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This Month's Reading Superstar!

Mark Forbes, animal trainer

Background:  Animal trainer Mark Forbes has worked on famous movies with some big Hollywood stars — just the four-legged kind. His job is to train dogs and other animals to be top-notch actors on movies. This means the animals have behave themselves on the set, learn new tricks, get along with the human actors, and act cute on command.

For the movie Because of Winn-Dixie, Forbes searched high and low to find the perfect dog to play Winn-Dixie, pictured above. He finally found the right breed in France. To be safe, he rounded up five dogs, since one dog can't be counted on to perform every trick in every scene. He liked one of the dog actors so much that she's now one of his pets at home. Find out how Forbes taught these dogs to howl and love their co-star AnnaSophia Robb.

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RIF: What breed were the dogs that played Winn-Dixie?

Mark Forbes: The dogs are Picardy shepherd, a rare breed out of France. During my first meeting with Wayne Wang (the director), he said he wanted a dog that looked somewhat like the dog on cover of the book. He also wanted a dog with a lot of personality and an unusual, interesting look. He liked the Picardy shepherds.

RIF: How did you train the dogs?

MF: It took 12 weeks. First thing we did was travel with them to different places so they got used to different locations. They had to get over their fear of new places, loud noises, and new people. We spent 10 hours a day on basics for about eight weeks.  

We also taught them how to sneeze on cue, howl (we teach a yawn and we stop before it's a full yawn so he's opening and closing mouth), and shake their heads.

RIF: Did the dogs have their own trailer or dog house on the set?

MF: We had an empty cargo van with crates. Whenever the dogs aren't working on set, we have them doing training sessions, playing with them, or had them in their crate. They need their down time to be in their own space and sleep. Dogs sleep a lot. You give them a break and in two minutes they're asleep.

RIF: Did the dogs like AnnaSophia?

MF: They did, quite a bit. We had two main dogs that star in 99 percent of movie, Scott and Laiko. They're complete opposites. Scott was the more finessed dog. He was good at intricate training and quiet scenes. He's very wary of new people and afraid of different situations. Laiko was a complete goof and wasn't afraid of anything in the world. She's got energy, and she's out of control and very outgoing. She was great for all the things Scott wasn't good at.

RIF: Where are the dogs now?

MF: We leased Scott from a rancher in France and he's back home now. Laiko is living with me. Another dog, Tasha, had puppies and is living with one of my trainers. Two of the dogs were too skittish to work in the film, but they weren't at a good home in France. We brought them over here and sent them to good homes.

RIF: How many dogs do you have at home?

MF: I have five dogs [many of which were in movies]. One was Pongo in 101 Dalmations, another was Lucky in Dr. Dolittle. Then there's Laiko and two bearded collies, one of which is in The Shaggy Dog.

RIF: Can the Winn-Dixie dogs really smile?

MF: That was one of the few things they put it afterward. We tried to teach them to wear a snarling device that makes them show their teeth, but it just didn't look right.

RIF: Were the dogs afraid the thunderstorms, like Winn-Dixie is?

MF: No, they weren't. Scott was leery of people. It took almost home the whole 12 weeks of training to be okay with people. Once he got to know you, he really liked you. We spent quite a bit of time with AnnaSophia. She almost became his safety person on the set. It really works for the character because he wanted to be near her and take care of her. Laiko was afraid of nothing. He's not afraid enough.

RIF: Did the dogs ever get in trouble on the set?

MF: They would screw up once in a while, but that's the nature of an animal movie. But they didn't get in trouble. All of our training is positive reinforcement. Biggest part of our job is making it fun for them so they're not afraid of it. Dogs are one of the few animals that want to please you.

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