The corgi trainer from Hallmark's A Royal Corgi Christmas tells all
We're not going to cinnamon-coat it: Sorting through more than 160 new Christmas movies just to find your holly, jolly, happy place will be a doggone challenge, if not a royal pain in the ass. But if you love princes and princesses — and dogs and more dogs — there's a regal beagle you should meet. Well, actually, he's a corgi.
One of three holiday canine movies debuting this month, Hallmark Channel's A Royal Corgi Christmas, centers on a reluctant, tabloid-magnet crown prince (Jordan Renzo) who heads home to the castle over the holidays with a gift for his mother, a.k.a. the Queen: a corgi named Mistletoe. Alas, Mistletoe is not as well-behaved or high-pedigreed as the other royal corgis. In fact, he's quite mischievous. An expert trainer (Hunter King) is flown in from America to try to make Mistletoe presentable just in time for the Christmas Ball. Does Mistletoe rather comedically end up with trifle on his head after destroying a buffet? Does he rather dramatically compete in a Christmas Corgi Derby? Does he ultimately learn to be a good boy? These questions are self-answering.
But there's much more to learn about this naughty-and-nice tri-colored canine who is poised to become one of the Christmas season's breakout stars. Herewith, an interview with Sandra Strong, a London-based trainer and veterinary nurse who's been helping dogs get ready for their close-up since 2002, and who trained Mistletoe (real name: Bonbon) for this merry mission of majesty.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Bonbon come into your life?
SANDRA STRONG: At 10 weeks old. He came to my puppy classes and the owners turned up at my gate. I can see through my gate — my garden — and there was this funny little thing with ears flopped over and such a big expression on his face. And I thought, "That is a star." So they did all my courses, all the film courses. He was almost ready to go. And the more you teach dogs, the more they understand and the quicker they learn. And he only lives 10 minutes from me. So we had one extremely well-trained corgi.
[But] we had a big problem. When we went to Ireland to try and get some corgis over there, no one would speak to us. And my colleague is a top Crufts judge. The big dog show [in England] is Crufts. It wasn't until they realized that she was a Crufts judge that they would speak to us. Because about three weeks before we came over [to Ireland, where the movie was filmed], a couple of litters of corgis had been stolen. They thought we were trying to steal corgis for the film. So we got corgis literally at the last moment, and they were show dogs and they had to be trained up somehow. That was quite a test of anyone's skills, believe me. Because corgis aren't the easiest to train. They're quite stubborn.
What was Bonbon's previous work experience prior to this?
Wow. A true fresh, furry face.
He loved it. He loved every minute of it.
Given the subject of the movie, does Bonbon have any royal blood in him?
Quite the opposite! He was certainly in character as far as the film was concerned! He came from working stock. He was born on a farm where corgis are still used to herd livestock. Corgis move livestock by nipping at their heels and are known as nippers. When the pups are very young, the urge to nip shows up profoundly in their behavior, as they love to nip their owner's ankles. We have to deal with this early on in puppy classes.
Does Bonbon celebrate Christmas or is he agnostic?
He celebrates everything. He has a celebratory uniform for each occasion, so when it was for something royal, he went off. He's got such a good face. Such a happy face. The face of a film dog.
What was in Bonbon's contract rider?
He might have wanted demands on set, but he didn't get any. And you know, if we make any more [movies], I would definitely have a word with the producers about that. He has his needs now. He's a famous star. [Laughs] There was nothing particularly special. But we'll talk about that next time.
Does Bonbon need certain treats to perform?
You use treats for motivation. You may not want them to be highly motivated if you want them to stay on a couch for a long time, so you use low-value treats. But there was a lot of motivation in that film, so we used high-quality treats. Mainly we were using dried venison.
You mentioned that corgis can be a little difficult and stubborn. What's the biggest challenge in training them?
You've got to start with them while they're young. All puppies are quite impressionable, and luckily he was started at 10 weeks. Because then he was very much into training. When you've got a young puppy, they want lots of attention from you because as far as they concerned, you're their parents, you look after them. So they're quite [impressionable] at that age. Once they grow up a bit and they become teenagers, then it's not so easy to deal with. But I mean, he was brilliant. The other corgis were all one to two years [old], but they'd never been trained at all except for show dogs. And all [that] show dogs really have to do is stand still and be admired, and then the judges run their hands over them. So because he was trained so early, we got so much training in. He was like, "What are we doing today? What are we doing today? I want to know!" He just loves the camera. Just loves it. Because it's click, click, click, "Venison, please!," click, click, click, "more venison, please." [Laughs]
What was the most difficult trick that Bonbon pulled off in this movie?
