Apr 27, 2013

The perfect bark

Written by Chris Vlahonasios
Edited by Kyriaki Fuss

One of the entertainment industry’s golden rules is never to work with children or animals. Yet, there are times when human actors are not able to express the necessary emotion or execute the right type of comical relief. This is when the most beloved creature known to man comes in – the dog.

Humans immediately warm to the honest and simple nature of a dog. This is an animal which has been breed over millennia to emulate the positive behavioural traits humanity highly values, such as loyalty and protection. However, not just any dog can be used. Different breeds will either enhance or reduce the atmosphere desired by the filmmaker or artist. The size, colour, physique and behavioural characteristics of a dog all play a part in generating a unique reaction from the audience. It is also vital that their performance is believable, in other words, that such behaviour would be expected from that breed.

Usually when someone thinks of canine actors straight away they think of Lassie, one of the most famous dogs in TV history. However, the Collie breed has rarely been used since, despite the show’s huge popularity. Instead, the most commonly used dog is the Jack Russell Terrier (JRT) and it is not hard to see why.

The breed
First bred in England by the Reverend John Russell, a parson and hunting enthusiast, he started working on the breed in the 1820s until it became a distinct breed by the 1850s.[1] The sole purpose of the JRT was to aid in fox hunting. Their keen sense of smell, speed, agility and compact size was ideal when chasing rabbits and foxes out of burrows. Later they were used more as a working dog, catching vermin on farms.

JRTs have a tri-coloured coat of brown, black and white. Predominantly white, more than 51%, with black and/or tan markings.[2] Their coat length can be short, long or a combination of both mainly around the face and tail. [3] This creates three different looks: smooth, scruffy or a broken-coat.[4]

Their overall facial structure is of a medium snout and medium-sized, pointy ears. Their bodies are long and slender with legs longer compared to other Terriers. It is quite common for their tails to be docked for the purposes of hygiene and to correct their body-ratio appearance.

All these features combined give the JRT its unique presence on screen, gaining it world-wide appeal as both a pet and actor.

Their ‘personality’
JRTs can be summarised as small dogs with very, very big personalities. What one notices immediately is their great sense of fearlessness. Gutsy and brave they also have a very skewed impression of themselves, suffering from ‘big dog syndrome’. Although they do obey their owners most of time, they can also be quite individualistic, doing their own thing. Yet sometimes they are unsure of themselves, revealing a sense of vulnerability.

Due to their excitable nature and boundless energy they tend to act before they think, getting themselves into tricky situations. Another reason that breeders leave them with a stubby tail is so they can be pulled out of tight situations, like burrows! However, it is their many positive attributes that make them so popular, especially with families.

Fiercely loyal, they are very protective of their owners and children. JRTs love to play and what may seem aggressive behaviour is more often overenthusiastic play-fighting. They make excellent dogs for children as they are tolerate of rough play due to their sturdy build. In rare cases they may nip a child, but not attack. Their snappiness is a cute quality, especially for men and teens who enjoy feisty play-fighting. JRTs like being ‘silly’ during play so as to encourage more interaction. However, they can get bored easily so require a great deal of exercise and playtime to keep them interested. They are always keen for adventure.

They are loved by many because of their cuteness. A quality hard to define, but perhaps it is due to the joy and alertness one sees in their eyes or their sincere exuberance of excitement and delight when around people. They are also cute because their cheeky and mischievous behaviour is disproportionate to their small and meek appearance, making them so endearing.

Highly-intelligent, they are capable of thinking outside the square. This also makes them great escapist artists! They are sensitive dogs, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions which humans identify with. One feature greatly exploited in film is their ‘human language’. This refers to their growls, whimpers and barks which artists and audience tend to interpret as being similar to human responses. In reality this is just the dog panting or becoming anxious. When they yelp, it is associated with exclamations of fear, joy or anger. Nevertheless, it is this apparent in sync, human-canine “understanding’ and facial expressions which have made JRTs are so widely used.

