Amy Peller, a marketing consultant who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, was in the flagship Banana Republic store in London last winter when she looked up and recognized the model whose picture greeted her.
“I think I gasped or screamed and said, ‘That’s my dog!’” Peller said. There was her white labradoodle, Benny Hana, pictured in the middle of a party of other dog and human models on a grand staircase.
Benny has appeared in two ad campaigns and a calendar for his breed. Peller says her pet’s star turn has been an enjoyable bonding experience but not something she plans to quit her day job for, even if he does get more work.
“I view this as a fun extracurricular activity,” said Peller, who estimates that she and Benny earn $500 per day on a shoot. And, she said, there are the bragging rights: “I get to tell people I officially live with a male model.”
All owners think their pets are cute, but only a rare few of those cute pets make it in modeling. A dog or cat (or bird or rabbit or llama) has to have the “look” that a client is seeking. Animals with more training tend to book more work, especially if they can perform a variety of tasks or actions — and can sit still during the inevitable downtime of a photo shoot. And preference goes to animals that are already social media stars.
“I just did a job, and the client selected the dog from their Instagram account,” said Gloria Winship, the owner and head trainer for two animal talent agencies, one in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta.
That dog and another one the client chose had lots of Instagram followers — one had at least 200,000, she recalled — but that did not mean they were prepared for the work. “The dogs weren’t trained,” Winship said, “and I had to train them right there on the set.”
Even before people’s pets had viral followings, Winship did not have to do much recruiting. Prospective pet models usually find her. “I get 20 emails a day, ‘My dog is so cute,’” she said. “They don’t necessarily get anywhere because their dog isn’t trained.”
Denise Truelove, a marketing director for Mars Petcare, said animal models were important visual touchstones for the company’s pet foods and pet care products. “The Cesar packaging will always have a Westie on it,” she said, and “Sheba will always have a Blue Russian cat.” These recognizable mascots help customers find the items more easily.
“We try to keep the same animal to help consumers navigate when they get to the shelf,” Truelove said. “It acts as a beacon.”
Because packaging changes infrequently, the same Westie has appeared on Cesar foods since 2015 and will most likely remain there for years to come. But different dogs can appear in other print and television ads, she said, so long as they look like the dog on the package.
“We will bring several Westies to set,” as many as four or five for one shoot, “all groomed in a similar way,” Truelove explained.
Even if your Westie books a major campaign, you may not quite be ready for an early retirement. The same model is not always used in multiple campaigns, and the pay scale is fairly low. Animals are usually considered props and therefore do not get residual payments. The average pet owner would quite likely get only a one-time fee of around $200 to $500 per day.
People like Peller, who has only one working animal, may book a handful of shoots as a source of supplementary income, but people with larger stables can make a living working with their pets.
“I think if you have one animal, it has to be a side thing, because one animal is not going to get booked enough,” said Nancy Novograd, the owner of All Tame Animals, the talent agency in New York City that represents Peller’s dog.
She also said that many people simply enjoyed spending more time with their pets and that any pay or fame was an added bonus. “Just to say they’ve been on TV or in a magazine is very exciting,” she added.
Karen Wells, a professional animal trainer in New York City, has been putting her own animals on television and in movies for 10 years. Her first animal to appear on-screen was Paul Newman, a white basset hound.
“I taught the dog everything I could possibly teach him,” she said. “He played the piano, he could skateboard, he could do anything.” And she was persistent: Wells would regularly check in with agents in the city, reminding them that he was available and sending updated, holiday-themed head shots.
In 2013 Paul Newman got his biggest break, starring in an independent short film called “Dear Dog, I Love You.” Wells said he was a natural actor, even improvising his way through the final, climactic scene. “He had to hold a gun and they didn’t think too much about it,” she said. “He pulled the trigger with his claw like he was cocking it.”
Paul Newman has since died, but her current pets — a golden retriever, a cat and a long-haired Chihuahua — all regularly get booked for jobs. She also has a basset hound that occasionally gets a cameo. To supplement the income she makes from her pets, she works with other people’s animals on other shoots.
“Every time you do something, there’s usually a moment you get magic,” Wells said. “It’s always really fun to watch them work.”
Her cat and golden retriever recently worked together on a commercial — scheduled to come out this fall — for Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. Her cat was a breakout star, riding around on the machine. Wells says every animal is different to work with and is treated differently on the job.
No matter what kind of animal is involved, Wells said, a calm demeanor is a helpful and important trait. During an eight-hour workday, an animal might have six hours of down time, and it cannot get too restless. And, she said, it is important that the animal be comfortable with the commotion on the set.
Of course, some social media standouts, like Grumpy Cat, have become household names, but those are exceptions. More typical is the satisfaction that comes from the pet owner’s recognizing his or her pet in a magazine or on a billboard. As Novograd put it, “You’re not going to get rich on it, but you could survive, in an outer borough.”