WITH credits including Game Of Thrones, Harry Potter and 101 Dalma- tians, Julie Tottman is one of the world’s leading movie animal trainers.
And her career is all down to a Yorkshire terrier rescued from a cruel puppy farm.
Julie, 49, has now written a book, Will You Take Me Home? about rescue dog Pickles, who she taught to star in 2003 teen comedy movie What A Girl Wants.
And it was Pickles’ triumph over adversity that made Julie determined to use rescue animals as her career took off. What A Girl Wants was Julie’s first gig in charge of training company Birds & Animals UK — and she had to get it right.
In her book, she recalls: “I’d worked for Hollywood trainer Gary Gero for the past few years, but now I was striking out on my own. It was a chance to prove myself.”
What A Girl Wants tells the story of a rebellious American girl, played by Amanda Bynes, who discovers her long-lost dad is an aristocratic British politician, played by Colin Firth. A Yorkshire terrier was needed as the lapdog of Princess Charlotte, played by Sylvia Syms.
Passionate about animal welfare, Julie ideally wanted to use a rescue dog. She explains: “My first dog as a child had been a rescue and I wanted to continue that legacy.
“I’ve always tried to use rescue dogs in films because every animal deserves a second chance. These animals are on the scrapheap after years of cruelty and neglect, and I know I can give them the lovely life they so desperately deserve.”
But with less than four months to find a dog and prepare it for the film, Julie was unsure she would be able to use a rescue. Then she stumbled across a news report of a puppy-farm raid in Swansea — and learned one of the rescued dogs was a Yorkie.
Tragically, the rescued dogs had been kept in horrendous conditions — crammed into pens and surrounded by their own filth. Puppy farmers exploit female dogs for profit — regardless of the toll on their health. Julie says: “The Kennel Club recommends dogs only have up to four litters in their lifetime and most vets advise resting the mothers between cycles.
“But on puppy farms the dogs are bred every time they are in season — every six months — and the only limit to how many litters they have is how many they can produce before they drop dead.”
Even though she knew the puppy farm Yorkie was sure to be sick and weak, Julie raced to the rehoming centre in Wales that had taken in the rescued dogs. She recalls: “There was something about the timing of this that made me determined to check out this dog. I knew she might have health and behavioural issues, but my gut instinct told me it was meant to be.
“A good dog for a film set has loads of energy, a bold nature and a good appetite. As long as they are friendly and outgoing, it is OK. In the past I had found these attributes in the most unlikely of places. Rescue dogs, especially, can have an extraordinary desire to please.”
Sure enough, when Julie came face to face with the little terrier, it was love at first sight — and she decided on the spot that she would be taking her home. Although the dog had clearly been badly abused — her little body was covered in mange, her matted hair was falling out and her sagging belly showed she had been bred and bred — she showed no fear.
Julie says: “She wagged her tail tentatively. Carefully, I reached behind her ears and gave her a gentle stroke. Her gaze never faltered, even though her weak little body trembled. I knew immediately she was special.”
Over the next month Julie nursed her new charge — who she christened Pickles — back to health from ear, skin and stomach infections. Julie still had no idea if Pickles would get well in time or if she would be able to train her for the movie. But as she lavished the pup with love and attention, a special bond was formed.
She says: “It broke my heart how Pickles responded to the smallest acts of kindness. She would look up at me like I was her whole world.” Within weeks the little dog was ready to start training — and to Julie’s amazement the pup picked up the tricks she was teaching her in record time.
She says: “It was mindblowing. What she learned in a week would usually take me a month to teach another dog.” In the next eight weeks Pickles learned everything she would need for the movie.
But her progress was almost derailed when she was attacked by a rogue Rottweiler while out on a walk just a fortnight before filming started. Julie writes: “I couldn’t believe that within a moment all our months of hard work could potentially be undone.”
Pickles was rushed to the vet’s and thankfully no serious damage had been done. She needed her confidence rebuilding, though, and it was touch and go whether she would make it in time for the film. But Julie says: “I had to put faith in her . . . and she never let me down.”
On the film set, Pickles was a star — pulling off her tricks with ease. In her first scene, set at the Queen’s garden party, she had to run through a crowd then sit up and beg in front of actress Amanda. She nailed it in one.
Julie says: “I just burst into tears. It was hard to believe she was the same dog I had brought home three and a half months ago. You would think she had done ten film jobs before. I really thought my heart might burst with pride.”
Pickles went on to star in adverts and other movies — including 2006’s Amazing Grace, about anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd).
Julie became head animal trainer on a range of Hollywood block- busters — including the 2015 Bond film Spectre, for which she trained villainous Blofeld’s white cat — and TV shows including award-winning 2019 drama series Chernobyl, training the infected dogs seen roaming the nuclear disaster zone.
Julie, who lives in Tring, Herts, with partner Glenn, 50, a pub landlord, and ten-year-old son Luca, works mainly at Pinewood Studios in Bucks, and Surrey’s Shepperton studios, and as well as dogs she has trained cats, horses, pigs, goats, owls — and even rats.
She says: “Pickles inspired me to keep my faith with rescue animals and proved that no matter how hard a start in life, with the right amount of love some dogs can do anything.”
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