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Trainer teaches dogs and other animals to perform in theaters and on TV

🕐 3 min read

WASHINGTON – The actress named Nessa is treated as well as any Broadway star or Hollywood queen. She gets her own dressing room, where she can relax before performances and get away from the adoring crowds who cheer her onstage. She has her own stylist and makeup artist, to help her glow under the lights of the country’s finest theaters.

She even has a personal trainer, William Berloni, who watches her every move and rewards her with treats and affection when she does well.

Nessa is younger (just 3 years old) and smaller (maybe a foot tall) than your average star, but that’s because she’s a dog, a cairn terrier with a gray peppercorn coat and perky black ears. You may know her by her stage name: Toto, as in Dorothy’s feisty dog from this year’s national tour of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Nessa visited the National Theatre in D.C. this week, traveling with Berloni while he prepared for the start of the musical “Annie,” which stars one of his many dogs as Sandy, Annie’s companion. The show is touring the country and plays at the theater through Sunday. “The Wizard of Oz” will come to the same theater this spring, although a different dog will star as Toto.

Berloni, 59, is Broadway’s go-to dog expert, training and managing pups of every size and breed for musicals and plays that need a well-behaved canine. He also works on movies and TV shows with all kinds of animals, including cats, pigs, sheep, pigeons, snakes and rats.

His retired actors, including 30 dogs that have acted in shows such as “Annie,” “Oliver!” and “Legally Blonde,” live with him and his wife on a farm in Connecticut.

The dogs are treated “like Olympic athletes,” Berloni says. “If their poop goes a little soft, we’re on it. If they’re not eating well, we’re on it.”

His main playmates as a kid were his dog, cat and bunny, but he says he never thought he would become a professional animal trainer. He wanted to be an actor. But while working as an assistant for the pre-Broadway production of “Annie,” in1976, he was given the job of finding a dog to play Sandy.

Berloni visited an animal shelter, where lost and stray dogs and other pets are kept until they are adopted. Shelters take in a lot of animals – so many that some shelters euthanize (pronounced YOO-tha-nize), or kill, pets that aren’t quickly adopted.

“I didn’t know that animals were killed,” says Berloni, who ended up adopting a beige terrier on the day it was supposed to be put down.

The dog, which Berloni named Sandy, turned out to be a perfect fit for the show after a little training. The pair learned from each other, with Berloni becoming better and better as a trainer. Sandy starred in almost all of the show’s 2,377 Broadway performances and enjoyed retirement on Berloni’s farm when the production’s first Broadway run ended in 1983.

Since then, Berloni has made a point of finding all his dogs at shelters. When he’s not busy working with pups such as Nessa, he works as an adviser to an animal clinic and shelter in New York City.

He’s also producing a musical adaptation of “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a novel by Kate DiCamillo about a young girl and her dog, Winn-Dixie. The show is being fine-tuned for Broadway, and it will star Berloni’s scruffy dog Bowdie.

After about a year of working together, he and Nessa are like old friends. She’s happy to lie curled up on his lap or to hop off and strut her stuff, even when she’s not performing.

When Berloni pets her, it’s a signal to stay. When he says “Toto,” it’s a signal to come – running across the room, tail wagging, right into his arms.

The treat that he gives her for that trick is a nice little bonus, Berloni says. “Love is the big motivator,” but “nobody works for free.”

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