‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ to star local canines

Wolf dogs will appear in new version of old favorite, now starring Nicolas Cage


Four area residents will make their screen debut in Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” due in theaters next July.

Above: Trainer Jackie Morgan and Mike Hodanish give treats to Hodanish's wolf dogs at his home in Jackson. Below: Hodanish plays with his dog, Kotori, who is part wolf. Above: Trainer Jackie Morgan and Mike Hodanish give treats to Hodanish’s wolf dogs at his home in Jackson. Below: Hodanish plays with his dog, Kotori, who is part wolf. Samson, Sierra, Bandit and Takota may have relatively small parts in the film, but star Nicolas Cage, director Jon Turteltaub and other cast members found them fascinating, according to Mike Hodanish. That is because they are wolf dogs, crosses between wolves and various dog breeds, primarily German shepherd, Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute.

Hodanish, the owner of HowlingWoods Farm, Jackson, is an environmental scientist who works for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Years ago, when he lived in Tucson, Ariz., he took in a stray that turned out to be a wolf cross, which started his interest in the animals. Today there are 13 wolf-crosses at Howling Woods, five of which are his personal pets.

The wolf dogs primarily come from shelters from all across the country, he said. They range from 50 to 97 percent wolf.

Jackie Morgan, the owner of The Canine Perspective, a dogtraining facility in Millstone Township, said that she read an article about Howling Woods Farm two years ago and eventually met Hodanish and his wolf dogs.

In January, he called to tell her about the interview his “wolves” had done for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” When they got the job, Morgan began helping him train the wolf dogs for the movie.

Morgan recalled that their first outing was for a Disney photo shoot in February.

“It was a very sunny but bitterly cold, long day,” Morgan said. “The canines loved it. We were frozen.”

Hundreds of photos were taken of them running, jumping and resting together in different locations on a North Jersey farm were the shoot was held.

“Spending that day with the pack, away from their home environment and in vast, open fields, gave me a lot of insight about their level of training at that point in time, and how they interacted with one another,” she said.

She said the wolves needed to be able to run, push through a door, jump a span of 9 feet from one platform to another, stand absolutely still from both a stagnant position and after running and then stopping abruptly. They also had to look mean and snarl.

Hodanish said the animals had to wear a snarling device because he and Morgan could not get them to act that part. The filming took place at Steiner Studios in the former Brooklyn Navy Yard in Brooklyn, N.Y.

According to Morgan, wolves and wolf dogs are extremely smart and trainable if the trainer not only understands what motivates them, but what causes them conflict. She said that pack status has a huge impact on what a wolf dog, especially a low-ranking one, will or will not do. While Samson is subordinate in the pack, in the film he had to be the lead animal, and that caused some minor problems, according to Hodanish.

Each wolf dog was trained individually to a cue for each required behavior in the film.

“Because of their intelligence and the groundwork that Mike had done over the years, the individual work moved along easily,” she said.

Morgan added that wolf dogs are very distracted by things in the environment that a full dog would ignore.

Howling Woods has an adoption program. Hodanish said that anyone considering a wolf dog should think about it as a farm animal rather than a house pet.

According to the Howling Woods website, high-content wolf dogs are very strong and difficult to train, require large, secure outdoor pens, have special diets, and require a great deal of attention. They are very intelligent and get bored easily. They may react poorly to standard dog training and do not respond to discipline the way most dogs do.

The website also states that most commercially available dog foods are difficult for wolf dogs to digest due to high vegetable/low protein content. The canines bark very little if at all, but do howl. Hodanish added that most wolf dogs do not make good guard animals, because they can be very timid.

Howling Woods is a nonprofit organization and has a volunteer program. For more information, visit www.howlingwoods.org.