One recent afternoon, Nicole Garguilo, the Town of Smithtown spokeswoman, sang the national anthem in front of 100 or so residents at a grand opening for a park in Commack, then high-tailed it to the municipal animal shelter for a dog photo shoot.
Shelter staffers already use Pet of the Week media releases and candid photographs, posted on social media, to showcase the animals in their care, a roster that as of last week included 25 adult cats, 5 dogs and one budgie. Those photos might get dozens or thousands of shares but have not led to adoption for some of the hardest cases, which include several pit bulls and Rocky, a 12-year-old German shepherd whose human caretaker died of COVID-19. Garguilo’s idea was to "come up with a marketing strategy that would go viral on social media, to try to expand the audience of people who usually see the animals," she said.
The hook was dogs in famous movies, a theme so viral it returns 279 million hits on Google, and on this day Garguilo prepared to re-create two scenes, one from Rin Tin Tin — the character anchored many movies and a television series — and another from "Lady and the Tramp."
Rin Tin Tin was an outdoor shoot in the shelter’s dog run with Rocky and Denise Vibal, an animal control officer whose uniform recalled the scouting outfit worn by the movie’s human star.
Rocky is "severely arthritic, he’s a little senile and he’s a bit deaf," said Leigh Wixson, shelter director. "He gets into the herding thing, so he’ll nip your butt if you go to leave." On the other hand, he’s "a very affectionate, very sweet, happy boy," she said.
Vibal crouched next to Rocky and Garguilo started shooting pictures.
"You’re going to hug him, if you can get him to sit down," Garguilo said to Vibal. Vibal needed some cues about how to hold her head, but Rocky, who seemed thrilled to be hugged, needed none, and his fur held the luster of the afternoon sun. "Really cute!" said Garguilo. "Perfect!"
Garguilo moved into the shelter’s meet-and-greet room, where she threw a checkered cloth onto a coffee table and arranged a plate of rope and rawhide and red squeak toys for a "Lady and the Tramp" spaghetti slurping scene starring Betty Boop, a pit bull mix.
Wixson had said earlier that most people were interested in "a Stepford dog, perfect and trained and cute, and they forget that sometimes these dogs have been failed in the past and have little quirks that need to be worked with."
Betty is arthritic and aggressive toward other animals, Wixson said, but in the role of Lady, nudged into character by peanut butter spread over the rawhide, she was captivating. Her tail thumped against the wall and in her enthusiasm she began to lick the tablecloth.
Wixson and Garguilo took turns as the Tramp, and after a few minutes Garguilo said, "I think we’ve got it."
She planned at least two more shoots, one riffing on "Turner & Hooch" and one on an "Anchorman" scene where the protagonist and his dog share a bed wearing matching pajamas.
Dog pajamas, even pajamas specially built for the pit bull physique, are easily procurable over the internet, and she’d bought a set.
"It’s a thing," she said.
Dogs at the Smithtown Animal Shelter hope to make themselves more adoptable by playing pooches from famous movies, including:
"Turner and Hooch," Blaze, pit bull mix
"Lady and the Tramp," Betty Boop, pit bull mix
"Anchorman ," Baxter, pit bull mix
"Rin Tin Tin," Rocky, German shepherd
"Flashdance," Mia, pit bull mix
Source: Nicole Garguilo, Town of Smithtown spokeswoman