Hotel for Dogs: Meet the Four-Legged Stars

A heart-warming film about the profound connection between kids and dogs, Hotel for Dogs opens January 16. The story centers around a brother and sister whose dog is not allowed to join them in their most recent foster care placement: a strict, no-pets apartment.

So, the resourceful siblings decide to secretly keep their Jack Russell Terrier, Friday, at an abandoned hotel. They subsequently transform the building into a magical home for homeless dogs–and collect a slew of other strays along the way. All told, about 70 dogs appear in the film.

These dogs are not animated, nor are any special effects used in the film–they’re genuine canines. In fact, two-thirds of them came from animal shelters, including the main character, Friday (whose real name is Cosmo), Friday’s backup (named JR), and the two dogs who played Georgia (actual names, Nip and Tuck).

The filmmakers tried to use as many dogs from shelters as possible, and in the process, find homes for them as producer Ewan Leslie is an animal activist and works closely with Los Angeles-based Karma Rescue. Happily, 14 dogs were adopted by crewmembers and others as a result of the film. (The other dogs used in the film now live with trainers or on the trainers’ ranch.)

Hotel for Dogs Cast

The casting of the eight main “hero” characters didn’t happen overnight, according to Mark Forbes, head animal trainer for Hotel for Dogs and general manager for Birds and Animals Unlimited. He and the filmmakers traveled across the country, and in some cases outside of the country, to find exactly the right dogs. They looked for the most interesting dogs, not necessarily the most beautiful. And because they refrained from using special effects, the challenge was to distinguish the dogs from each other by their roles, their size, facial features and coloring.

“Once the script was fleshed out and we knew about the very individual characters, the next step was to cast those characters,” he said. “So we went through dog books and pictures of dogs and [visited] shelters to find them.”

About a month later, they had rounded up all the main character dogs for the movie. Most of the remaining dogs in the movie were cast from the company’s stable of already-trained animals

Training the Dogs for Stardom

Getting the dogs ready for the camera, took more patience than (ahem) you could shake a stick at–none of the main characters had had any training at all. In fact, it took about four weeks for these dogs to master basic commands like “sit“, “lie down,” “on your feet,” “stay,” and “stand on your mark.” Once mastered , they had to do about 12 weeks of training of specific character-based tricks. Many times, up to 40 dog trainers might be working on the set at the same time.

“It’s not rocket science, this whole training thing,” said Forbes, humbly. “It just takes a lot of time and a lot of patience.”

He said that probably one of the toughest tasks for his team, aside from getting 70 dogs to run down city streets at one time, was capturing six dogs in a frame–each doing something different.

Pet Rescue, Hollywood Style

Forbes, who’s he’s been the head animal trainer on many films, including Evan Almighty and Dr. Doolittle, noted that the Hotel for Dogs script was one of the most ambitious he’s ever worked on, mostly because of the number of tricks that dogs were asked to do all at the same time.

“Dogs are one of the easiest animals to train because they want to do what you want them to do and no other species really does,” he said. “But the flip side is that more is asked of them than any other animal.”

Forbes adds that if it weren’t for the amazing patience from the crew and the director, the resulting film wouldn’t have been possible. “Everyone just really upped their game and really believed in the script because it’s about something that’s close to our hearts: rescuing strays.”

-Christine McLaughlin

Christine McLaughlin is a freelance writer, editor and author of “The Dog Lover’s Companion to Philadelphia” and contributing author to “The American Red Cross: Dog First Aid.”