Interview with Michelle Penix About Celebrity Pets
Your pet is one handsome pup. Could he be a celeb? Possibly.
But take it from Michelle Penix, it does take training, time, and being ready at a moment’s notice to attend a shoot. It’s worth it though.
“It’s lots of fun to see your pets ‘up in lights,’” she says. Penix, a food demo rep in Dallas, Texas for The Honest Kitchen, took some time from her busy schedule to chat about how her pets got in the business.
The Honest Kitchen: Tell us about your pets.
Michelle Penix: The first is Deanerys, my 9-year-old American Paint Horse. She is a rescue. I adopted her from San Diego Animal Control in March of 2013. Dany is a very mellow, accepting horse. She is accustomed to kids, dogs, all sorts of farm equipment, and pretty much anything life tosses her way. I had her entered in a for fun horse show last winter, and dressed her up as a carousel unicorn. She was totally chill with it.
Desmond, our 6-year-old tabby cat, is also a rescue. We fostered his mom and her litter of five kittens; he stayed. He has been raised around multiple kids and dogs—we foster a lot of dogs—and has traveled cross-country with us several times.
Coal is our 10-year-old Persian, also a rescue from a breeder. He has also traveled cross-country with us several times. These are pretty adaptable cats. They are overly friendly to everyone, and highly food-motivated.
THK: How did your pets get into commercials and catalogs?
MP: I have a dog trainer friend who is an animal actor talent agent. She happened to see the photos of Dany in her carousel costume on Facebook, so when a client asked her to find a unicorn, she contacted me to see if Dany might be OK with being in a studio. So we kind of fell into it unintentionally.
THK: Do you have any bits of advice for others wanting to get their pets into these types of gigs?
MP: Socialize, socialize, socialize. To do this sort of work, your pet—whether dog, cat, goat, or horse—needs to be comfortable with all sorts of strangers handling them. Used to loud noises, not upset by different surfaces, able to focus in a room filled with camera equipment. The training different behaviors comes next. Solid stays, good leash manners.
THK: Do you have any funny/interesting stories from your pets being in show biz?
MP: Well, Dany’s commercial was the first one I’d ever done. They hired a professional hair stylist to put the rainbow extensions in Dany’s mane and tail. (She had never worked on a horse before, either.) Dany was endlessly patient, standing for hours getting her hair done, then obligingly posing for photos with tons of cast members and crew. Who doesn’t want to get their picture taken with a unicorn? It was in a big warehouse and looked like a barn to her, so Dany wasn’t bothered. We waited around maybe four hours. She was perfect. Just hanging out, napping on and off.
When they were finally ready for us to come into the set, I was nervous, which made her nervous. Nervous horses…well, they poop. So my gorgeous unicorn walked onto this brilliant white set, in front of several cameras, and proceeded to do her business right there.
THK: Are cats harder to train for this kind of business?
MP: Cats are much harder to train. They are not as willing to focus as dogs. With cats, you need to be prepared with a dozen different toys to get them to look at the camera, and every treat you can imagine. Funnily enough, both my cats were excited about getting Proper Toppers on set. Usually you need something like tuna or cooked chicken to get their attention. Cats also aren’t usually as exposed to the world outside their house like dogs are, so a house cat going to a set can be very stressful.
THK: What does being on set of a commercial or catalog shoot typically involve?
MP: Waiting, waiting, and more waiting. Setup takes forever, but you need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice because time is money and they want you to hop to it when they call for you. There are usually snacks set up for the humans, animals should be cool waiting in a crate until it’s time. Don’t want them worn out beforehand.
THK: What do directors and photographers look for in pets that they include in their commercials and shoots?
MP: Cute, unique animals that like to ham it up in front of an audience. A dog or cat that can do the task asked for on the first try is golden.
THK: How do you prep your pets for filming or a shoot?
MP: They don’t get breakfast so they are hungry when it’s time to work. If we have an idea of what is asked for beforehand, we practice. So, for Dany’s shoot, I worked with her on staying while I stepped back out of camera range. With Coal, we knew he would have to sit in a box with bubble wrap, so I worked with him for several weeks on eating while standing on bubble wrap, sitting in boxes of it, and having it draped on him. When it was time to work, the box and bubble wrap were no big deal to him. Desmond actually did practice laying on a bed and staying. Seems simple, but when you want a cat to do something, that’s the one thing they won’t do. But I clicker trained him, and worked on a down stay like you would with a dog.