Sunday, April 24, 2011

Relishing the Part of a Dog’s Best Friend

Isabella Rossellini with Bau

For young Bau, there is a lot to learn yet. For instance, that it’s not a good idea to walk your human full speed into a lamppost. Especially when your human has a money face. When she is, say, Isabella Rossellini.Ms. Rossellini is, of course, an actress of some renown, but during a recent stroll in Midtown Manhattan, she wasn’t acting, she was training. Bau, the trainee, is a 6-month-old black Lab who, if he proves to be a good learner and have the right personality, will some day be a guide dog for a blind person.

“I do like a lot of animals, but dogs are so close to us,” Ms. Rossellini said during the stroll down Eighth Avenue with Bau. “No; leave it.” That last phrase was directed at Bau, who was eyeballing a pigeon that was pecking at someone’s trash on the sidewalk. Any other puppy would see an opportunity for fun; Bau was learning that there is no pigeon chasing while on the job.

Ms. Rossellini is a “puppy walker,” someone who will spend a year with a young dog teaching rudimentary skills and habituating the animal to crowds, bright lights, cats and, yes, pigeons. If Bau shows promise in that year, he will be turned over to another trainer to gain the specialized knowledge needed by a guide dog. The dogs, Ms. Rossellini said, can learn 200 commands.

Ms. Rossellini also walks a four-legged trainee around town in “Animals Distract Me,” an hourlong documentary she made for the cable channel Planet Green that is having its premiere on Saturday. In the film, that dog, Sweety, drops in on some of Ms. Rossellini’s famous friends, like the chef Mario Batali, and Ms. Rossellini gets a chance to expound not just on guide dog training but also on her broader concern for animals, cruelty-free menu choices and other subjects.

Ms. Rossellini’s acting résumé is certainly eclectic: highlights include David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” in 1986 and “Wild at Heart” in 1990, the foodie favorite “Big Night” in 1996 and a recurring role on the ABC series “Alias.” But for real eclecticism, you need to see her work as a filmmaker. In one especially ridiculous scene in “Animals Distract Me,” Ms. Rossellini and André Leon Talley, the fashion editor, begin talking gibberish to illustrate how Sweety perceives their conversation.

Two series of very short films that Ms. Rossellini made for the Sundance Channel, “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me,” about the sex lives of spiders, dolphins and assorted other creatures, border on the bizarre. They are droll and informational at the same time and, like some vignettes in “Animals Distract Me,” feature Ms. Rossellini in an array of outlandish costumes. For instance, the whale suit she dons to show the male half of that species in midreproduction leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of the animal’s appendages. Ms. Rossellini may have a highbrow pedigree — her father was the director Roberto Rossellini, her mother Ingrid Bergman — but she has a wicked, winking sense of humor.

“She always has a point of view about the world that is a little off center,” said Laura Michalchyshyn, president of Planet Green, part of Discovery’s group of channels.

In the new film “she’s making a big statement about how humans and our interactions influence the world, but she doesn’t do it with straight finger-pointing, she does it with humor,” added Ms. Michalchyshyn, who first worked with Ms Rossellini when she was an executive at the Sundance Channel. “She doesn’t take herself so seriously that she can’t talk dog-talk with André Leon Talley or can’t dress up as a cabbage.”

She is serious, though, about the work she does for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island. Bau — the name is from the Italian equivalent of the sound of a dog’s bark, as in bow-wow — is the eighth dog she has trained. She also sometimes acts as a midwife to pregnant dogs being used by the foundation; she takes them into her home in the Long Island town of Bellport and oversees the birth and the first five weeks of the puppies’ lives.

“Mostly they are Labs or golden retrievers,” Ms. Rossellini said, though efforts are being made to turn poodles into guide dogs because some people who are allergic to other breeds aren’t allergic to them. Another trend comes from war: “Now they’re breeding very big dogs that act like walking sticks” for veterans with head injuries that leave them with impaired balance, she said.

On the stroll through Midtown, at 40th and Eighth, Bau was a bit distracted by a food cart. Crosswalks were still a problem. And so were obstacles like trash cans and lampposts.

“The dog is always calculating so he doesn’t walk you into a pole,” Ms. Rossellini said, referring to fully trained dogs, not to Bau. She then demonstrated his need for work in this area by letting him walk near a lamppost. Sure enough, Bau — the dog is always on the human’s left side, by the way — didn’t have the calculation thing down yet; he left himself enough room to get past the pole, but Ms. Rossellini, had she been blind, would have clanged right into it.

An amble down a sidewalk, though, is only the simplest thing a guide dog is asked to do; any old mutt can probably manage that. But it takes a dog with a certain kind of personality, Ms. Rossellini said, to make the command decisions that are sometimes needed.

“The dog has to be obedient, but it has to be willing to overrule,” Ms. Rossellini said. For instance, a blind person going by sound may be ready to step off the curb to cross the street, but the dog needs to have the last word, in case a bicyclist or a super-quiet electric car is coming along.

“The puppies she raises for us are very well-adjusted dogs,” said Doug Wiggin, a field representative at the Smithtown foundation who has done the next level of training on some of Ms. Rossellini’s graduates. Especially useful, he said, is Ms. Rossellini’s fearlessness about taking the puppies to the city, into crowds and so on. “The puppies have quite a bit of exposure, which is great for our purposes,” he said.

The walk ended at Penn Station, a spot nicely suited to Ms. Rossellini’s needs. “All of this is fantastic for training: loudspeakers, crowds, that noise,” she said, as she prepared to disappear onto an ordinary commuter train with Bau for the trek to Long Island.

When she’s out and about with a trainee like this, who gets the most attention, the movie star or the dog?

“Probably the dog,” she said.