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  • Sony Pictures Entertainment In the movie “A Dog’s Way Home,” former Tennessee shelter dog Shelby portrays Bella, a pet who embarks on a long journey in search of her owner. MUST CREDIT: James Dittiger, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 1:00 am

'Way Home' dog has dumped dump

Duncan Strauss | Washington Post

We've all heard the cliched stories of an actor's struggles before a career breakthrough: living hand to mouth, waiting tables, temping, couch surfing and generally scraping by before landing that major role.

The star of “A Dog's Way Home,” now in theaters, has a hard-luck tale that could top them all. Before her big break, she was living in a landfill, rooting through garbage for her next meal.

Meet Shelby, the tan-and-black mutt who portrays Bella, occupying the screen, often solo, for much of the film's 97 minutes – and whose trash-to-riches saga could itself be a gripping cinematic yarn.

Shelby's big break came in April 2017, when animal-control officer Megan Buhler was driving in Cheatham County, Tennessee, a rural area about 25 miles from Nashville. Out on an unrelated call, Buhler spotted and approached what she recalled was a noticeably skittish dog emerging from the dump.

“So I knelt down and just said, 'Oh, come here, baby,' ” said Buhler, 29. “She was so scared, and she finally came right up to me, and I was able to put her in my truck.”

The pair headed to the county animal shelter.

Buhler had no inkling that 2,000 miles away, Hollywood was looking for a dog to play Bella in a film written by Cathryn Michon and W. Bruce Cameron – it is based on his book.

Cameron is a prolific author who specializes in dog books, perhaps most notably “A Dog's Purpose,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly five months and was made into a 2017 movie starring Dennis Quaid. (A sequel, “A Dog's Journey,” opens May 17.)

Cameron and Michon, who are married, are unabashed dog lovers and say part of their passion is expressed by advocating for homeless dogs.

“We started off in the very beginning saying that the dog that is the star of the movie will have to be a rescue, because we were trying to prove something,” Cameron said. “We think we're making a difference in the animals' lives when they are adopted, and we're trying to reveal to the world that rescue dogs are wonderful animals.”

The filmmakers hired trainer Debbie Pearl, whose company Paws for Effect functions as an animal talent agency of sorts.

Pearl turned to freelance trainer Teresa Ann Miller to search shelters nationwide for a dog that could play Bella – and then give her the acting chops to do it.

One day, Miller spotted Baby Girl's adoption photo.

Within two weeks, Cameron and Michon traveled to Tennessee, met Baby Girl. In short order, Miller adopted Baby Girl, renamed her Shelby and took her to California for over three months of training for the film.

Has its heroine gone Hollywood? Not Shelby. The 21/2 year old star is now working as a therapy dog on location at places that include veterans' facilities, hospitals and schools for students with special needs.