The Life of a Canine Film Star

Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ
January 23, 2012
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The Artist Showcases Uggie and His Considerable Canine Capabilities

Are you keeping up with the latest movies that are up for consideration this awards season? My personal favorite is The Artist, an ingenious and critically acclaimed Weinstein Company film that features Uggie, a male (neutered) Jack Russell Terrier born around 2002.

During my screening of The Artist, there were many occasions where Uggie’s presence and participation in key scenes blew me away. Uggie doesn’t just sit there and look cute, he fully engages in the on-screen activities of his human caretaker, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). In fact, Uggie plays an influential role in saving Valentin from a house fire.

Whenever I see live animals on screen, it’s hard for me to turn off my critical veterinary mind and experience it as an impartial audience member. I feel driven to speculate about the animals’ health, especially pertaining to toxic exposure, stressors, or general safety during filming.

To satisfy my curiosity regarding Uggie’s performances, overall health and personal life, I interviewed Sarah Clifford from Animal Savvy. Clifford teamed up with Omar von Muller to manage Uggie’s training, on camera work, and media appearances.

In The Artist, there are scenes where Uggie reacts intensely to Valentin's predicaments. Barking vociferously while Valentin sinks into a quicksand movie prop and attracting a police officer's attention while Valentin is unconscious during the aforementioned fire are two examples.

I sought Clifford’s perspective regarding Uggie’s awareness that Valentin was only acting or if Uggie really sensed his master was in danger. "That’s a really good question," Clifford said, and went on to explain that although dogs like Uggie are professional actors, they "don’t necessarily recognize the difference between acting and real life."

Additionally, "dogs react emotionally," and since "Uggie spent so much time on set with Dujardin," their strong bond can blur the dog’s distinction between reality and fantasy. I imagine that Uggie felt a great sense of relief when the action ended and his master emerged unscathed.

Being an advocate for the reduction of second hand smoke inhalation in pets (see Miley Cyrus’ Dog Gets No Vacation From Exposure To Second Hand Smoke), I was concerned by Valentin’s constantly lighting up in Uggie’s presence. Clifford assuaged my fears by reporting that "an American Human Association (AHA) representative was on set to ensure compliance to Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media." She further clarified that the cigarettes used in The Artist are "movie cigarettes" that produce minimal smoke and are deemed safe under the AHA’s guidelines.

A Colorado State University study revealed a higher incidence of nasal and pulmonary (lung) tumors in dogs exposed to second hand smoke as compared to dogs living in a smoke free household. For the sake of Uggie’s potential for long term health, I hope he didn’t inhale.

Curious as to how Uggie maintains his trim Hollywood figure, I inquired about his dietary regimen. I was displeased to hear Clifford say that Uggie eats a dry, generic dog food. I felt better upon learning that during training, "Uggie gets 'high value' treats, such as cooked chicken or steak and the occasional healthy hot dog, along with carrots." Minimally processed, human grade foods are my choice when it comes to general feeding and snacks for our canine companions.

Before The Artist, one of Uggie’s big screen roles was in the movie Water for Elephants, where he starred with Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. Uggie pulled an on-screen gender switch by playing the female role of "Queenie."

I was curious if in playing "Queenie," whether efforts were made to hide Uggie’s studly anatomy. Clifford replied that Uggie did not sport a special canine codpiece, but he did wear "outfits that covered his male parts" or was filmed from a perspective that made his maleness less obvious. As a working actor, I guess Uggie does whatever is necessary to convincingly embody his character.

I also asked who Uggie established a closer relationship with while working on the film: Pattinson or Witherspoon? Clifford responded that although "Uggie had a special bond with both actors, he was closer to Robert (Pattinson)." I guess Uggie and "R-Patz" struck up a true "bromance."

Besides his star-studded work, what does Uggie do with his personal time and what is his home life like? Evidently, Uggie "lives with six other dogs and two cats, sleeps on his owner’s bed" and loves to "lounge by the pool on his days off." It sure sounds like Uggie leads a great lifestyle.

As Uggie is currently a high profile pooch making the rounds doing media appearances, I inquired about "who Uggie would be wearing" on the red carpet. Evidently, Uggie has an economical fashion sense. "Uggie has previously worn a bow tie from the 99 Cent Store" while strutting his stuff for the camera, said Clifford. It seems success has not gone to Uggie’s head, as he doesn’t demand the latest in canine couture.

Let’s give a big thank you to Sarah Clifford and her dog training skills. An additional "bark out" goes to Uggie for being such a remarkable canine who brightens the world with his presence.