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December 6, 2022

Becoming a legend: Local dog’s road to stardom

Steve Corioso is a proud papa these days.
Steve Corioso is a proud papa these days.

Since the Gilroyan’s obedient German shepherd, Kona, made her debut on the silver screen in “I Am Legend” alongside Will Smith, Corioso has seen the film half a dozen times.

“It was surreal to see her name in the credits,” Corioso said.

Famous Hollywood animal handler, Steve Berens, approached Corioso back in 2006 after hearing how he trains dogs at Rowehaus Kennels in Gilroy to be gentle and family-friendly. Berens has recently trained animals for “Click,” “50 First Dates” and “Son of the Mask,” among others and had been searching for dogs in Los Angeles to star in the science fiction thriller as Smith’s ever-present companion. However, none of the canine candidates fit the bill.

Through word of mouth, Berens came upon Corioso and Kona. He was impressed with how well-trained she was and whisked her off to New York City for seven months to film the blockbuster.

Set in NYC, “I Am Legend” tells the story of Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist and sole survivor of an unstoppable virus that mutates its victims into thrashing, carnivorous beasts. Neville is portrayed by Will Smith and his only comrade, an obedient German shepherd, is played by Kona. They provide each other with companionship and protection against the city’s only other inhabitants, the infected.

Although he missed Kona while she was away in NYC, Corioso justified her absence by reminding himself that she was working. He received Kona as a birthday gift from his wife four years ago and said the pooch was his constant shadow for three years. She gave birth to a litter of puppies before she left with Berens and Corioso kept one to keep him company while its mother was away filming.

Before Corioso handed his loyal companion over to Berens, he researched the handler’s past history and experience.

“I had to,” Corioso said. “He was going away with my baby! But he’s a very nice guy, a professional. If he ever wants to use her again, he can.”

Berens originally wanted to buy her from Corioso and offered him a substantial sum. But Kona was never for sale, Corioso said.

“It wasn’t about the money. It was about getting her in the movie,” he said.

Kona is such a well-trained dog and prospective actress due to Corioso’s patient skills as a trainer and her German bloodlines.

Corioso is a certified trainer of both dogs and humans. He is a Comcast technical trainer by day and a dog trainer in his down time. Growing up with dogs, he knows that the relationship between dog and trainer comes first. He uses a blend of treats and verbal praise to find what really motivates his trainees, often using food to lure them into a specific behavior then slowly weaning them off treats until they respond to praise alone.

He relies mostly on positive training and holds the belief that negative reinforcement, or “compulsion training,” can rob an animal of its personality.

Kona’s genes also work in her favor and lend to her agreeable demeanor. While Americans breed their dogs for aesthetic quality, Germans pair their dogs to maximize intelligence and mild temperament. With her German bloodlines, Kona’s about as easy going as they come.

Her role as Smith’s sole sidekick, Sam, in “Legend” wasn’t far from her usual behavior, Corioso said. His favorite part of the movie was a scene on a pier where she’s frolicking at Smith’s side, chasing a ball and playing with her master.

“She was in seventh heaven,” Corioso said. “It was neat to see her romping.”

Although he had a hard time discerning which scenes Berens used Kona for – another dog, Abby, also shared the role – he is looking forward to the release of the movie on DVD so he can take a closer look. Makeup artists and hairstylists rendered the two dogs practically identical with haircuts and special, doggy makeup.

Now that she’s back with her rightful owner, the Corioso household is not only back to normal, but a little more hectic than usual. Kona just gave birth to a litter of three puppies. Just tiny balls of fluff, the pups and their mother are keeping Corioso busy.

“It’s like a little circus these days,” he said. “But it’s great to have her back.”

View more photos of Kona and Steve during a training session at our

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