For example, when a JRT pants they close their eyes and gently rock their head on their shoulders. To a human this appears as if they are doing a cheeky, childish giggle, the ‘he-he-he’ chuckle. When they pant faster, mouth open and tongue hanging out, they look like they giving a big smile appearing warm and friendly. This has been exploited in many films and commercials. Yet, to better understand this breed’s character one needs to examine some video clips.

Clip #1
This JRT does not like her back leg being touched, an instinctive reaction based on approaching predators. Although the dog clearly knows it is her owner, she plays along.

Her growls, lunges and teeth are comical because her show of aggression is part of the game. When the owner pushes the dog down, she stops growling until he starts touching her paw again. Although we see her biting the man’s finger, it is with little pressure so as not to hurt him. Also, upon the owner saying ‘ow’ the dog lets go. A JRT’s unpredictability is both quirky and cute because it is usually an overreaction to the situation.

Clip #2
In this video, Jesse proves how talented JRTs are and their variety of skills. This dog is able to do many tricks other dogs would struggle with, including walking backwards. Coupled with the dog’s inherit cuteness the applications in film and TV are endless.

JRTs, like most dogs, do tricks for their owner’s approval and reward. It is due to their extraordinary, almost human, character that JRTs have become so popular and the perfect choice in media.

The most well-known JRT actor from TV is ‘Eddie’ from Frasier. Played by two canine actors, Moose and later his son Enzo, Eddie was the mischievous and pesky dog that constantly annoyed Dr. Frasier Crane.

As a JRT, Eddie’s personality was a reflection of his owner Martin, Frasier’s father. Like his owner, Eddie would constantly push Frasier’s buttons with a childish innocence. JRTs emulate their owner’s personality, along with their natural sense of cunningness and sneakiness. The scenes are hilarious because a JRT can act up in ways humans cannot due to moral and social consequences, which animals do not comprehend.

Eddie was frequently used to generate humour and storylines; he was not a mere prop in the background. Eddie often physically engaged with the human actors, and would constantly steal the show with his adorable antics. He was the most popular character on the show, receiving more fan mail than any other cast member.[5]

Eddie was iconic in that he was the only non-human actor, which helped differentiate and market the show from other popular sitcoms. It is worth noting that few sitcoms use animals. Outtakes and bloopers made by animal actors have a huge impact, significantly slowing down production and there are also problematic issues over animal welfare.

Another show was Wishbone in which the JRT (same name as show) was the main character. This was a children’s program where the dog narrated and appeared as characters from history dressed in human clothing. This would have been a huge undertaking for the show, as mentioned earlier, because animals put considerable stress on production deadlines. Yet despite this concern producers still chose to use a dog and the series lasted three seasons from 1995-1998.[6]

The Wishbone character appealed to children because JRTs do not come across as aggressive, but friendly and approachable. This was important for a show which taught important moral and historical lessons. A JRT was perfect for this role as their small build and animated expressions make them endearing and lovable to audiences.

A hugely successful film was The Mask, starring Jim Carrey and the character Milo, his faithful JRT and sidekick. The premise of the film was about how a magical mask could turn an ordinary person into the overconfident, mischievous and out-of-control alter ego of, “the Mask”. A JRT was the most appropriate choice, as the Mask perfectly emulated how JRTs see themselves. When Milo puts on the Mask, he becomes a little dog with a big head – an accurate depiction of their ‘big-dog’ mentality.

A JRT was also a good choice as a supporting actor to Jim Carrey. The breed had to reflect a personality in line with Jim Carrey’s style of comical acting: energetic and highly animated. Throughout the film, Milo provided great comical-chemistry, misbehaving as a JRT would. In one scene, he impatiently wants his freebie. So in the presence of the police, Milo clings to the cupboard door knob which contained his freebie and stolen money. In another scene, Milo catches the Mask and as he is running away from the villains we hear a nervous whimper as he walks briskly with his eyes in the back of his head. In yet another scene Milo, having been transformed into the Mask, is shown urinating on one of the criminals whilst doing the ‘he-he-he’ giggle, then running away with a panicked yelp when shots are fired at him.