Pulling the tablecloth.
That was great when he destroyed the buffet. First of all, how many takes were required for the buffet disaster?
We could only do one take. That was it! So we had to get it right the first time. Obviously we didn't allow him to be there when all the food fell on the floor. I was on the table gathering up little bits of fabric so he could pull and pull and pull and extend it and extend it and extend it. That's how we did it. But to teach a dog to pull something like that when there's very little resistance is quite difficult. And in films, everything changes all the time. In the end, what he had to do was run underneath the table, come out the other side — because then he's facing away from the table; we had to turn him around, by getting him to come round — and then I was saying, "What's this? You've gotta pull! Pull! Pull!" And then he'd think, "Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah! That's what I have to do!" The funny thing was, we've got all the stuff on the floor, he went back in and the big ham that he's after in the script, he took one look and he was frightened of it.
He was absolutely terrified of it! He wouldn't go anywhere near it, which was a bit of a problem. [Laughs] So they carved some slices off and he realized then what it was, so then he started eating them. Then we couldn't get him away from it because he then had to go wade through the trifle. This trifle was not made of cream; it was made of a thick white sauce. And he loved it! It was just flour and water, and he was lapping it up. Thought it was absolutely delicious. [Laughs]
Bonbon had one other funny episode when filming. He was about to run across the stage as the queen was making her speech, when he noticed the violin bows — the orchestra was playing — appear above the music stands! They scared him so much he would not stop barking! The orchestra had to leave so he could continue with his "staged" naughty behavior!
After he upends the buffet, he's got the trifle all over him. Did he try to eat it off his fur?
Yeah! All the food we had, we had to make sure it was safe for dogs. Because there's lots of things that dogs can't eat — certainly at Christmas time, when you have lots of raisins and things like that around. And fruit. We had a lovely lady who was a chef, and I stood with her most of the time and I said, "Yep, you have to take that out. Can't have that, can't do this, can't put chocolate in," until we just got a whole load of things that nobody really wanted to eat, including the dog. Except for the white sauce with no flavorings in.
You mentioned that the buffet was the most difficult thing to pull off. How long did you train Bonbon for this scene?
Probably about three, four weeks. He was supposed to run through the table and pull off the top, then come through the trifle and then arrive at the ham. That's what we were [rehearsing]. So he knew what had to do, but obviously it was much more complex on the day, because before he does that [sequence], he does all those other things as well. It's all in, like, one take. It's not, "Let's set up a little scenario," and he does that one. And then the next one. He slips the door handle first, then he goes to the food trolley, then he runs across the stage and then he goes under the Christmas presents — all that was done in more or less one take, because it was on a wide [shot] and then they zoomed in. So you had to get it right the first time because once he destroyed something, there's no way you could put it back together again.
Let's talk about the Christmas Corgi Derby, which happens later in the film. How ambitious was that scene?
It was quite ambitious because we couldn't make up our minds how we were going to deal with the release of the dogs. If you were racing dogs, they're like horses. They go in a bit of a box and the door comes up and away they go. They do that so they don't turn around in the box; they stay facing forwards. But we kept it to the script and although we had them sectioned off so they couldn't see each other — otherwise it would've been utter chaos, because they're going to want to speak to each other — we had a box made with fabric sides and then somebody behind holding them. So because people tend to think, "Oh, they're so sweet, I want to stroke them," by the time we actually were asking the dogs to run forward, they were all turning around and looking at the people who were holding them, which was one of the problems.
So in the end, the people that they knew — the actors, myself, my colleagues — we were standing behind the cameras, jumping up and down, getting their attention, because they wanted to see them start. And then we'd let them go forward a bit and then stop it [before letting them run the rest of the race]. I remember one of the guys on the camera was saying, "I'm dreading this." I said, "Why? What do you think's going to happen?" He said, "You know it would take four days to shoot something like this properly." I said, "Well, you haven't got four days [laughs], you better think about how you're going to do it now." And literally, we did it in two takes. The whole length we did in two takes. We could not believe how well-behaved these dogs were. And they all stayed in their lines and corgis aren't known for walking in a straight line. They just all stayed in the row. It was quite unbelievable.
You got lucky.
We got very lucky twice!
Did Bonbon perform all of his own stunts, or were there stunt corgis brought in for any part of this?
No, he did the whole lot. Absolutely amazing. Couldn't have asked for a better dog. He tried his best at everything.
Did Bonbon get along with the other corgis?
