BENJI: OFF THE LEASH!
A new generation of Benji fans will delight in
this uplifting tail – err, tale – of an unwanted mutt on a mission to free his
mom from a backyard puppy mill while easily outwitting a pair of bungling dog
catchers hot on his trail. This time around, Benji is befriended by Shaggy, a
goofy canine sidekick who’s a magnet for trouble. And like the original Benji,
these dogs can relate to the abandoned characters they portray; series creator
Joe Camp found the two lead dogs after conducting a nationwide search in
countless animal shelters, and both dogs are now personal pets of the Camp
American Humane’s Role
American Humane’s Film & Television Unit monitored this film. Because BENJI:
OFF THE LEASH! is a Screen Actors Guild production, the director/producer
was required to provide American Humane’s Certified Animal Safety
Representatives on-set access whenever animals were used. During pre-production
of the film, American Humane’s Film and TV Unit received a copy of the script
and the daily call sheets. American Humane’s Animal Safety Representatives
carefully reviewed the scripts to determine whether any scenes or situations
appeared to put animals at risk. Animal Safety Representatives then were on set
to ensure animals remained safe throughout production.
This film met the
Guidelines established by American Humane, received the
Monitored-Acceptable rating, and was awarded the “No Animals Were
Harmed”™ End Credit Disclaimer.
Featured Animal Scenes
In an opening scene, five puppies nurse at their mother, Daisy. When Hatchett
(Kendrick) discovers that the fair haired pup hasn’t been “removed,” he snatches
it up and throws it across the floor. To simulate nursing, trainers enticed the
pups with baby food applied to Daisy’s belly and to a piece of black tape on the
floor. Hatchett actually tossed a stuffed toy across the room.
A toy poodle named Be-Be plays the part of baby Benji. Because of the dog’s
young age, the production took significant safety and handling precautions.
Whenever a scene called for Colby (Whitaker) to hold the pup, a trainer handed
it to him and took it back between takes. For added protection, two dog trainers
and a vet were on set at all times. All the puppy “actors” received their
initial vaccinations prior to filming; dog handlers could only touch or pet the
puppies after first sanitizing their hands; and puppies worked a maximum of 30
minutes at a time.
“Shaggy” makes his appearance when a man pulls over on a dirt road, shoves the
dog from the car, and drives away. For this scene, the trainer placed Shaggy in
the front seat next to the stunt driver, who reached over and gently pushed the
dog from the car. Director Joe Camp lay on the ground next to the camera and
called Shaggy to him. As soon as Shaggy was safely secured, a grip closed the
door and the car drove off.
In another scene, Shaggy watches some grazing cows when an animal control van
drives by and almost hits him. For this action, the van passed by after Shaggy
safely crossed the road and met his trainer, and the nine Holstein cows were
tethered to the ground or tied to fence posts with rope halters. The dog never
came in close contact with them.
The action continues when Shaggy escapes to the cow pasture with dog catchers
Sheldon and Livingston in hot pursuit. One cow turns to look at Sheldon and
proceeds to kick him in the rear end. To make the cow look at Sheldon, a
wrangler physically turned the cow’s head, and a fake cow leg was used to kick
the actor. For this scene, the camera shot low and level with the cows’ legs.
Three trainers formed a triangle and took turns calling Shaggy to them so it
looked like the dog ran between the Holsteins. Shaggy’s run was actually far
enough away from the cows that there was no chance of contact.
Sheldon and Livingston pursue the dogs and fire a tranquilizer dart at
Shaggy. To execute this scene, a prop man fired the dart into a tree as soon as
Shaggy cleared the mark. The prop technician was instructed not to fire until
the dog had cleared the tree, and to abort if he slowed down or stopped for any
The chase continues and Benji pushes Shaggy over the edge of a ravine to escape.
Both dogs fly through the air and land in the water below. Production used two
stuffies for the canines’ freefall, and Camp stood in a condor basket hovering
about two feet over the stream to drop Benji and Shaggy into the water. The dogs
then swam to the bank and walked out. A stunt coordinator was positioned to
assist the dogs if they had any trouble in the water.
Toward the end of the film, Benji stands in the middle of a residential street
and the animal control van screeches to a halt directly in front of him. Though
it may appear the van comes harrowingly close to hitting Benji, the vehicle was
actually stationary the entire time. Crew members jumped off the back of the van
to make it look as if it had just stopped, and a trainer placed Benji on mark
and cued him to look, bark, shake his head, and sneeze.
In one scene, Livingston and Sheldon throw a net over Benji as he leaves Finch’s
home. This action was done in two shots. First, the director tossed a
lightweight net over Benji, who had been placed in a stand-stay position by his
trainer. For the second shot, Benji has the net over him and the two actors take
the net off, leaving Sheldon to scoop up Benji and walk away.
Merlin the Cockatoo
During the scenes at Colby’s fort, a handler placed Merlin on his perch and
rewarded him with frequent treats and water for his actions. Crew members
standing outside the fort moved cans and ropes to elicit looks from the bird,
and two off-camera trainers made funny sounds and movements to make the cockatoo
bob around and squawk. Trainers gave Merlin fruit or nuts to chew on for shots
when the script required the bird to speak.
As an added precaution during shots of Merlin in flight, furniture pads were
placed on boxes to provide a large soft landing area. When Benji and Merlin
appear together in the window sill, an unseen trainer held Benji to ensure that
the bird and dog didn’t get too close for comfort.