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Ruff Life: Hollywood Dog Trainer Sue Chipperton Shares Her Insider Tips

From hanging with Brad Pitt and Reese Witherspoon to folding socks, it seemed there was no feat too big (or small) for celebrity canine Gidget. The multitalented Chihuahua and star of the popular Taco Bell commercials spent her time living the life most dream of: traveling (by way of private jet), walking the red carpet, and mingling with celebs. This is in no small part due to her trainer, Sue Chipperton, who (along with co-author and People staff writer, Rennie Dyball) divulges her insider information in the book A Famous Dog’s Life. We caught up with Sue, who discussed everything from choosing a breed to “mad dogging.” Read on for our Q&A with Sue!

PetSugar: When searching for a standout star, like Gidget, an outgoing personality is one of the qualities you look for, but do you have recommendations when searching for an off-camera pooch?

Sue Chipperton: Well, it depends what you are looking for in a pet.  Every breed has something to offer and so do mixed breed dogs found in shelters. You start by looking at the breed you are interested in and determining what that dog was bred to do.  If you want a dog that can go running with you twice a day for several miles, then any of the hunting breeds, or a Dalmatian, a Husky, etc., are all good choices. You can narrow it down even more: say you want a short-haired dog, then the husky breeds are removed from your list. The biggest mistake people make is getting a dog based on their looks and ignoring what the dog was bred to do. Leaving a Husky in your backyard and hoping he will stay there is a ridiculous notion, he needs to run to burn off all that excess energy.

PS: The tricks you teach your studio dogs differ from typical pet training — for example, sitting is the last thing you teach them — what are some that work well for both?

Keep reading for Sue's answer and more tips for training your own pet!

SC: Teaching your dog to stay is just as important to the pet as it is to the studio dog. If your dog can stay when you open the front door or gate to your garden, this could potentially save his life. Training your dog to "go to his bed" and "stay" is the same as teaching a studio dog to go to his "mark" and "stay." 

And of course a "recall" is another lifesaving behavior that both a studio dog and a pet will benefit from. If you can call your dog and he comes back to you under any circumstances, regardless of what’s going on around them, then this is one of the best things you can train your dog.

PS: Gidget had many talents, one of which included “folding” socks. Did she have any other funny, yet surprising talents you want to share?

SC: Yes, folding socks. That was a good one.  She had a huge play drive, so she loved her toys.  She also was a fan of doing "mad dog" — a term I use to describe the mad running, where they tuck their butt under and zoom around in circles — she loved to do this and was especially fond of “mad dog” in hotel corridors, back and forth, zooming around. Of course, her best talent was being able to know exactly where a camera was and look right into lens!

PS: It was really interesting to learn the behind-the-scenes tricks, such as the “hide the eyes,” which is done using a piece of a Post-it. Any other inside info you are willing to share?

SC: So many of the tricks we train for the studios are behaviors your pet at home may exhibit on their own, it's just a matter of capturing it and putting it to a cue. Sprig, the Jack Russell I am training, learned almost all of his behaviors by doing them naturally in my home.  He has a trained yawn. Which was a behavior he would do mostly at night while laying on the couch next to me, I would say "good yawn" and stroke the side of his face. This went on for weeks and weeks.  Eventually I used the stroking of his cheek as the cue for him to yawn. He also learned the trick where they spin and catch their tail — this happened one day when he had an itch and zipped around in a circle to get at his tail, I said "GOOD . . . getcha tail" and over the next couple of weeks I perfected the behavior, so now he does it on cue. The most important aspect of this training is that the dog understands what you are doing, he has to be in a learning mode.  If you have never trained your dog to do anything in its life, telling him "good" when he does something you like might not have any effect on him whatsoever. But because Sprig had been trained and he completely understood what "good" meant, he was able to understand what I was doing and we cultivated the desired behavior.

PS: You knew you wanted to get into animal training at a young age, any advice for our readers that want to follow suit?

SC: I never really knew I wanted to be an animal trainer until my years at Ocean World. I did love dogs and there was the one time I went to the Royal Air Force recruiting office to inquire about being a trainer, but I wasn't committed to the idea until much later. If I could give any advice, it would be to find a facility and volunteer. There are plenty of places that have kennels, and if you live in Los Angeles, there are plenty of animal companies that do studio work. But the reality is, it’s a lot of hard work volunteering and you may find yourself cleaning kennels and doing the daily chores at any facility, and on top of that, trying to gain as much knowledge from the trainers that work there.  Most people don't make it, because it’s a lot of dirty, physical work. You have to look at it as a free education. If you put the time in and go above and beyond what is asked of you, you will move up the ladder faster and eventually be in a position to train and go on a film set.

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