Monday, August 4, 2014

Little Holly's Big Book Club: Interview With Sue Chipperton, Gidget the Dog's Pup-sonal Trainer!

As part of our first “Little Holly’s Big Book Club” series, I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Sue Chipperton, co-author of A Famous Dog's Life and trainer behind the "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" ad campaign's famous Chihuahua star, Gidget, around whom the book is centered. Sue was kind enough to take time out of her crazy training schedule to chat with me about Gidget, the book, life with dogs and her career.

The book was born out of a collaboration between Sue and her friend Rennie Dyball of People magazine. Shortly before Gidget’s death, Rennie put together a story about famous animals featuring stars such as Moondoggie (Bruiser from Legally Blonde, and another Sue trainee), Salem the Cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and of course Gidget. After Gidget passed away, Sue reached out to Rennie to see if People would be interested in running an obituary for the little Chihuahua with the big personality, which they did (you can read it here).

Despite the fact that Gidget hadn’t been on TV in years, the article was met with overwhelming response. Sue recalls googling her shortly after the article ran and going through 45 pages of responses…with still more after. Realizing that there was still significant public interest in Gidget and that she had a number of personal photos, Sue spoke to Rennie again, this time about the possibility of a picture book. Rennie suggested they take it a step further, to a full memoir style book, of which she became the co-author. 

It is clear from the overwhelming response to the article that the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” campaign is more than just an ad campaign: it was a defining moment in 90s popular culture, and cemented Gidget as an icon for generations to come. Though there is no telling whether the campaign would have had as wide of an impact without Gidget and Sue at the helm, there is no denying that Gidget became “a little personality,” and that she had something special that viewers responded to. I asked Sue if there was a specific “star quality” that they looked for in studio animals. In her 20 years at Studio Animal Services, Sue worked with everything from ducks to cats and squirrels, but when it came to dogs she was considering for studio work she always sought out those with "outgoing and borderline obnoxious behavior" in the shelter, knowing they could later channel that over the top energy into something that worked on camera. Although shy dogs in shelters can make wonderful pets, they aren't always the best to be on set, where there can be a lot of overwhelming components.


Of course, every once in a while a critter shows such megastar talent they simply can’t be denied. When Sue adopted her pup Beans from the shelter, she had no idea whether she would work as a studio animal, but she ultimately became one of the most requested stars at Studio Animal Services!

Outside of the famous coworkers (both two and four legged), Sue says the best thing about her job is the travel, and the fact that every day is different. However, it is this spontaneous aspect to the job that can make it difficult to maintain the elusive work-life balance. Many opportunities early in Sue’s career were based largely on the fact that she “had a passport and could leave the next morning at 10am,” and there are some days where she doesn’t get home until 3am. She admits that the unpredictability and long hours have taken a toll on her social life, since Friday night plans can often be derailed by a last minute commercial assignment coming in on a Wednesday. But I suspect when you are spending 12 hours on set with Brad Pitt, or strolling the red carpet of a Hollywood premiere, you don't mind missing that happy hour after all :)

Gidget and Sue on the red carpet at the Godzilla premiere. Photo by Ron Galella. Image courtesy of A Famous Dog's Life on Facebook.
For those who want to make a life out of the undeniable adventure that is studio animal work, Sue says the best place to be is in LA. There are markets in places like New York, Chicago, Detroit, or Miami, but they are often too small to offer much experience. Sue says the best thing she did for her career was making the move to LA, and being open to interning for no pay until she learned the craft. She was lucky that she had a background in training marine animals in Florida prior to moving to California, which helped her move through the ranks quickly, and says some prior knowledge of animal training can be a real asset. There are two year courses available that some trainers opt to take first, which can also lead to careers in zoos or as a veterinarian. Either way, experience is key, and, like many careers, a willingness to put in the grunt work at the beginning can pay off big down the road.

Even if you aren’t jetsetting to a movie set, it doesn’t mean your pooch can’t travel like a star! Since Gidget and Sue became adept at travelling throughout the Taco Bell campaign, I asked her about her own tips for travelling with a pet. She linked me to her own blog post on the subject here (jackpot!), which goes into detail on flying your pooch in the cabin, in cargo, and even internationally, but she also had a few basic tips worth mentioning.

For pups flying in the cabin with you, Sue cautions against opening the bag and taking your dog out en route to your destination, as it discourages them from sleeping (the ideal situation for a long flight). This is not only best for you and your pet, but also fellow passengers who might have an allergy or other concern about dogs that could make for an awkward flight. Sue often kept Gidget in her bag with a sweater covering it, and was so discreet many passengers didn't know there was a pooch on board at all!

Traveling in style. Photo by Sue Chipperton. Image courtesy of A Famous Dog's Life on Facebook.
Sue also recommends taking your pup out and about as much as possible prior to airline travel, to get them used to going places with you and being in their bag. Giving your pup exposure to more environments and situations contributes to a "more well-rounded, well balanced dog,” who will be less likely to be stressed and overwhelmed by the situation.

Of course the downside to being out and about in New York City is the unavoidable stressors that can spook a small pup. Sue says the key to dealing with these environmental stressors is to be aware of the situation around you. If you can cross the street to avoid the scary thing, then there is no reason to put your animal through the anxiety of encountering something that makes them nervous.