Most of the time. His owners love him to go mix with other corgis. We have these breed events here. Most breeds have got one where you just go out with a hundred other corgis and go to a huge park or countryside. So he went out a lot on those. I think he got into a little scrap with one of the boys at one point. They were from the same kennel and Bonbon quite liked this bitch. [Laughs] And, of course, all the animals have not been neutered, even Bonbon hasn't been neutered. The male stud for this other bitch hadn't been neutered. It was like, "Keep away from my woman." [Laughs] So we did have little snapping the teeth at one point when everybody got a bit overexcited, but dogs do that. We're used to that sort of stuff.
How did the actors take to Bonbon? It sounds like you had to train them a bit, too?
Oh, yeah. Especially Hunter, because obviously she was the dog trainer, so we had to give some idea about how to start basic dog training…. [The actors] adored him. And he is really good with people. He loves to be with people. Jordan absolutely loved him. And Jordan would play with him. And he used to get Bonbon so excited, Bonbon would do the zoomies. Jordan would turn him into a puppy dog and he'd do all the getting down and doing the play bows with Jordan and then suddenly he'd run. And he'd just zoom around and around Jordan. They had a great relationship. And the nice thing about it, it really did look as if Jordan owned him. There was nothing that you think, "Oh, this dog's a bit distracted by this actor." They were best buddies, absolute best buddies, by the end of it. He'd do anything for Jordan.
This is a bit of an indelicate question, but I'm wondering: Were there any poop emergencies on the set?
No, because we all walk around with poop bags, so it's no problem.
Was there anything that you wanted Bonbon to do in this movie, but it just didn't work out?
Not with Bonbon. There was with two of the other dogs. I think the director [Clare Niederpruem] was being a bit ambitious with two untrained dogs, and I just said to her, "Look, this is not going to work." I mean, it was quite ambitious for two dogs that hadn't had any training. [Laughs] I mean, they were great. [But] I said, "Mmm, this is a bit difficult for the dog to understand," because everything was often on a wide. You can't do things with dogs all the time and get it 100 percent. But it's much better if you can offer them a solution.
What was that scene?
It was some sort of Christmas dinner for the staff. It was a room where there was a very low, large table absolutely covered in food. And this was real food. And they wanted the dogs to go and sit either side of the Queen. She had a big chair — a bit throne-like — and they wanted them to go and sit on either side and not touch the food. [Laughs] There was just no way, because the food literally was at their height. I said, "Even Bonbon would have a problem with that." Especially when they had a whole mountain of pork pies. That was the first thing that would've been nose height for the corgis. So there's an absence of corgis anywhere near the table in that [final] shot. They are in the shot, but they're not sitting looking at this food.
What is the best trick that Bonbon can do but he didn't get to show off in this movie?
Oh, he is so funny. And the owner had only just taught him this. It seems to be one of the tricks everybody wants their dog to do at the moment in the U.K., which is to go, "Bang bang," and the dog falls down dead. And Bonbon loves this! And of course he did it absolutely perfectly. One of my trainers was taking him around and getting all the actors to say, "Bang!," and then he'd fall over on his side. The only thing was he loved doing it so much, he'd forgotten that he had to stay completely still. He'd keep still, but then his tail would twitch. [Laughs] "Look at me! I'm so clever! I can do it!"
Why are people obsessed with corgis? There's the royal angle with Queen Elizabeth's corgis, but what is it about this breed that captures people's delight?
The funny thing is, corgis are much more liked in the States than they are here. We don't have a lot of corgis coming through. But as far as I can see in the States, they just love them.
What is Bonbon's ultimate career goal? Does he want to audition for The Crown and be one of the Queen's corgis?
I think he could do any of that, you know? Because I run this agency, I've always provided a lot of things for the Queen's Jubilee. There's always adverts around it; we've always used corgis for that. And because there aren't so many well-trained corgis around, it's difficult. I mean, they're all right if you give them simple things to do, but they're not very good at going off and acting by themselves, which Bonbon can do.
Is there a corgi whom he's modeling his career after?
I think he is the top corgi. I mean, I've never ever seen a corgi that has learned so much as him so quickly. He's absolutely brilliant. Mainly I use the dogs for adverts, so there's a much smaller part for them. But incredible what he learnt in such a small amount of time — and managed to get through all the rewrites and everything else.
Do we know what's next for Bonbon or is he just waiting for the buzz to build off this movie?
Well, I think that's probably what will happen. There was some talk there was going to be a sequel. I suppose it depends on how this movie does. He has a passport so he can come to the States and work over there!