HE was an unlikely movie star – a larger than life rescue dog whose owner abandoned him, claiming he was too aggressive.
But top animal trainer Julie Tottman spotted star quality in Neopolitan Mastiff Monkey – who went on to sprinkle some animal magic on the Harry Potter films.
Julie, 50, who’s credits include Game Of Thrones, 101 Dalmatians and several James Bond films, has written a book about how she turned starving, unruly Monkey into the dog who played Fang in the famous movie franchise.
She says: “I had an instant connection with him. When I found him he was desperately malnourished, and desperate for love and attention. I had no idea if that would make him a good dog for the movie but I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist trying!”
As Harry Potter’s head animal trainer, Julie trained over 250 animals for the movie franchise between 2000 and 2011 – from owls to cats and even spiders.
One of the key animal characters is Fang, the dog belonging to gamekeeper Hagrid, played by Robbie Coltrane.
In the first three films the role was played by a Neopolitan Mastiff called Hugo, who memorably splattered presenter Fern Britton with drool during an appearance on This Morning.
But with just weeks to go before filming began on the fourth installment, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, the decision was taken that ageing Hugo needed to retire – leaving Julie with a big hole that needed urgently filling.
She recalled: “I knew it would be a big challenge to replace him in such a short time frame. Neapolitan Mastiffs are a rare breed and they can be quite tricky to work with. TIme was not on our side.”
Devoted to animal welfare, Julie always tries to use rescue animals where she can – so started by ringing round dog rescue charities.
She explained: “I always tried to cast rescue animals for movies because there are so many deserving animals languishing in shelters who are desperate for a new life.
“It breaks my heart to think of the cruelty and neglect humans can inflict on animals, but no matter what horrors a creature has endured, a bit of kindness and some careful training can turn them into stars.
“The world writes them off, but I knew from experience that rescues are often the hardest working, most loyal and loving animals.”
After hitting several dead ends, Julie finally struck it lucky with a specialist mastiff rescue charity who had a Neopolitan Mastiff the same blue colour as Hugo.
But there was one problem – his previous owner had abandoned him claiming he was aggressive, which would hardly make him a good fit for a set full of child actors.
Julie decided the dog was worth checking out anyway. She explained: “Often owners say a dog is aggressive as an excuse to get rid of them. But nine times out of ten it’s because they weren’t prepared for how big the dog got or how expensive it is to feed them. People prefer to blame the dog than blame themselves.”
As soon as she set eyes on Monkey, then known as Hercules, Julie knew she was right to have trusted her gut.
Although full of energy and spirit, he was in a sorry state. She recalled: “He was incredibly skinny – little more than a bag of bones. A Neapolitan mastiff should have skin that hangs loose over the solid rock of their body, but this dog’s folds were like old rags draped around his bony frame. It broke my heart to see how he must have been starved and neglected by his former owners.”
What’s more, it was clear Hercules was soppy and affectionate – a far cry from the vicious beast his former owners had made him out to be.
She added: “He looked up at me with a look of such gentleness that I immediately knew that whatever I had heard about his aggressive side must have been wrong. I could tell this was a dog who just longed to be loved.”
Renaming him Monkey to suit his goofy, cheeky nature, Julie decided to take him home to Tring, Hertfordshire, on the spot.
She knew he needed feeding up, attention and something to put his energy into – so the film could be just what he needed.
But it was still a race against time to get him ready.
She said: “Usually, if I was starting from scratch with a new dog I’d want at least twelve weeks working with them before taking them on set, starting by simply building a relationship before moving on to simple commands and eventually the specific moves they’d need for the film. The Goblet of Fire started in less than half that time.”
In her book, Julie describes how Monkey went from class clown to a star turn who thrilled his young co-stars, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint.
But that’s not to say there weren’t a few mishaps along the way. On one occasion, Monkey launched himself at a priceless, anamatronic dragon – thinking it was a supersized dog toy and not a bespoke masterpiece that had taken the props department months to conceive.
And another scene saw him shower the whole set in drool – after shaking his massive head at just the wrong time.
Julie said: “He was a big, clumsy oaf of a dog who just had a knack for making you laugh.”
Monkey sadly died in 2013 after developing cancer, but he is immortalised in the Warner Brothers Studio Tour near Watford, where a video showing him being put through his paces by Julie is projected onto the wall.
She says: “His personality shines through the screen. Even though we had to say goodbye to him, I know he’ll live on for fans and people who remember him – and that for me is the real magic.”
- Copyright © Julie Tottman 2021, extracted from Rescue Me published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group at £9.99.
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