Debi Pool crawled, then squatted, then leapt in the air.
She waved a squeaky toy in one hand, while stepping on a plastic duck that emitted a guttural honk.
She clicked and chirped, whistled and chanted “Puppy, puppy, puppy!”
In minutes, she’d worked up a sweat, but she got what she wanted: the attention of a pair of curious German shepherd littermates.
“Anything for a shot,” she said.
Pool, of Independence, is a cross between Jerry McGuire and Dr. Doolittle. Through her company, Animal Talent Pool, she provides animals that appear in print ads, broadcast commercials and movies created by Minnesota production houses and ad agencies.
Among Twin Cities talent agencies, Pool’s is unique. While most have photos of a few dozen pets among their head shots, Animal Talent Pool is the only local agency that works exclusively with animals. At any given time, she has access to as many as 500 animals for directors to choose from.
Dogs make up 80 percent of the animals in her “look book,” but Pool has rounded up a range of creatures — llamas, groundhogs, goats, reindeer, honeybees, even a pink-painted pony.
Pool does more than just line up work for cute critters — she also goes to the photo shoots to help coax the right performance from them.
“I’ve learned how to read animals pretty well,” she said. “Everyone I work with knows that the animals come first. By now, I can usually tell when they’re getting tired or stressed or bored or just need a break.”
Raised on a family farm in central Minnesota, Pool grew up taking care of animals. She now lives in western Hennepin County with a menagerie that includes two dogs, two horses and a cat.
She began her unusual career in the 1980s when she worked as studio manager for award-winning photographer and commercial director Rick Dublin, who specializes in creating ads with animals.
“We ended up with some odd requests, but Debi was very persistent, very down-to-Earth,” Dublin said. “She puts the animals and the animal owners at ease; she doesn’t get caught up in the showbiz arrogance like some people do.”
Since starting her own agency more than two decades ago, Pool has provided hundreds of animals for print and broadcast ads for local and national clients such as Target, General Mills, MNsure, Slumberland, Cenex, Kemps, Bissell and the YMCA. While she’s the face of her business, her two adult daughters help her with casting and booking.
“Debi works her magic; we call her all the time,” said Shannon Bickel, director of marketing for Carlson Pet Products, a Burnsville-based company that manufactures and markets pet gates, beds and crates.
“She gets us that split-second when the dogs make eye contact with the camera.”
Most times, Bickel is looking for a calm, older dog that arrives with its owner, who has trained it to sit or lie down on or in front of one of the products her company sells.
But for a recent photo shoot, Bickel needed puppies for photos of a collapsible pet play yard. The images would be used in the product’s packaging, ads and on the Carlson Pets website.
So, Pool contacted one of her sources, the rescue organization Saving Shepherds of MN, and arranged to have two volunteers schlep a half-dozen puppies awaiting adoption to the photo session, which was staged in a model home.
Once the squirming pack of puppies arrived, she corralled them into a crate off the kitchen set. Then, she selected two puppies at a time and placed them inside the play yard and began to shake, rattle and call to get their attention.
While the photographer was clicking off shots, Pool kept her practiced eye on the 11-week-olds so she could switch them out as they went from frolicking to flopping.
“Puppies poop out in a hurry,” explained Pool. “They’re rambunctious and then, boom, they’re sleepy.”
Puppies, not props
While it’s the animals that get the spotlight, Pool has had to develop solid working relationships with their owners — from farmers to snake handlers to pet owners eager to promote their dogs and cats.
“The people have to be flexible,” she said. “The call might come up with little notice.” And working on a photo shoot “can be a long day with a lot of waiting.”
One of Pool’s go-to sources is Laurie Hanson, a former dog groomer who has built an impressive portfolio of her canine models.
Karma, Hanson’s four-year-old golden retriever and current star, has perfected what Hanson calls “the look.”
“I’ve trained her to sit and stay and make eye contact with the camera, with her tongue hanging out and her ears perked up,” said Hanson, 54, of Ramsey. “You swear she’s smiling.”
Animal Talent Pool has booked Karma for ads that have appeared in Target Sunday circulars, a Kohl’s Christmas catalog and on the Fingerhut website. She’s also been featured on the package for Wild Harvest dog treats, a 3M air filter and the My Pillow pet bed.
Photogenic and obedient, Karma is in high demand, but she’s not exactly making her owner rich. Karma, like most pets that Pool casts, earns $50 an hour with a two-hour minimum for posing for print ads. The rate is slightly higher for video commercials or when a pet is required to perform special tricks.
“It’s a unique hobby. I do it for the fun, not the money,” said Hanson, who calculates that the assignments that Pool finds for her add up to $1,500 most years.
Pool admits that animal models aren’t paid as well as their human counterparts, something that sticks in her craw.
“I don’t think it’s right, but animals aren’t like human models, they don’t get residuals,” she said. “The industry looks on them like they’re props or property.”
Pool doesn’t, of course. And that may be why she’s as busy as she is.
“We sell things for pets but that doesn’t mean we know how to work with them,” Bickel said. “She has all the options and we know all the animals she brings us are well taken care of.”
Pool chalks up her longevity as an agent to her genuine love of animals, her ability to embrace their unpredictability and her willingness to get down and dirty with them. (Cleaning up after her clients is part of the job.)
“There will always be work for animals; they catch your eye in an ad,” Pool said. “It’s hard work but I have a great career. Every day is different when you work with animals.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.