Best in Show

Picking through a pack for dogs with star potential at an open casting call

The nearly wall-sized baby-blue screen standing in the center of the room is shaking and bumping as if it were being manhandled by some club-footed poltergeist; likewise the fold-out chair I had stationed in what I thought was an unobtrusive corner of this smallish kennel in the biggish PetSafe Village complex, a store/grooming center/day-care/playground for four-legged friends, just off Lovell Road.

The former event is actually being caused by Henley, a large but amiable golden-brown hound dog who seems to prefer poking around to having his picture taken. The latter incident—my quaking chair—is attributable to Devon, a small and impish 3-year-old who earns a pass for her mischief by trading on her irresistible cherub's smile. They're very much alike, Henley and Devon, both of them adorable, curious, sweet-natured—and relentlessly, incurably fidgety.

And both are currently under the watchful, though forgiving, eyes of Devon's parents, Greg and Carol Tresan, proprietors of Atlanta Dogworks Animal Talent and Wrangling, an animal talent scouting agency for TV, print, and film. Today they've trekked all the way to Knoxville, home of the PetSafe headquarters, looking for furry faces to put on the front of PetSafe packaging.

"We're looking for animals that are trained, reliable, and good with kids," says Carol, a slim brunette in her mid-30s. When the couple is scouting, Carol is the director and emcee—pointing, pacifying, cajoling pets and owners alike with sweet talk and doggie treats while Greg sits and shoots, the calm in the eye of the storm.

"And when we're looking for animals for product ads," she continues, "it's preferable that they be smooth-coated, so you can see the collar."

"Color is important, too, because black dogs tend to turn into big shadows on film," adds Greg, a bespectacled, athletic 40-ish fellow with a soul patch and grey-streaked black hair. "And we generally prefer happy-looking dogs."

On this humid afternoon, the couple sees more than 50 dogs of various sorts: There's an ominous-looking but ultimately friendly German shepherd, Arco, its coat black as coal, save for a few tiny glimmers of gold; a handsome pit bull named Noah; Cameo and Carmen, precious and perfectly behaved twin Shelton sheep dogs; and a sweet, sad-eyed little mutt named Lucky.

Now healthy and well-cared-for, Lucky was rescued from the side of the highway, lame and underfed, says his owner, a plump, pleasant woman in her late 40s. "He was in bad shape at first; I'll never forget the first time he actually peed on the tree he was aiming at," she remembers.

A veteran dog trainer, Greg says he happened into show business around 20 years ago as a result of his owning a talented Australian shepherd named Jumpin' Jess, one of the best Frisbee dogs of its time. Greg and Jess traveled the world over, competing, appearing in TV commercials and print ads, even performing at the half-time of a Super Bowl. From training his own pets for commercial appearances, Greg soon graduated to scouting other talent.

Today, the Tresans have more than 2,000 dogs in their database, as well 11 of their own. Recent high-profile projects for which they have scouted include a DirectTV ad with football's Manning brothers, and a NASCAR commercial with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his no. 88 Impala.

The people who parade their pets in front of the camera this afternoon seem like sensible folks—animal lovers who have decided, on a lark, to give their babies a shot at stardom. "Most of the people we see are really nice," says Greg. "And all of them really care about their dogs, more than anything."

Still, Carol says you can always spot a few stage-parents in the making, fussing and nagging and dithering, hands clasped expectantly—Mrs. Spears prodding little Britney at her Mouseketeers audition. "We get a few of those types all the time," she tells me. "You missed the Great Dane Lady earlier today."

"We did a casting call for basset hounds once that was pretty memorable," relates Greg. He's patiently pausing from his photographic duties to rein in his own little charge, Devon, who has thoughtfully chosen to tether the folding chair to a window with a roll of blue ribbon and tape.

"This one woman came in, going on and on about her dog; he had won the Biggest Paws contest in Georgia, and he could eat a biscuit and take a poo at the same time," he continues. "These people volunteer this stuff, like this is something we want."

Chair and window are rescued, but Devon escapes. "Eating a biscuit and taking a poo simultaneously," Greg chuckles. "Yeah, let me tell you, we get calls for that one all the time."