Training the Dog Stars of ‘Eight Below’

Meet the head dog trainer who helped make movie magic.

Chris Large © Disney Enterprises, Inc.
The dogs of “8 Below”

Making a movie is not easy. Just ask Mike Alexander, the head dog trainer of Eight Below, the hit film about a sled-dog team stranded in Antarctica.

When I first read the script, I thought, how in the world are we going to do all this stuff?

After a lengthy casting process, Alexander and his team began training the dogs in California. They moved to a farm in Northern Canada three months prior to filming to allow the dogs to acclimatize to the cold and ice.

Alexander says the first step was to teach the dogs to convey emotion. Frank (Marshall, the films director) wanted as many small, expressive movements as we could come up with, so we taught them a lot of different head movements along with snarls and grins.

One difficult scene required the dogs to be buried under piles of snow. We had to teach that very slowly. First, we worked on getting them to curl up and lie down on command, explains Alexander. Then, we started by putting just a little bit of snow on them and giving them a reward for letting that happen. Each time we did it, we piled a little more snow on the dogs until they became comfortable being completely buried.

Some of the simplest behaviors were the toughest to train. We had to teach the dogs to watch Paul (Walker, who plays survival guide Jerry Shepard), which in the movie seems very natural, but its actually quite hard, says Alexander. The dogs have spent a lot of time with their trainers, so that’s who they naturally want to look at.

Most of the time there were dozens of dogs on the set: The actor dogs several roles were played by multiple dogs and their sled-dog doubles who filmed the more complicated mushing scenes.

And while these actors came from far and wide some were rescue dogs, others seasoned animal actors they developed a strong bond over the course of filming, says Alexander. The interesting thing is that they worked out their own social hierarchy in a way that basically matches the characters in the film. It just worked out to match the script, which I thought was incredible.

Posted: April 5, 2006, 5 a.m. EST

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