For situations like garbage trucks where you absolutely cannot avoid it, she recommends having a plan in place before you leave your house. Her top tip: have treats (or, for really scary things, really good treats, like cut up steak or chicken) to whip out when something scary happens to draw your pet's attention back to you. As a last resort with a small pooch, you can always pick them up and walk away, but be sure not to pet them and coo at them, as they can misinterpret that as a reward for acting scared. As soon as you are a comfortable distance away from the thing that spooked them, set them down and make them go through basic commands to redirect their focus (this is the time to use that steak!). And most importantly, set them up for success when you leave the house, "even if it means walking half a block and coming back."

Another downside to life in New York is that we aren’t blessed with the year round gorgeous weather that Los Angeles and Hawaii (two of the places Sue has been lucky enough to call home during her career) have. Luckily, Sue has a creative (indoor) way to wear out your pup on days the weather simply will not permit a walk. Since "mental stimulation is more exhausting than physical stimulation," she recommends hiding food or toys throughout the apartment for your pooch to find. Start out simple (under the coffee table, behind a couch cushion), and increase difficulty to make your pup use their brain (and their nose) to track down the reward. Sue played this game with a Jack Russell who could sniff out a toy at the top of a very tall dresser, and then would sit patiently while she retrieved it for him. Fun for two and four legged family members, and certainly more pleasant than a walk in 2 degree temps! 

For those readers who are considering adding a pup to their life but have not yet taken the plunge, Sue had a few tips to ensure you end up with the paw-fect relationship. Regardless of where you are in life or how big or small your home and outdoor space is, she cautions that "people need to be really cautious and responsible when getting a dog," and do the leg work in researching the breed and understanding their needs and natural "job" prior to bringing them home. For example, not all small dogs are well suited for apartment life, as "many smaller breeds are more active" and will require a fair amount of exercise to exert their energy on something other than chewing your collection of Ikea furniture. In fact, she said an Irish Wolfhound is less active than a Jack Russell, and is very well suited for life in your tiny studio...if there's room for the both of you, that is!

Irish Wolfhounds make excellent apartment dogs, despite their impressive stature. Image via Dog Breed Info.
No matter which breed you choose, "each dog is an investment in your time," and you owe it to yourself and your pup to look into what they were bred to do to ensure you can meet their activity needs. You are responsible for your pup's happiness, and taking the steps to make sure you get the right breed for your life and circumstances will make everyone happy! And when you do make the decision on the perfect pup, Sue gives great tips on housebreaking here. Consider your rugs AND furniture legs saved!

I would be remiss if I neglected to ask about Gidget's fave Mrs. Hedgehog toy (buy it from Amazon here, and yes, I bought one for Holly), and whether there are other toys that Sue has found to be favorites among her famous pooches. Antlers won out on pup-ularity for chewing, and plush toys with squeakers got the boot since studio pups with high energy and drive tend to un-stuff them rather quickly. She said if a dog shows a particular interest in one toy, she will keep buying that one over and over (my drawer full of Nylabone sticks says AMEN to that tactic), and that she will save extra special toys as motivation for big jobs, taking them from the pup for a day or two before and then producing them on set when they need an extra oomph (after food and treats have lost their appeal). And toys don't have to be Christian Loubarkin to make your pup flip--Sue has a Jack Russell who would do anything for a tennis ball.
Even Gidget's favorite Mrs. Hedgehod didn't make her happy during this photo shoot with William Wegman. Photo by William Wegman. Image courtesy of A Famous Dog's Life on Facebook.
As our interview was winding down, I knew I had to ask Sue the age old question: can you teach an old dog new tricks? She said not only can you teach an old dog, but an old squirrel, duck, rat, or cat..."as long as you find the motivation you can train any animal." Of course, some pets may be more motivated than others…I don’t suspect my parent’s 17 year old cat will find motivation beyond napping any time soon!

I had a wonderful time chatting with Sue and hearing her reminisce more about Gidget and her lifetime of studio work. If you still can't get enough (I know I can't), check out the most recent book she is featured in, available for pre order on Amazon here.

Until Next Time, Darlings!


22 comments:

  1. Awwwww... I loved the yo quiero taco bell dog. So cute and what a great post!!!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! The book is super fun, I suggest reading it!

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  2. yo quiero taco bell! Also, can't believe a big dog turns out to be better for a small apartment - who woulda thought?

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    1. I know, right? Irish Wolfhounds are so huge!

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  3. It would be pretty awesome to have Sue's job working with animals in a studio! How fun.

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    1. It sounds like a cool job, right? I feel like there are so many amazing careers out there I never thought about in college!

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  4. I think it is so great that you got to interview Sue Chipperton! And I never would have believed that bigger dogs are better for apartments!

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    1. I was shocked by that detail too! It makes sense--some big dogs just like to snuggle and sleep, and some little pups were made to play!

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  5. Such a great interview. As a dog mama myself, I agree w/ all the tips!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed it! Holly and I have been playing the hide and go seek game with her toy practically every day since the interview. If you have a high energy pooch I definitely recommend it!

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  6. What a wonderful interview.So much fun to read.

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    1. Thank you so much!!! I'm glad it was fun to read, since it was super fun to chat with Sue!

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  7. I always thought small dogs were better for apartments.. huh guess you learn something new everyday huh?!

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    1. I know, it's so interesting! But a lot of small dogs were bred for hunting, so they have a lot of energy and need lots of room to run and play!

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  8. This was a great interview. What an amazing experience both her for interacting with the dog and you for interviewing her.

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    1. Thanks so much, Cassie!! I'm so glad you enjoyed it, I really enjoyed writing it!

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  9. Irish wolfhounds are so big! Interesting to learn they're good apartment dogs.

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    1. Crazy, right? Apparently they are pretty low energy so they are great for small spaces without yards!

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