Milo was cheeky, cute, and hilarious, all characteristic of a JRT. The film even captured warm, touching moments, such as Milo whimpering in the alleyway when Carrey is in jail or Milo worrying while waiting in the car at the club. Despite Jim Carrey being the star of the film, this was another case of a JRT upstaging the human actor.

My dog Skip was a heart-warming film about the trials of childhood and growing up. Starring Frankie Muniz, who later played Malcolm in the Middle, the film is about a young, socially awkward boy who receives a JRT puppy on his birthday, Skip. The dog helps develop his confidence and is consistently by his side. Skip teaches him to face bullies, conquer his fears, make friends and love his father. A deeply emotional and powerful film yet with much humour.

The film made the beautiful analogy that for every one human year a dog has lived seven years, making it more experienced. So as the boy grew up Skip was like an older brother teaching him life lessons. This was incredibly poignant and beautiful film which could only be pulled off by a JRT due to their gentle yet spirited nature. Muniz’s character becomes a confident and talented young man, which would not have been possible if not for Skip.

In recent times, one of the most well-known JRTs to appear in a successful film was Uggie. Uggie appeared in Water for Elephants, which starred Reece Witherspoon, but it was his role in The Artist which awarded him world-wide fame and the 2011 Cannes Film Festival’s Palm Dog Prize. Originally Uggie was rejected by his first two owners who could not control his wild behaviour and were going to send him to the pound.[7] But his now trainer and owner saw great potential in this “crazy, very energetic puppy”.[8] Uggie played the faithful dog of the main character, George Valentin, and they are inseparable.

Uggie constantly stole the show. In one scene, he appears on a stage to be ‘shot’ by his owner and dramatically stumbles backwards before playing dead. Despite not knowing as many tricks as other dog actors, his performance was seen as more ‘natural’ giving a more unique and unpredictable performance.[9] So loved was Uggie that an online campaign was launched ‘Consider Uggie’ seeking recognition for his performance by the Oscar Academy.[10]

Although not a dog, but rather a prehistoric squirrel-rat, Scrat from the Ice Age movie franchise encompassed all the characteristics of a JRT: acting before thinking, being thick-headed and whimpering/screaming when things backfire.
Hyperactive and excitable, he was a small, fury creature with a massive personality that overshadowed the other characters. All these traits were loved and adored. The audience felt empathy for Scrat as he struggled to obtain his prized acorn.

Originally, Scrat was a minor side-story for comical relief in the first film but became massively popular. In preceding sequels, his role and story was given more on-screen time. He has become extremely marketable and used to sell many products targeting children.

A lessen know film staring a JRT was the Australian film Dr Plonk. Made in 2007, like The Artist, this was a silent film described as "a time-travelling satire".[11] Unfortunately, the film was a complete failure, grossing just over AU$83,000.[12]

Despite being perhaps the most unsuccessful film staring a JRT, the dog called Tibererius nevertheless gave a performance reminiscent of a JRT – lively and energetic. Tibererius showed great skill and control.

One of the most iconic images of 20th century’s technological developments was the painting, His Master’s Voice. The painting depicts a JRT attentively listening to a recording of his master’s voice on a gramophone. So recognised is this image it is used as the trademark of HMV records, HMV music stores and RCA.[13]

The dog depicted was called Nipper. Born in 1884 in Bristol, England he was called Nipper because he would frequently try to bite visitors on the leg.[14] His owner, Francis Barraud, later used Nipper as inspiration for the painting in 1898, three years after Nipper died.

There is speculation Nipper was a mixed-breed: Bull Terrier and Fox Terrier.[15] Regardless, whether Nipper was a pure JRT or not he demonstrated characteristics of a Terrier: energetic, mischievous, inquisitive and inseparable from his master.

Kit-Kat chocolate bar/Nestle
Unfortunately no record of this ad exists online but was a commercial broadcast in Australia during the mid-90s.

