Make My Dane

A deep bellow and prolonged crotch sniff may not constitute a welcome from an actor with big-screen credits. But Vanilla Fudge, a Harlequin Great Dane, seems oblivious to the social etiquette associated with stardom.

Still, the docile giant, who dons a white coat with splashes of black, displayed enough grace to earn a role in the upcoming summer blockbuster The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.

Vanilla plays Gibson's dog in the film. Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a farmer turned hero during the American Revolution. An aggressive barking scene and a dash across an open field compose a part of the dog's screen presence. Vanilla also appeared in other scenes that most likely will make it past the final edit, says Kathy Pirelli, who trained Vanilla for her film debut.

But having worked with Mel Gibson and being on the verge of stardom doesn't mean Vanilla spends her free time basking in the smog-filtered sunshine of the Hollywood hills. Instead, she rests her giant mug atop plush tan carpeting in an east Mesa living room, reminiscing about her 15 minutes of fame. Her new master, Susan Mentzer, however, wants to find Vanilla more work to keep the dog's talent sharp.

Mentzer says she's been talking to a pair of nationally recognized dog food companies about possible work for Vanilla, although she wouldn't say which companies were interested or what kind of work the dog would be doing.

Mentzer thinks Vanilla's good looks (for a Great Dane) and advanced training could make her a candidate for modeling in print advertisements. She dreams of landing Vanilla a job in commercials or a television show.

In the meantime, the Great Dane awaits her big break.

Vanilla needs to go back to work because "she's bored," Mentzer says. "She's been a star. All of a sudden she's in my house adjusting to a schedule and trying to be a regular dog."

Since March 1999, 2-year-old Vanilla has been jet setting across the country working on the film.

Vanilla was "discovered" in a Benson kennel by Pirelli and her group of veteran movie animal trainers. Pirelli's company, Gentle Jungle, has tamed lions and tigers, but no bears, for other films, and was asked to find Great Danes for The Patriot.

Pirelli was impressed with the dog's good temperament and the shape of her head. Although they needed a Mantle Dane, which has a blacker coat than a Harlequin, they went with Vanilla and used black makeup to meet the color criteria.

In October, after some basic training, Vanilla was shipped with three other Great Danes to South Carolina to perform in the movie. The dogs lived like stars: great food, lots of attention and hotel rooms with their own beds.

Gibson had great rapport with the animals. "He was a ham with the dogs," Pirelli says.

But the party wouldn't last forever. In December, the dogs were sent back to California. Two of the four dogs were returned to their owners, but Vanilla and one other remained in Pirelli's custody.

In March, Pirelli was called away on overseas business, so she shipped Vanilla back to the breeder in Benson. But Vanilla didn't fit in there, either, because the other dogs would not accept her.

Meanwhile, Mentzer was looking for a new dog after her Great Dane of 11 years died. Then the Benson breeder called to see if Mentzer was interested in Vanilla. She says she wasn't expecting a star but feels lucky nonetheless.

The Patriot opens on June 28. Vanilla can be distinguished by a black spade-shaped spot on the right side of her neck and a limp right ear.

Though no longer living the life of a jet-setting movie star, Vanilla's happiness is visible as she jumps onto Mentzer's shoulders and playfully pokes her wiry whiskers into her face.

"I purchased Vanilla with the intent for her to live a good life with me, an older dog to adopt to be my pet. That's my first priority . . . whatever else happens is just icing on the cake," Mentzer says.