'Arf, arf!' quoth Shakespeare

Collie secures contract to appear in Bard's play

— Little Jill is successful, intelligent and loves to slobber. She is 3 years old, stands 21 inches tall, weighs about 34 pounds and is covered with thick black-and-white hair. During her free time, Little Jill enjoys performing on stage, swimming, kissing and herding sheep.

Who is Little Jill?

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KRT Photo

Little Jill is a border collie who plays the part of Crab in the Washington Shakespeare Theatre's summer production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

She is a professionally trained border collie-actor, model and performer, one of thousands in the United States. Recently, Washington's renowned Shakespeare Theatre finished its two-month summer production of William Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," in which Little Jill was the canine star.

Little Jill was an integral part of the cast, playing Crab, Launce's (played by Floyd King) indifferent yet lovable dog. Wearing a red bandanna around her neck, Little Jill added a comedic and lovable quality to the play. Every time she was on stage, the audience could be heard laughing and clapping. While she performed, comments of "She's so cute" and "I wonder how she does that?" were common.

The Shakespeare Theatre selected Little Jill from the Capitol City Dog Training and Animal Actors company in Centreville, Va., owned by Little Jill's owner and trainer, Michele Giarrusso.

Little Jill has appeared on ABC News and NBC News, where she performed tricks and obedience skills. Her talents include jumping 3 feet, 7 inches, weaving poles in two seconds, waving hello, bouncing a ball off her nose and working sheep. She also knows left from right, swims, retrieves from water and shakes objects.

"Her personality is terribly sweet and very engaging. She generally likes to be the center of attention, in a very positive working way. She's just pleasant," Giarrusso said.

'Make it a game'

What must a trainer do to turn an ordinary dog into a professional performer?

"Find an animal that you genuinely love and that has an outgoing nature; a dog that can work and be with any human in any situation; and then you must obedience and trick train them. You have to look for outgoingness and confidence to have a good show dog," Giarrusso said.

Obedience training involves teaching the dog how to perform specific activities such as heeling, sitting and lying down. Once a dog is obedience trained, they will perform specific tasks when their owners ask them.

Throughout the United States, the majority of dog trainers use what's called "positive reinforcement training," which teaches dogs obedience, tricks, skills and commands through various types of rewards and encouragement. In effect, an animal tends to repeat an action that is positively reinforced.

If Little Jill is less enthusiastic about a certain activity, the trainer's job is to find another "reinforcer" that she is willing to work for. For example, if Little Jill doesn't like to stay, but she loves to jump, the reward for her staying when commanded is allowance to jump.

"I make it a game. Everything is a game and fun. The work in and of itself is rewarding, so oftentimes I don't have to use another type of reinforcer (food) necessarily because dogs decide what's reinforcing, people don't," Giarrusso said.

It takes a considerable amount of time to train a dog to be able to work in front of a live audience. Little Jill was trained in obedience by the time she was 6 months old, yet she is continually learning new tricks.

"She learns really quickly," Giarrusso said.

Professional dogs must also be agility trained, which involves a doggy-designed obstacle course. Once the dog has received the appropriate training, they will be ready to compete, model and act on stage and in the movies.

Giarrusso explains: "You know they're ready when you can proof them with distractions, when they can handle the chaotic-ness of a situation with several people onstage and around them."

Part of the contract

Little Jill has been trained to perform in any setting, whether it is in front of a camera or thousands of people. Accordingly, Little Jill receives all the glitz and glamour that show business can provide. In nearly every production Little Jill has been part of, she has had her own personal dressing room as well as quiet space where she can spend time "playing, reinforcing skills, walking, sometimes taking a nap or having a bit of fun," Giarrusso said.

With every production, a negotiated contract ensures the same protection, care and kindness that human actors receive.

As for Little Jill's paycheck, Giarrusso would say only, "She's paid very well and she's certainly earned it. Jill works a lot, but hopes to continue working. She really loves to work."

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