The ad depicts a man reading from a hypnotist book whilst swinging a pocket watch in front of his JRT. He attempts to hypnotise the dog to act like a chicken upon snapping his fingers. As he is unable to make the sound he leaves the dog to have a short break and eat a Kit-Kat. Upon breaking the chocolate in half, the crisp snap of the breaking wafer sets the dog into a trance. He stands up on his back legs then clucks and moves his arms like a chicken; meanwhile his owner does not see this. Then the owner successfully snaps his fingers and the JRT returns to normal. The owner returns to the dog, attempting the hypnotism, but again fails to snap his fingers. The dog then lays an egg, much to the bewilderment of his owner, then jumps up onto his couch and does the ‘he-he-he’ chuckle, implying the dog was now a dog-chicken. The slogan was ‘Have a break, have a Kit-Kat’.

This was a much loved ad in Australia. The JRT was the most suitable dog because their outrageous antics and animated personality made the ad ‘believable’ from a comical aspect. This commercial targeted family groups with children, attempting to reach through to the main purchase decision-maker, the mother.

What makes this commercial funny is how well the physical and behavioural characteristics of the JRT come through. The running and energetic bursting through the doggy door says ‘I’ve been out all day, I’m hungry’. Being very expressive dogs, the shock and sheer terror on the dog’s face was clearly written on its face. What amplifies the joke is when the dog goes outside to check the house number and scans the scene to see he was in the right neighbourhood. Yet when he walks back inside he is still not convinced.

The commercial conveys a simple message: fill your home with Ikea furniture and it will completely change the look of your home. The ad showcased Ikea’s products giving the viewer an idea of the company’s range. The commercial targeted young families based on the depiction of a modest-sized home, family pet dog and the affordable everyday-type furniture shown.

A JRT’s personality and behavioural traits are inextricably linked. Their cheekiness is linked to their hyperactive nature and their cunningness linked to their in-built hunt-and-catch instinct. All these aspects combined produce the breed of dog known and loved by audiences world-wide. However, to say this dog is only suitable for children and family films is an over simplification. They may be small, humorous dogs but they are a lot more complex.

They are bigger than life. As a result, they are extremely versatile for almost any part: comedy, drama, children’s and more. However, regardless of the genre, the script or artwork must only use a JRT only because the dog’s characteristics will help express what the work is trying to say. Furthermore, the work has to make room and allow the nature of a JRT to fully express itself. In My dog Skip, the dog provided the sensitive and powerful performance required yet with the right amount of delightful humour to lighten the film. For comedies, like The Mask, a JRT has the over energetic levels necessary to make it funny.

Their personality is a reflection of the positive human attributes. Although they can be mischievous and naughty, they also illuminate the love, honesty and innocence of a small child. A childish simpleness that is virtuous, something saints of the Orthodox Church strived to achieve. One can look to a JRT as an example, even a teacher as in My Dog Skip, of a loving and simple creature.

By choosing a JRT not only will they add something unique to the artwork but more importantly they will engage with the audience on a level not possible with another breed. Regardless whether the audience consists of JRT owners or not, the dog’s pure nature will win over their hearts.

If the dog is as mere background prop, then the artist is not fully exploiting the talent of a JRT. More importantly, if there is an important message in the artwork or one simply wants to entertain their audience, then without a doubt, choose Jack.

[2] "JRTCA Breed Standard". www.therealjackrussell.com. Jack Russell Terrier Club of America. Retrieved 2009-06-02
[5] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1189150/bio
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wishbone_%28TV_series%29
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uggie
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uggie
[9] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/12/05/hollywood-s-top-dog-the-artist-star-uggie.html
[10] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/12/05/hollywood-s-top-dog-the-artist-star-uggie.html
[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Plonk
[12] http://film.vic.gov.au/resources/documents/AA4_Aust_Box_office_report.pdf
[13] http://www.jack-russell-terrier.co.uk/fun/famous_jack_russells.html
[14] http://www.jack-russell-terrier.co.uk/fun/famous_jack_russells.html
[15] http://www.jack-russell-terrier.co.uk/fun/famous_jack_russells.html

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