on and called him and he went right to her. We were able to succeed in the task of getting the dog onstage for what he had to do.

The show got terrible reviews. And I moved to New York City.

I enrolled at NYU and got an apartment with two other roommates. The building we were moving into was a fifth floor walk-up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. They didn’t take dogs. In the middle of the night, we snuck Sandy by the super. We would walk him up on the roof. I was going to class at NYU and it was a great life.

I got a call from the office of Mike Nichols, the Tony- and Oscar-winning director. Mike was producing Annie for Broadway, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in training the dog again. The producers offered me $250 a week, which I thought was big money. I found out later that chorus minimum at the time was six or seven hundred dollars. They took advantage of me. When I would request a rehearsal, they would say, “No, we can’t. There’s no time.” Sandy was getting nervous. He would come to the stage and he’d be looking around. His tail wasn’t wagging.

We did our first preview in Washington, DC and there was a party at the Kennedy Center. I was in the buffet line standing next to this older woman. She went, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m the dog trainer. But it’s just not going so well.” She said, “Come sit with me and my husband and tell us about it.” So we went over and, like a little kid, I was complaining. And she went, “Oh, Roger, you have to talk to them and make sure that Sandy gets everything he needs.” As fate would have it, the woman was Christine Stevens. Her husband was Roger Stevens, who was President Kennedy’s arts adviser. He was the producer on West Side Story. He had bought and sold the Empire State Building three times. And he was the head of the Kennedy Center. I didn’t get any more money,  but Sandy got a better dressing room, and the next day, I got the rehearsal I wanted. Once that happened, we got Sandy happy again.

We broke the box office records in Washington, came to New York, opened on April 22, 1977. The show became a huge hit and at the age of 20, I became a famous animal trainer. They interviewed me for the New York Times magazine section. Because the dog came from the pound, it was a publicity person’s dream. I became a celebrity in the New York theater.

Sandy did the entire Broadway run: 2,330 performances. More performances than any human in the cast, ever. Never missed a show because of illness. He missed two weeks when Andrea McArdle got picked up to do the Liberace show in Vegas. Liberace told her, "You can have anything you want. You want to ride out in a car? Come in in a helicopter?” She said she’d like to sing ‘Tomorrow’ with Sandy. So Liberace must have called up our producers and offered them a ton of money to buy me out for two weeks. Sandy and I got on a plane and flew to Las Vegas and Liberace put me up in this private house.

Life was pretty good. I thought, “I’m going to ride this.”

Once things sort of calmed down, I started taking more dancing classes, acting classes, singing classes. I was still an actor. But then I was asked to train a dog for another Broadway show, and another Broadway show. One day, I looked in the mirror at who I was and what I looked like and what I sang like, and then looked at the guys onstage and went, “I’m never going to be that. I’m always going to be a little character guy—if I’m lucky.”

You know, when I wasn’t with Sandy, I was just a dog trainer training dogs for shows. When I was with him, I was somebody. To a certain extent, he helped to define my adult identity. He would go everywhere with me, and because he was Sandy, everywhere we went, people would say “Oh yeah, he can come into the office.”

We got asked to be a presenter at the Tony awards. Sandy had to carry the envelope out to Ben Vereen in front of a live audience. But he wasn’t a retriever; he didn’t run around or play with toys. I thought, “Well, if I tie a piece of string and hang it on his canine teeth, and if he keeps his mouth closed—maybe.” But he kept spitting it out. After a while, he would do it, but I couldn’t be more than two feet away. And during the performance, I was going to be all the way across the stage.

We got to the big night and I was like, “What am I going to do?” He hadn’t done it in dress rehearsal. I was waiting in the wings and I went, "Sandy, you’ve just got to do this, because otherwise it’ll ruin our career.” And he did it. He just did it that one night and never again.

People always asked me, what’s my method? What’s my method? I never read a training book. I never knew how to train Sandy except in the sense that I knew he would do things for others because he wanted to please me. He was grateful for what I had done. He was devoted to me.

And since then, I’ve trained hundreds of different animals, and they always teach me something new about how to communicate with them. But basically, my job is the same: it’s listening.

I’ve found in nature that no matter whether it’s water, wind, a tree, an animal, they always – we always – look for the path of least resistance. I think there’s a path we belong on, and if we’re lucky enough, we get to it and realize, “This is what I should be doing.” I still train animals, but since 1989, I’ve also been the Director of Animal Behavior at the Humane Society of New York City. I use my celebrity to raise consciousness about the plight of unwanted animals. I think that’s what I was meant to do rather than entertain people.

People who watch me work say I’m like the Dalai Lama of dog trainers. I’m not very verbal. I’m not jumping up and down, screaming “Yay!” When I’m working with dogs, I’m usually very quiet. Because it’s about being in tune with them. I call myself “the dog listener.” I wouldn’t want to be dubbed “the dog whisperer,” because that says I’m telling you what to do.

I was raised with animals, and they didn’t talk to me; we just played. In the theater, there was this pressure to get the same reaction from a dog, night after night, the same behavior, 100% of the time. The answer was simple: make it fun. I learned to create situations and design behaviors so that it’s something a dog wants to do, and it’s easy for them to do every night onstage—as opposed to intimidating them into doing something or teaching them they’re going suffer from some kind of negative consequence, which is what you’d find in more conventional ideas of training.

You know, it’s just being empathetic to other beings–not just to people. I look at what stupid humans do to animals. They see a dog and go “Ohhhh! Doggieeee!” and start groping, assuming that animals were put on earth so we can touch them and kiss them and hug them. If you did that to a stranger on the street, they’d kill you. But we think it’s our privilege to do that with dogs.

When I meet a dog, I act more dog-like than human-like. I say hello and wait for them. I let them make the first move. If they don’t want to make contact with me, that’s fine. I ignore them. With a dog who’s been maligned or abused, they’re like “You’re not going to bother me? Really?” It opens up a whole different dialogue. It’s a politeness. It’s respect, and they recognize that. I feel like if I treat you like a dog, I’m treating you with the ultimate respect.

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Illustration by Adam Grano

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