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Trainer Makes Stars of Rescue Dogs

Bill Berloni estimates he has trained and shined a spotlight on nearly 400 dogs over the last 45 years.

Your purebreds and your designer breeds are all well and good, but if you want the job done right – and if that job is acting – get yourself a mutt.

That’s the advice of Bill Berloni, who has trained animals for appearances on television (Sesame Street, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), in movies (Marry Me, The Producers), and on stage (Gypsy, The Wiz).

More than 45 years ago, Berloni was an intern at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House when he was tasked with finding for an upcoming production “a mutt of indistinguishable breed and sandy color,” he said, recalling his assignment.

Bill visited a shelter and found a dog that fit the bill, one day away from euthanasia. With gentle nurturing and lots of treats, Bill prepared the former stray for the stage.

The show was ANNIE, a huge Broadway hit and a beloved favorite of generations of theater-goers.

Ellie Pulsifer as Annie and Addison as Sandy in the 2022 company of ANNIE.

As Annie’s dog, Sandy, the rescue pooch proved to be a real trooper, never missing a performance for seven-plus years. Bill became an in-demand trainer, working on- and off-Broadway, and in film and television.

Following in the paw-steps of the original Sandy is Addison, who will play Annie’s beloved pooch when the musical plays June 6-11 in Morsani Hall.

Bill rescued Addison from a high kill shelter in 2017. She made her acting debut that year as well, playing “stray mutt” in ANNIE before graduating to the role of Sandy in 2018. 

All of the dogs Bill trains are rescues from shelters, and he says mixed-breed, or mutts, are the easiest to work with.

Why? The breeds we know today are the result of dogs being bred for specific purposes.

Berloni with Addison (2022).

“They wanted a dog that could swim and chase rodents. They needed a dog who could herd sheep,” Bill said.

“Certain breeds have strong instincts, based on their breeding, that are hard to overcome,”

Bill said. “When you have a mixed-breed, it’s more like having a jack-of-all-trades.”

Bill estimates he has trained between 300 and 400 dogs.

He’s more specific about the number of animals living at his Connecticut farm. “Currently, we have 26 dogs, three cats, a rabbit, two geese, a pig, two donkeys, a horse and a macaw,” Bill said. All were performers save for the cats and the farm animals.

When stage days are over, the animals retire to Bill’s farm to live among their fellow former performers.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about Bill’s training method, which he said isn’t that different from what any pet owner might use: repetitive behaviors and treats for rewards.

Berloni at home with just a few of his dogs (2017).

Beyond that, the animal “has to be secure, and feel connected, and understand what you’re saying,” Bill said.

Of course, Bill’s animals must learn to listen to the actors with whom it will share the stage.

“We take the actors and we turn them into trainers, which means bonding them to the dogs,” Bill said. “What I’m asking my dog to do is love me enough to listen to someone else. So that type of training takes a really, really, really high level of trust on the part of an animal.”

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