His latest trainees steal the stage in the Wizard of Oz but Ballan animal trainer Luke Hura has trained some of the biggest (animal) names of the Australian showbiz industry, reports MICHELLE SMITH
Luke Hura has a list of showbiz credits most actors would dream of, having worked on many of Australia’s best-loved film, television and stage shows over the past 35 years, but his face is virtually unknown.
Instead it’s his animal actors that get the stage and screen time while Mr Hura stays out of shot or in the wings.
The showbiz veteran’s current stars are a pair of adorable Australian terriers, Flick and Trouble, who share the role of Toto in The Wizard of Oz at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.
With one of the dogs on stage for most of the show, it’s a role that is incredibly consuming for dogs and trainer; in fact Mr Hura says it’s one of the most challenging roles he’s had.
“It’s every night, six days a week and probably one of the toughest gigs I’ve ever had. There are certain things the dog has to do and if they don’t do it it could muck up the entire show,” he said.
“I’ve got 100 per cent confidence in them and they’ve got 100 per cent confidence in me.”
Trouble is the “action” dog of the duo while Flick is a little more reserved. Flick is on stage for a 20 minute scene while Dorothy gathers her offsiders along the yellow brick road, and Trouble does the rest of the show.
“She sits up there and watches Dorothy go through her routine, and Trouble does all the action stuff running on and off stage,” Mr Hura said.
“Flick is learning more as we go along but she’s not like Trouble, who is a fearless dog who goes out there, loves it and doesn’t mind anything at all.
Most would assume the dogs are highly obedience trained and taught their roles, but Mr Hura prefers to let the animals work it out themselves.
“I got them last September and they had no training. We did three weeks of basic training then Samantha (Dodemaide, who plays Dorothy in the production) came down and we took the dogs for a walk around Lake Wendouree so they could all get to know each other,” Mr Hura said.
After those first three weeks Mr Hura took Flick and Trouble to Sydney for rehearsals with the cast where they fine-tuned exactly what the dogs needed to do and where he realised the immensity of the role.
“It was the first time I realised how massive the show was, and all the loud elements like the explosions,” he said.
A further 10 days of rehearsals in Brisbane including full dress rehearsals saw the entire human and canine cast ready for opening night.
“Most people think you have to train them to be obedient, but I let them try to develop a character,” Mr Hura said.
“Trouble has developed his own little ways of doing things, and he does it exactly the same each time.
“When he’s on the bed with Dorothy he lies there and looks like he’s asleep, then at a certain time he gets up and always has a shake, which I didn’t teach him.
“He acts the part out exactly the same every night. It’s amazing how he’s developed his own thing – that’s what I class as the magic of letting the dog use its head to develop its own character.”
For each of the eight weekly performances, Mr Hura is in the wings on one side of the stage or the other.
“I’m always there to get them when they come off and always to send them on.”
Flick and Trouble are the latest in a long line of animal stars that Mr Hura has owned or trained.
The dog pack sharing his Ballan home includes Buddy, who appeared on stage as Sandy in the musical Annie, and the two maremma dogs who shared the role of penguin guardian Oddball in Oddball – The Movie, which was filmed in Warrnambool. He also trained Koko, aka Red Dog, and various other performing pooches including Bouncer from Neighbours from 1987 to 1993.
Many actors would love to have Mr Hura’s list of animal credits, which stretch back to Prisoner and Sons and Daughters through to A Country Practice, Halifax FP, Sea Change, Blue Heelers, McLeod’s Daughters, City Homicide, Rush, Upper Middle Bogan, Paws, Ned Kelly, Rogue, Rove Live, The Flying Doctors, Dingo, Thunderstone, The Saddle Club, Kath & Kim and more.
Mr Hura has well over 1000 credits to his name, and that of his menagerie across films, television series, telemovies and TV commercials.
But it’s not just dogs that Mr Hura can coach to stardom.
“I’ve had a lot of other animals; pigs, cats, rats, chooks and others. I love working with domestic farm animals, they are far more intelligent that people give credit.
“People say to me animals are dumb … but training-wise they learn incredibly quickly.”
Apart from dogs, who Mr Hura concedes are probably easiest to train, he says chickens, cows and pigs are all highly intelligent.
“It’s all about body language – every movement you make creates a different movement for an animals and you capitalise on that by giving them a reward.
“I once had a Fresian cow that the farmer said he didn’t think I’d be able to train to do what was required, but with two hours work over two days it was trained to walk up a ramp, go back down, and turn a full circle on the spot. The farmer couldn’t believe it!”
“You don’t have to spend a lot of time, but if you connect with them in their mind you can do quite a lot with them. You’ve got to have a connection with them before you do anything.”
When a director requests an action Mr Hura has not trained an animal in previously, he sits quietly and contemplates the behaviour.
“What I do a lot of the time with training is to go in to my little room, sit there and mediate how I can achieve this in a really good way. The ideas just come to me … I don’t hear voices or see visions but the ideas come to me.”
Mr Hura believes training animals for stage and screen was his destiny.
“I started off just training dogs at dog obedience as a hobby, then started training dogs for other people as a professional, and after training hundreds of dogs I got the opportunity to do a TV commercial and once I’d done that I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
“I made a commitment, put it out there and followed through and it’s slowly but surely built up to where it is now.”
Until the start of last year Mr Hura was training and managing filming on his own, but his son and daughter are now working with him and he’s recently added another arm to the business with the establishment of an animal casting agency.
“We did a lot of Plush Furniture ads and cast probably 40 or 50 dogs for those jobs over three or four years so we decided to start a casting agency,” he said.
And he’s also looking at the possibility of doing his own television series. One thing he is certain of is that his dogs, particularly Trouble, will be in demand for future roles.
“He will get a lot of film work and do a lot of different shows because he’s such a beautifully-natured dog. I’ve already had him on another TV show which will come out later this year. He’s that type of dog that people just fall in love with.”