Mutt's trash-to-riches tale

In A Dog's Way Home (left), former shelter dog Shelby plays Bella, a pet who goes in search of her owner.
In A Dog's Way Home (left), former shelter dog Shelby plays Bella, a pet who goes in search of her owner.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

Star of A Dog's Way Home lived in a landfill before being discovered

LOS ANGELES • You have heard the stories of an actor doggedly putting in the legwork before a career breakthrough.

The star of A Dog's Way Home, showing in Singapore, has a hard-luck tale that could top them all.

Before her big break, she was living in a landfill, rooting through garbage for her next meal.

Meet Shelby, a tan-and-black mutt who portrays Bella, occupying the screen, often solo, for much of the film's 97 minutes - and whose trash-to-riches saga could itself be a gripping cinematic yarn.

Shelby's big break came in April 2017, when animal-control officer Megan Buhler was driving in Cheatham County, Tennessee, a rural area about 40km from Nashville.

Out on an unrelated call, she spotted and approached what she recalled was a noticeably skittish dog emerging from the dump.

"So I knelt down and just said, 'Oh, come here, baby'," said Ms Buhler.

"There were lots of cars driving by - I mean, it was heavy traffic. She was so scared, and she finally came right up to me and I was able to put her in my truck."

The pair headed to the county animal shelter, where the staff took to calling the new resident Baby Girl.

Ms Buhler had no inkling that Hollywood was looking for a dog to play Bella in a film written by Cathryn Michon and W. Bruce Cameron and based on the latter's book.

A central storyline involves local laws that prohibit certain dog breeds from living within municipalities or counties. In this case, the focus was Denver's ban on "pit bull breeds".

Cameron and Michon, who are married, are unabashed dog lovers and say part of their passion is expressed by advocating for homeless dogs whenever possible.

"We started off in the very beginning saying that the dog that is the star of the movie will have to be a rescue, because we were trying to prove something," Cameron said. "We think we're making a difference in the animals' lives when they are adopted and we're trying to reveal to the world that rescue dogs are wonderful animals."

The film-makers hired trainer Debbie Pearl, whose company Paws For Effect functions as an animal talent agency of sorts, one known for finding adoptable dogs and training them for on-screen roles.

Ms Pearl assigned the find-a-Bella job to Ms Teresa Ann Miller, a freelance trainer whose credits include White God, an acclaimed 2014 Hungarian film that features more than 200 dogs.

Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, Baby Girl was already getting diva treatment. The shelter's staff believe that shooting stellar photographs of its animals immensely boosts their adoption prospects.

One day, Ms Miller spotted Baby Girl's adoption photo. Still, she was wary. Two promising canine candidates already had not panned out.

A third possible Bella had been adopted from a Los Angeles shelter the night before she was scheduled to meet and videotape the dog.

But the Miller-Baby Girl summit proceeded without a hitch, spanning two hours, with the trainer assessing her new friend on personality, temperament and the ability to respond to simple commands.

Ms Miller was sold.

Within two weeks, Cameron and Michon travelled to Tennessee, met Baby Girl and developed the same crush.

In short order, Ms Miller adopted Baby Girl from the shelter on behalf of Ms Pearl and Paws For Effect, renamed her Shelby ("a really cute Southern name") and took her to California for training.

Ms Miller said her approach reflects the style of her late father Karl Miller, a well-known Hollywood animal trainer, eschewing quick commands in favour of talking in sentences to elicit more relaxed behaviour. "Instead of saying, 'Come, sit, stay', we might say: 'Can you come over here? Hey, what are you doing?'"

The training took more than three months before shooting began.

Most of the film's reviews have lauded Shelby's performance.

Variety wrote that the movie "is at its best when relying on Shelby and her trainers: It's amazing how much of the humour, drama and emotion is carried on her canine shoulders".

With such approval, has its heroine gone Hollywood? Sunglasses at night? Not Shelby.

After additional training, she is now working as a therapy dog at places that include veterans' facilities, hospitals and schools attended by students with special needs.

Shelby lives with Ms Pearl in Huntington Beach, California.

One recent visitor was Ms Buhler, who needed only a split second to compare the movie star with the dog she coaxed away from piles of trash. "She's exactly the same," she said.


• A Dog's Way Home is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2019, with the headline 'Mutt's trash-to-riches tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe