Catching Up With Abbey, the Dog From I Am Legend

People loved Abby, the dog from I Am Legend, for her role as Will Smith's co-star. Her person, Steve Berens, shares what went on behind the scenes.

Published February 21, 2024
I Am Legend movie scene

Abbey, the German shepherd from I Am Legend, won the hearts of millions in her role as Will Smith’s co-star. I had the honor of chatting with the man behind the magic, Steve Berens, Abbey's Hollywood trainer and BFF for life. He spilled all the doggie beans on Abbey's journey from an undiscovered pup to a big-screen sensation. From the heartwarming tale of how she lept into his life to the behind-the-scenes scoops that made her remarkable, and all the tail-wagging adventures that followed the movie's success. Buckle up, fellow dog lovers; I'm about to take you on a behind-the-scenes tour into the life of one of cinema's most beloved canine celebs!

Starting the Search for the 'I Am Legend' Dog

German Shepherd Abbey

Steve Berens started the search for a female German shepherd when he discovered producers for I Am Legend were searching for a female, specifically. It's rare in the industry, he said, to seek out female shepherds since the demand usually leans towards imposing male dogs for those heroic roles.

A Rescue Dog in the Show Biz

According to Berens, “The reason there isn’t one in the industry is because, generally, when you get a call for a shepherd, you’re looking for a big male. It’s not necessarily aggressive work, but it’s the hero kind of role.” He continued to explain, “Most people don’t really put their time into a female, so what I did was I went out and found her. She was in a breeding kennel that was in the process of falling apart.” 

Steve felt compelled to rescue her from a life confined to breeding. "I felt I needed to rescue her from being a breeder. You know, just breeding." He estimated she was about "16 or 18 months old, maybe just over" when he took her under his wing.

The challenge was significant; he rescued her in July, and by mid-September, they were navigating the bustling streets of Manhattan. Despite the city's relentless pace, Abbey thrived. "The city doesn’t stop for you, and it’s very active, but she just took to it. She really did fabulous. She was a great dog, and she just did really well. She learned quickly and enjoyed it," Berens recalled with pride.

Abbey Meets Her Future Co-Star, Will Smith

Steve & Abbey

Pulling up to meet Will Smith, Berens wasn’t sure how Abbey was going to do. She was a fantastic dog, but he said jokingly, “I’ll never forget; he came walking out and she started barking, and I was like, don’t get me fired before we even get going." According to Berens, “Will was very professional.” Berens told Smith he just wanted to hang out with him for a little while with Abbey to see how everything went.

Little did he know at the time that she and Will Smith would develop an intense relationship that would result in winning America’s heart. He said, “The reason that she bonded so well to Will was really because of his attitude. He came in and treated her like a co-star.” He explained, “I’ve worked with a lot of actors; some are really good that way, and some, you know, truth be known, don’t want to share the screen with the dog. He [Will Smith] was fabulous.” 

Berens continued, “He embraced that and knew that she was really a co-star, and that was who he was working with. And so he really, he got into it. And that made a world of difference that just helped things so well.”

Abbey and Will Were a Great Pair

Okay, the scene that broke hearts — I'm sure if you’ve seen the movie, you already know what scene I’m referring to. Steve Berens used this scene to show just how much Will Smith and Abbey bonded with one another. He said, “There was one particular shot when he choked her out. I had a shot, whereas he released her, she slid down his arm, and she really learned to let it go. She let everything go, and she slid down his arm and to the ground. And literally to where her head would just lightly hit the ground and kind of almost bounce and settle.” He said, “She just stayed there as if she was dead, you know? And it was fabulous.” 

Need to Know

For dogs to take direction as seamlessly as Abbey did in that scene, they need to have a strong sense of trust and confidence in their relationship with the people around them.

Influence on Pop Culture

Abbey's impact on pop culture extends beyond the screen. She reignited interest in the German shepherd breed, reminding us of the incredible versatility and loyalty of these dogs. Fans of I Am Legend can't help but look at their own furry friends and wonder, "What would my dog do in a post-apocalyptic world?" Thanks to Abbey, we know the answer: stick by our side, no matter what.

Training Dogs to Act

A burning question on my mind, and probably on many others', is how trainers manage to coach their dogs into acting. It's a significant challenge for us humans to take on acting roles, so the feat of preparing a dog to perform in a movie is truly remarkable.

He said, “I like to have the dog watch the actor and work.” He explained, “In the old days, trainers would get up on ladders to get looks at the actor, and there wasn’t the same kind of connection, but once you teach the dog to watch the actor, there’s a connection there. Then, the actor feels he has something to work with. So, it helps him also.”

There’s a Lot of Gray Area

As with most things, Steve explained that there’s a lot of gray area in dog training and in film. He has to ask himself, “Which way am I going to approach this to bring out the right attitude? And maybe you’re having a hard time getting a particular behavior, so you need to approach it in a different way.” 

He continued to say, “I’ve told trainers that training animals isn’t black and white. There’s a lot of gray, and you have to learn the stages in the black and white side, but eventually, you start picking up on the gray too and feeling it.” This part is incredibly important because, according to Berens, “if you don’t have a lot of passion for it and it really doesn’t turn you on, then it’s not for you.” 

Abbey’s Life After Retirement

Steve & I with the dogs

Abbey’s role in I Am Legend was her one fun, super-huge project. Berens said, “She never really got a call for another big project and just did some small things [after retirement].” He said, “She had a very full life. We had a big ranch in California with a lot of other animals, you know, to run around on — being a dog — enjoying her life.” 

How Steve Berens Got Started in Film 

For dog trainers wishing to get into the film industry, Steve Berens said, "Generally, what trainers do is just hang out. They hang out around trainers, help out, and start to pick it up.” He emphasized that training for film is a bit different than obedience training in terms of how much time you spend training and with the dog in general, and understanding that is super important.

Not everything goes as expected. He said, “We put so much on the dogs because you can get a director change just the day of, and all of a sudden you need to switch things up very quickly. So that dog has to be well-versed with a lot of behaviors.”

How Berens Got Involved

Steve Berens became involved in show business at a young age. “I was very lucky. I grew up on the East Coast in Ohio and I had an uncle that was in the business. And I always had animals when I was young. And you know, I knew of some of the things he did, and we went to California, and I got around him, and he ran the show with Universal Studios, the live animal show. And so I think I was about 12 years old then, and I went back home and started trying to train my animals, and it just was very interesting to me. So what it really is about is desire; if you enjoy it, I mean, I look at it this way. Some of my best friends were dogs.”

Hiring Steve Berens Animals’ of Distinction

I asked Berens how a TV series or movie production can get ahold of his company if they’re looking for a dog to star in a film. He said most of the time, his company is hired due to word of mouth, like “someone saw this dog in a project, and you know, they thought it was good, so they looked you up and they called you. Obviously, you have your website and modern times here, so it works in all kinds of different ways.”

Cheers to Abbey, the GSD

What made Abbey so captivating was her ability to convey a wide range of emotions without saying a single word. Whether she was on the lookout for danger or curling up next to Will Smith, Abbey's expressive eyes and body language spoke volumes, proving that actions and barks can indeed speak louder than words. It's no wonder America fell head over paws for this furry hero. Abbey passed away in 2018, but her memory will live on forever in the hearts of many.

Catching Up With Abbey, the Dog From I Am Legend