It’s a “hard knock” life for many shelter dogs! Legendary Broadway trainer William Berloni saved two four-legged stars from animal shelters (doggie orphanages) and gave them a new leash on life as “Sandy” in the revival production of Annie at the Palace Theater in New York City.
There are currently two co-star dogs playing Sandy; Sunny and Mikey. Sunny was two days away from being euthanized at a Houston shelter, and Mikey was heading for the same fate in a Connecticut shelter. Berloni stepped in and provided the pooches a rags to riches second chance. He was scouting for new talent, and immediately noticed these two dogs had star power and promptly filled out the adoption papers.
It took time to earn Mikey’s trust though. “He didn’t trust anyone,” Berloni revealed. “But gradually he realized that he was safe and started enjoying the attention.” Mikey had been training for a year, when the understudy for Sandy in the 30th anniversary touring production of Annie suffered a tragic stroke. Berloni drove Mikey to Seattle, where he joined the tour. Berloni quipped, “If Mikey was a celebrity, he would Christopher Walken!” “He is so quirky and everyone pays attention when he walks in!” adds Brian Hoffman, Mikey’s handler.
When Sunny and Mikey are ready to retire, a third dog, Casey (rescued from a shelter in Nashville, Tenn.) is already in training and will be ready to take on the canine classic role.
Annie partnered with Pedigree Food for Dogs to raise $1 million through the “See the Show, Help a Dog” initiative. Through Dec. 31, 2013, for each Annie ticket purchased, Pedigree with donate $2 to the Pedigree Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides grants to shelters and rescue groups in an effort to find “furrever” homes for the over four million dogs who find themselves in the shelter system each year.
Berloni was 19 when he trained the original Sandy in 1977, and has continued the tradition of training shelter dogs for the part ever since. He shared some Annie animal history; “Up until Annie, there had never been an animal that played a character in a play. No one thought that you could train an animal to do the same thing eight times a week. You could do a film with an animal, but not a theatrical event. But we were young and naive and we didn’t know that, so what I devised was a way that they [the dogs] would look forward to coming to the theater.”
What makes these animals respond to Berloni so well?
“I think what differentiates me from most of my contemporaries, other animal trainers, is that I don’t demand or force the animals to do anything. I don’t think any of us have the right to dominate anything else. When you think about the lead, dominance, all of that is about man controlling nature. And I never wanted to do that with animals. I use positive reinforcement to create a situation where the animal wants to do something,” said Berloni. “That can come in the shape of a treat, or a ball, or it can be a hug and a kiss -whatever motivates an animal the most is what we’ll use.”
Berloni and his handlers find talented animals of all sizes and breeds in the shelters, and prepare them for their grande debut on Broadway, off-Broadway, regional tours, theater, special events, The New York City Ballet, motion pictures, television and commercials.
When the curtain closes for the last time, these star pooches retire to Berloni’s farm in Connecticut, where he and his wife, Dorothy, care for dogs, cats, horses, llamas, a donkey and a pony.
Berloni is currently the Behavior Consultant for the Humane Society of New York, a no-kill shelter that supports rescued animals in New York City. If you would like to support the Humane Society of New York, please consider donating to The Sandy Fund, in honor of the original rescued dog that became the premiere Sandy on Broadway’s Annie. Since then, the sun has come up for many other shelter dogs!
The Sandy Fund
c/o The Humane Society of New York
306 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022