Reality TV show spotlights trainer of animal actors

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Reality TV show spotlights trainer of animal actors


LOS ANGELES - For years, Bill Berloni has taught his dogs to play make believe. Now, he’s making it real.

The trainer teaches rescue dogs to beg, bark and bow or sit, stand and shake for movies, TV and the Broadway stage. Once the animal actors retire, he brings them home to join his 30 dogs, one cat, farm animals and singing macaw that swears like a sailor.

He is bringing the motley crew to reality TV in “From Wags to Riches with Bill Berloni,” the Discovery Family Channel’s first original series, debuting next week.

Berloni’s stable of stars - all found from shelters - have appeared in Broadway shows, touring companies, special events, the New York City Ballet, movies, television and commercials. He estimates he’s rescued 150 dogs since 1977.

Berloni, 58, who was recognized by the Tony Awards for excellence in the theater, has been approached about a reality series before. He says he gave this one the green light because “there aren’t many shows about good people doing good things.”

Some animal-welfare groups denounce animals in entertainment, but Berloni believes dogs were made for show business. He says he would never train a wild animal, but he does transform rough-and-tumble pooches into top actors.

He rescued a Chihuahua named Chico, who went on to play Bruiser in “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” when he was prone to biting and about to be euthanized at the pound. Berloni worked with Chico until he could bark on cue and run into his carrier whenever an actress says, “White shoes after Labor Day.”

Dogs are hardest to train for the stage, Berloni said. Unlike TV and film, there is no editing button, and it’s impossible to mask distractions from audiences and actors.

The dog he trained to play Sandy in the original stage production of “Annie” in 1977 eyeballed the audience as theatergoers in the front row were munching on fried chicken. But Sandy didn’t leave the stage, Berloni said.

Sandy gave Berloni his start training celebrity dogs. He was working at an opera house in Connecticut, where he and his family live on a farm in Higganum, when a producer asked him to find and train the dog for “Annie.”

Things are a bit less glamorous on the reality show.

At home, Berloni’s salty macaw rules the roost. The bird named Kevin turns the kitchen sink into his stage, belting out tunes such as “Tomorrow” and “It’s Raining Men.” Despite his outrageous personality, Kevin has never acted, unlike his fellow pets.

“He is only a star in our living room,” Berloni said. AP

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