Does Your Pet Have Star Potential?
Colleen Wilson, the founder of animal talent agency Pets on Q, gives us a peek behind the scenes.
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Have you ever seen a pet on a TV show, sleeping on a couch or eating from some crystal food bowl, and then looked down at the lazy lump of fur cuddled in your lap and thought, “My pet could totally do that!”?
You might be right, but there are a few things you need to know first. That’s where Colleen Wilson comes in. Wilson is the founder and CEO of Pets on Q, an animal media and talent company based in Los Angeles, CA. Her roster includes 1,500 personal pets and over 1,000 professional set animals. Wilson is also the star of the Netflix docuseries Pet Stars, which follows her and business partner Melissa May Curtis as they work to turn furry (and scaly and feathered) friends into celebrities and moneymakers.
Wilson founded Pets on Q in 2015 when she was living in New York. “At the time, I was working in finance as a private mortgage banker and training dogs on the side,” she says. “I wasn’t a professional trainer, but I did dog agility training and dog therapy work when I was younger, and I would adopt really troubled dogs from the shelter and train them.”
Soon, people started asking Wilson to train their dogs, and she decided it was time to get some professional training of her own. She found a professional dog trainer in New York and began apprenticing with him on the weekends. “He did a lot of on-set work — music videos for Taylor Swift and others — and I discovered I liked [that work], too. I found this niche [as a pet agent] and founded my company.”
At first, it was just a hobby. But within a couple of years, Wilson and her office mate, Curtis, quit their jobs at the bank to devote themselves to Pets on Q full time. “Melissa [Curtis] worked at the desk next to mine and we both had disabled rescue dogs and both wanted to help animals,” she says. When an executive producer approached her about creating a show around the business, they knew it was time to take the plunge. Today, they run a small — five employees — but mighty company with “up to a billion or more impressions on what we do every week.”
All of which is to say that when it comes to professional pets, Wilson knows what the heck she’s talking about. So what does it take to turn a pet into a star? First and foremost, it takes a lot of work. “The biggest mistake you can make [as a pet parent looking to break into this business] is not treating it like a job,” she says, “The people that make [it] treat it like a full-time job, even if they already have another full-time job.”
Not afraid of hard work? Here’s what you need to know to take the plunge.
Well-loved pets make the best set animals.
According to Wilson, the best set animals are often the ones who are really well loved at home. “Some people have multiple animals just to make money off of them,” she says. “They can be neglected, malnourished, improperly trained, and treated badly on set when they don’t do exactly what the trainer tells them to.”
Wilson doesn’t work with those people. Part of the reason she started Pets on Q was because she wanted to change the way the set animal industry was run, which “is so easy to do by simply not working with people who are abusive towards their animals.”
Proper socialization is key.
A well socialized pet is comfortable around strangers and at ease in new situations. “Some animals are just too nervous to be on set,” says Wilson. “Whereas others love to be the center of attention. They love to work and train and they’re not afraid of new things. If a light pops on set, they might find it a little jarring, but they are confident enough and comfortable enough not to let it upset them. I’m not going to hire animals who are scared.”
For this reason, cats, though very popular, are often the hardest to cast, according to Wilson. “Everyone says their cats are the best, but it’s like, have you ever brought your cat out to a bar? Are they used to leaving the house? Do they react negatively to loud noises?” If your cat is the kind to run away from the vacuum cleaner and hide under the couch when guests come visit, set life is probably not going to be a fit for them, no matter how much the camera might love them.
Most set jobs go to cats and dogs.
There are sometimes requests for other animals, but they can be few and far between. “Cats and dogs are 10 times more popular than any other type of pet,” says Wilson. And the requests she does get for other animals tend to be very specific. “Recently, for a movie, we needed a rat who could swim in a circle in a pool. For another project, we hired a rabbit to get decapitated. It was a rescue rabbit and we had to paint a fake, stuffed rabbit to look just like it, so the stuffed rabbit got decapitated while the real rabbit was just chilling out and watching.”
You need to be comfortable with the fact that your animal might be cast in a negative way.
If your animal is on a set, they are playing a character, just like the human actors. Sometimes that means that they will be shown in stereotypical ways or required to do things that you might not like. For instance, Wilson recently took a Doberman onto the set of a music video, where they surrounded her with dry ice and had her bark to look ferocious. People familiar with Dobermans know they often get a bad rap as ferocious dog, when the truth is they are as sweet and gentle as any pupper.
