this friday the warner brothers/mgm film, max, is released, which follows a Belgian malinois who works as a military dog. When his handler is killed in action in Afghanistan, the dog, afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder from the loss of his handler, returns to the US to live with the soldier’s bereaved family. Together, Max and his handler’s younger brother try to pick up the pieces and heal themselves through a new friendship.
On the screen, you will see a seemingly damaged dog that must overcome aggression and severe stress. but playing that role is a group of five gentle Belgian Malinois. We sat down with the film’s dog trainer, Mark Forbes, to find out what went into preparing these dogs for their roles and what we can learn from this film.
tell us about the background of the dogs that played max. Have they been in movies before?
There were five dogs who played the part and none of them had film experience. some of them were trained in other activities, which is important because Belgian Malinois need a job to do. Carlos was the guide dog, we called him “the face”. he came from a southern breeder and had been competing in agility. pax came to us from salt lake city. he was actually a fully trained narcotics sniffer dog working for a private contractor. dude was the pet dog of one of the other trainers, and jagger and pilot came from breeders in new mexico and ohio, respectively.
How did you prepare them for the film?
An important aspect of training a dog that has never been on a movie set is to help him overcome the fear of a new situation. we take them to stores or a theme park, so when they’re on set, it’s just another busy new place for them. I always say that a big part of our job is to make it fun for the dogs. I can’t give them a bigger paycheck, so I make sure they enjoy doing whatever is required of them in the script.
There are some pretty intense dogfight scenes in the movie. how did you achieve that safely?
what you are seeing is nothing more than two puppies playing. pilot was used for most of the fight scenes. we purposely cast her for those scenes because she was a puppy, only 9-10 months old, so she had that play mentality. her fight scenes were of her playing with a young rottweiler. they would play all the time if we let them! then we added some growls and growls. you can do amazing things with sound effects and slow motion.
How did you prepare the actors to work with the dogs?
To get a relationship to show up on camera as a bond, you need a little time. This was important, especially with Josh, who plays the little boy in the movie. Sometimes the dogs will follow the trainer’s instructions off-camera, but there are a few scenes in the movie where Josh is working with the dog. For example, there’s a scene where Josh’s character is training Max, all of that was real.
josh wiggins working with one of the dogs who played max
What training tips do you have for the average pet owner?
It’s not rocket science. There is no substitute for time, so spend plenty of time with your dogs. and be consistent. dogs want to know what the rules are in the pack and get confused when the rules change. they really want to do what you want them to do. if you are clear about your expectations with very little gray area, that will cut down on training time quite a bit. we use treats on set for motivation because there are distractions, but you’ll find that a pat on the head means as much as the treat. Praise them even when you are teaching them not to do something. make it fun and positive.
What was it like working with a Belgian Malinois?
This was my first time working with a Belgian Malinois and while it’s a great breed, it’s not for everyone. they have an engine that never stops. there is a reason they use them for this type of work. they go all day and need challenging physical work. this is not your golden retriever that you can leave home all day and expect the house to be in one piece when you return if they are not doing a job on a regular basis. they are an amazing dog and breed. but they are intense and will not make a great pet for the average person. (Read more about that here.)
what is the conclusion of this movie?
There is redemption for everyone and everything. today’s “bad dog” doesn’t have to be a bad dog tomorrow. the dog in the movie was affected by circumstances and, with the help of humans and the handler who died abroad, he found his purpose again. he proves that with rehab and the right environment, anyone can come back.
the warner brothers/mgm stars josh wiggins, lauren graham, thomas haden church, robbie amell, luke kleintank and jay hernandez.
Watch the trailer below:
adapted from akc family dog article
images courtesy of warner brothers