Luke Hura, Australia’s leading animal trainer for film, TV and theatre, will take to the ADVANCE stage at the Dog Lovers Festival to teach us how to teach our pooches the seven to 10 most-used training exercises in film and TV. We caught up with Luke, as he sat in his car after filming on the “Neighbours” set, with Bodhi waiting patiently by side, and asked him a few questions about his 40-year career training film and TV’s furry stars, and bringing connection and joy to audiences everywhere…
In just one word, describe your level of excitement knowing you’ll be at the Dog Lovers Festival, talking to 30,000 people.
Luke Hura: Excited!
You’ll be showing us how to teach our dogs between seven and 10 of the most used exercises in film and television, alongside your Paws On Film colleague Lauren Sellwood, and two dogs. Tell us about these colleagues of yours.
Luke Hura: Lauren and I had worked together on a series of TV commercials, when she asked me if I’d ever thought about starting an animal talent agency. I had but until Lauren, I hadn’t found the right person to do this with. Lauren is amazing with birds, horses, dogs, everything. LD, aka ‘Little Dynamite’, is an Aussie Terrier starring with Zac Efron in the comedy “Ricky Stanicky” coming out this year; and Bodhi, the Groodle appearing as Trevor, in the long-running Aussie TV soap, “Neighbours”.
Of all the dogs you’ve trained, which one stands out the most and why?
Luke Hura: I worked on a TV mini-series called “The Battlers” with Gary Sweet and Jacqueline McKenzie. We had nine solid weeks of filming, and the dog had an enormous amount to do, and he was amazing. Then there was “Paws”, with a Jack Russell terrier in the lead role, that had to learn 80 commands in about 12 weeks. It had the voice of Billy Connolly, so it was quite funny.
Who have been the biggest animal or human stars you’ve worked with?
Luke Hura: Red Dog, and Oddball, a Maremma, would be the two main ones. As far as TV or film stars, there was Scottish actor Gordon Jackson, OBE, and American jazz musician Miles Davis, in a 1991 film called “Dingo”. In Australia, I’d say the earlier cast members from “Neighbours”, like Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. And comedian Stephen Curry, and Kiwi actress Rebecca Gibney.
How did you learn how to train dogs?
Luke Hura: When I first started doing what I’m doing, even the film work, there was no one to teach me so I learned everything from a book written in 1934, by an American trainer called Henry R. East, called, “How to Train Dogs for the Home, Stage & Moving Pictures.”
How is training a dog different to say, training a farm animal like a cow?
Luke Hura: There’s not a lot of difference. It’s a mind and energy thing. I once had to teach a cow to walk backwards, and the farmer said, “I’ve got heaps of cows but I don’t know how you’re gonna make any of them walk backwards.” I just started walking towards the cow and raised my hand slowly and the cow started stepping backwards. The famer looked at me and he said, “How did you do that?”
What makes a good film dog?
Luke Hura: I always say to people that to get a good film dog, it is a combination of obedience, show and total disobedience. There are times when you want the dog to be completely crazy, so you don’t want to knock it out of them completely or, you know, stop them from doing their little silly things.
Are there any other golden rules of dog training we should know?
Luke Hura: Be patient, calm, and try and find what really works for you and your dog. There’s a lot of information on YouTube about dog training so find something that suits you because not everything will.
Also, keep them calm and relaxed. The calmer the dog is, the quicker the dog learns, especially when you’re on a film set. And trust. Learn to love and trust your dog. Trust is the big thing that is missing a lot of the time with animals.
I utilise the dogs’ high food drive and give them something they don’t normally get, which is proper steak that I cook, cut up into small pieces, and freeze. It means the dogs are always focused. When we were doing the musical “Wizard of Oz”, Sam, the actress who played Dorothy, had a dress with a special, plastic-lined pocket so she could keep the steak treats in there!
And thank them! When I finish a show, I honestly get in the car and I turn around to the dogs and I say, “Guys, fantastic. You did a great job. Thank you.” I don’t think many people do that simple thing and I think the dogs need to hear our appreciation.
What do you think is the hardest trick or action you’ve needed to ever teach or train a dog?
Luke Hura: In the movie “Paws”, some of the things I trained the dog to do were very tricky, such as where he takes a drinking straw in his mouth, then releases the straw, and does a half-bark.
I could train a dog to do 40, 50 or even 100 different commands then, when I get on a film set and the director wants a specific action, I’ve got to combine three or four different commands to get one action, which the dog has never done before. It’s challenging, but we always get there.
Do you talk to animals?
Luke Hura: I do talk to the animals – mentally. They don’t talk back, and I don’t hear voices, and I don’t see things – not at this point. I have on occasions asked the dog mentally to do something that it’s not been trained to do, and the dog does it.
We’ve read that you use meditation as a tool. How?
Luke Hura: I sit quietly and meditate for about five or 10 minutes, with a dog close to me and just ask, “OK, how can I do this?” And then ideas come to me. That’s how I get a lot of my answers as to how I can teach the dog a certain exercise.
You talk about using energy to train your animals. Can you tell us more about this?
Luke Hura: I use Reiki energy when I need to put animals to sleep on a film set. I’ve put animals completely out, just with energy. Of course, afterwards, you can just pick them up and they’re right back to normal. I’ve done that on a job once with a cat and a dog, where the cat and the dog had to go to sleep together. They went to sleep so deeply that I put the dog on the bed, and I laid the cat up against it, completely out of it, sleeping with its head on the dog’s stomach!
Tell us about the dogs in your life now.
Luke Hura: I have four house dogs and they all want to sit on my lap but that’s a problem, because the only animal that sits on my lap is my cat, Albert.
What is it about rescue dogs that you love?
Luke Hura: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of dogs from shelters such as the Maremma I worked with in “Oddball”. A lot of rescue dogs really show you their appreciation, but a ‘rescue’ doesn’t necessarily come from a shelter; they could come from somebody that they just weren’t comfortable living with.
What do you consider to be your biggest achievement so far in your incredible career?
Luke Hura: My biggest achievement is the response I get from people when they see the animals and how much it touches them. A woman brought her child down to Paws On Film one day for therapy. Her young son walked into the yard and straight away, Larry the dog, from the ABC children’s show “Larry the Wonderpup”, came running over to him, jumping up and licking his face. The kid screamed with excitement and his mother explained that her son watches the show every single day. It was very special.
Do you have the best job in the world?
Luke Hura: Absolutely. But saying that, it’s not always easy. It has its challenges, as you could imagine. But I think working with animals is one of the greatest jobs, without a doubt.
SEE LUKE HURA AT THE DOG LOVERS FESTIVAL IN SYDNEY
Luke Hura will be appearing on the ADVANCE™ Stage at the Dog Lovers Festival, Sydney Showground, on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 August 2023, presenting: ‘Prepare your dog for film and TV stardom, with advice from Australia’s leading animal trainer’, at 10.30am and 2.30pm, daily.