But that’s what the job required, so that’s what Wilson and the Doberman did. “That’s just what they want Dobermans to do, even though she was actually a really sweet dog and had a really good time.” says Wilson. “[It like how] every time we book a reptile for something, it is to play the villain or some evil animal and I’m like, ‘But this is a really nice snake!’” It just is what it is.
Tricks are great — the more unique, the better.
The better and more extensive your pet’s training is, the more money you can expect to be paid for a job, especially if your pet can do something truly unusual. “We have a cat who just got a show on TBS because they know how to drive a golf cart,” says Wilson. “These talents are my favorite part of the job because they are just so weird.”
At the same time, special skills are no guarantee of work, even if the particular skill is exactly what a production is looking for. “They’ll be like, ‘Do you have a cat that can do a backflip?’ and I’ll say ‘Yes!’ — I do, by the way; it’s amazing — but they want a black cat and ours was a tabby [so they don’t book the job]. At the end of the day, it doesn’t come down to me. It’s all about what the casting director or producer wants,” says Wilson.
Rescue pets are just as likely to be cast as pets that come from breeders.
Again, it’s all about training and socialization. And that training doesn’t need to be professional in order to be effective and comprehensive. The Doberman Wilson took on that music video set was only ever trained by her owner, but she was more than up to the tasks the job required — looking at Wilson and barking on command — and, perhaps most importantly, she had fun doing it. “We want the kind of animals who, at the end of the day, are still happy and looking to have their bellies rubbed,” says Wilson.
As for which breeds are the most popular right now, it really depends on the project, but there is one breed Wilson says almost never gets cast: doodles. They are very popular pets, but for some reason, casting directors just aren’t interested. Go figure!
If you think your pet is going to make you rich, think again.
Pay for a set animal starts at around $250 per day, according to Wilson. That’s not a lot of money, so its important that you and your animal enjoy the work for what it is, not just what it can bring you. On-set animal handlers make more than the animals themselves, but they are members of a union. There is no such union for animals and their owners.
Also, since the start of the pandemic, a lot of the set animal work has gone away, as productions try to limit the number of bodies on sets and advertisers transition from expensive commercial shoots to direct marketing through pet influencers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. “The pandemic has pushed 90% of our work to influencers,” says Wilson, whose company is the only one in the world to represent both on-set animals and pet influencers.
That doesn’t mean, however, that your precious Cheddar will be competing with Watson and Kiko or Coby the Cat (both clients of Wilson’s) for that local TV spot or indie movie. According to Wilson, there is very little crossover between the worlds of pet influencers and set animals. That’s partly because of the cost — influencer pets can be prohibitively expensive for productions to work with — and partly because influencer pets and their owners tend to be higher maintenance, which producers just don’t really want to deal with.
Even so, some set animal opportunities do pay quite handsomely. Pets on Q has placed animals in Super Bowl commercials and major motion pictures, and those certainly pay better than, say, an independently produced non-union music video.
If you want your pet to work, you have to stay humble.
The entertainment business is fickle and there are enough people clamoring to get in that if you make things difficult, you’re probably going to find yourself without any jobs at all. At the same time, though, it’s important to advocate for your animal and make sure that the people you are working with are looking out for their best interests. “Pets on Q has sort of become the go-to company for places that are affiliated with groups like PETA or other animal rights organizations,” says Wilson. “A lot of times they’ll hire us when they can’t have someone from the Humane Society on set because they want to make sure the animals are safe.”
Wilson and Pets on Q also work with a lot of animals currently in the shelter system. “I love when brands call us to hire shelter animals,” she says. “We actually just put a bunch of kittens on Shark Tank. It gives the shelter promotional materials to help get the animals adopted and the payment goes to cover adoption fees, spaying and neutering, and other services.”
So, if you think you and your pet have what it takes to work on set, if your pet is well trained and socialized and enjoys being the center of attention, then go for it! Animal agencies are always looking for new clients and Pets on Q even has a portal on their website through which you can apply to join their animal community. You and your pet will be evaluated and castings are all done virtually these days, so no need to run around town. For the right pet and parent, it can be a lot of fun, and if it doesn’t end up being right for you and your pet, well, at least you can always just snuggle up on the couch together at home. That’s a lot of fun, too.
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Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.