Grooming Animal Actors: April Gray's Story - Groomer to Groomer

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Grooming Animal Actors: April Gray’s Story

By Melissa Viera

If you are a groomer, you know how oddly satisfying it is to scrub a dog clean, noticing the dirty water going down the drain as you do so. You know you are doing your job when you see clumps of coat flying out while drying a golden retriever, or when a thick nail flings to the floor after you clip it.The dogs don’t have to say thank you because the way they push their head into you as you clean their ears, or the way they seem to move much lighter and merrier when all the dirt and the loose coat is gone, is enough.

When a dog comes to see you after enjoying a summer of swims in the salty ocean and romping through the woods, you can’t wait to get to work and make them clean again. Even after bathing and working on a dog for a long time, a professional groomer’s eye can still find places that could use some touching up before the owner arrives.

A spritz of finishing spray, a bandana tied neatly around the neck, and a damp towel to wipe away any loose hairs on the muzzle before the owner walks in to pick up their pet are just some of the extra finishing touches that make your work stand out. A groomer’s job is to make an animal cleaner. Sounds pretty straightforward, but what if—as a groomer—you had to do just the opposite?

Instead of working hard to make dogs as clean as can be, what if you had to think creativity to make dogs look dirtier, homeless, or as if they have been eating out of the trash? As crazy as it sounds, some groomers’ jobs aren’t about making every pet look freshly groomed. Just like human actors and actresses have to fit many roles, so do animal actors. It is the job of the groomers on set to make sure the animals look their part, no matter what that part might be; from champion show dog, to homeless street dog.

April Gray, owner of Graymatter Dog Training, may not always be the one in the spotlight because she is busy instructing animals from behind the camera. Gray is an animal trainer, groomer, and mom. What makes her job unique is that, while she trains the basics, she also trains her animals to perform specific cued behaviors to meet the director’s request for the roles they play. Not only does she train animals for acting roles, but she is also the groomer for the animal actors she works with.

When Gray was a child she adored animals. From the time she was born up until she was ten, she had her Doberman Pinscher, named Queenie faithfully by her side. “She started my passion for dogs,” says Gray. Even as a young child, Gray was interested in going above and beyond for her pets. At around age five, she discovered and began studying breed standards,
and it wasn’t long after that she
began grooming.

“I first started grooming my Miniature Schnauzer when I was 10–years–old,” says Gray. Her own pets weren’t her only clients. When she started grooming the pets of friends, her love for grooming only grew.

In 2004, Gray went on to further hone her grooming skills by attending a grooming academy. “Grooming is a natural stress relief for me,” explains Gray. “It brings me real joy and keeps me focused on the positive side of life.”

Gray’s interest in training and grooming animals for movies and commercials was, for a long time, only a dream, but a major change in her life would motivate her to do more of the things she finds joy in. “Three years ago I was diagnosed with heart failure,” Gray shares.

“I had no clue how long I would live with my condition. I made the decision to follow my dreams. I started training my Border terrier and within three months we had an audition for Marvel’s Antman. We didn’t get the job but I was hooked.”

Gray’s pets now include five dogs, two cats, and a rabbit. She works with them daily to prepare them for their jobs. “I train them twice a day between five to fifteen minutes,” says Gray. “I incorporate a lot of play and fun in our training sessions.”

Gray prefers to use clicker training for teaching her animals behaviors, from the simple ones to the very complicated ones. The clicker is used as a marker to let the animal know when they have done something right (whatever it is that the trainer is looking for). They hear the click which tells them they got it right, and then they earn a reward. Gray finds that capturing is a very effective way of getting difficult to train behaviors. For example, if she needs to train an animal to sneeze or scratch on cue, she would start by clicking and rewarding when the animal does it naturally.

There are many behaviors that Gray’s animals can perform on cue and the list is always growing. “They all know basic to advance on and off lead obedience,” says Gray. “I teach each puppy show business basics like head down, speak, go to mark, and a solid stay,” she explains.

“I also teach them lots of fun behaviors like skateboarding, itch, sneeze, whine, crawl, sit–pretty, play dead, hoop jumps, high five, wave, and dancing.”

When it comes to grooming the animal actors, Gray has to be creative to make sure that her animals fit the part. Her advice for groomers working on animal actors is to know what the director is looking for and have knowledge about products to get the desired look.

“Set grooming may include making a dog look homeless. Know what products you can safely use to dirty up their coat,” says Gray. “Experiment and send them different looks to choose from. Touch up coats in between shots.”

Gray emphasizes the importance of being professional on set. “Stay quiet, listen to the crew and stay
out of the way of the trainers and human talent.”

The list of jobs and accomplishments that her animals have had is always growing. “My Aussie, Wyatt, nailed his first commercial at five–months–old. He recently made a commercial for Tractor Supply Company,” says Gray. Working with her own pets for potential acting jobs is something that Gray enjoys, not just for the chance of seeing her animals with big roles, but for the challenge, fun, and bonding time that comes with all of the time spent training.

The joy that the work brings her is a big part of what inspires her to keep working hard, but she is also deeply inspired by her husband and two sons. “My boys love animals as much as I do. I hope at least one follows in my footsteps.”

The work Gray does is fun, but certainly not as easy as it might look when you see an animal effortlessly doing their job in a movie or show. “Training is hard work and sometimes the shoots are long and tedious but the rewards are well worth the effort,” says Gray.

Daily training is important, but it has to be fun for the animals. “Don’t overdo it,” she says. Gray also shares that anyone hoping to land a role for their pet should keep pet photos and resumes up–to–date.

Making the decision to follow her dreams has opened the door to many new experiences, joy, and memories for Gray. When thinking about grooming careers, the typical thought a person likely has is that of a pet groomer, but there are other types of groomers as well, like groomers for animal actors. The next time you see an animal in a movie, take a look at their grooming and imagine what it took to achieve the look. ✂

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