How 'John Wick: Chapter 3' Trained Dogs Into Action Movie Killers

If Keanu Reeves knows kung fu, these pups know "dog fu."

In Latin, “parabellum” means to prepare for war. And in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Keanu Reeves’ unstoppable assassin cries havoc and let slip two Belgian Malinois against an army of bad guys in one of the most exciting action set-pieces of the year. If Keanu knows kung fu, these dogs know “dog fu.”

But behind the scenes, it took months of training to get those hounds prepared for battle — or at least ready to perform on camera — director Chad Stahelski tells Inverse.

“Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a movie dog or a movie horse,” Stahelski says. “They’re just trained to do things under circumstance. Dogs, horses, they don’t know it’s a movie. They just do their thing. You could train them for months and you don’t know if they’re gonna respond.”

Stahelski, a lifelong animal lover — “I grew up with dogs and I have two cats and two dogs. They’re part of your life” — famously made the murder of a puppy the inciting incident for Reeves’ retired hitman in 2014’s John Wick. The third movie, out in theaters on May 17, has evolved into a saga far bigger than revenge for dead pets, but halfway through John Wick: Chapter 3, the filmmakers deliver some long-awaited canine vengeance.

In the movie, Wick travels to Morocco to meet Sofia, another assassin played by Halle Berry. Sofia, who oversees Morocco’s community of contract killers, is guarded by two snarling shepherd dogs who protect their mama at all costs. This includes biting attackers in the crotch and taking down snipers perched on rooftops 20 feet high.

John Wick Chapter 3 Review
Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry, and two very good boys, in 'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.'

Planning for the scene started with the script. Stahelski, knowing how complex the sequence would be, “did a ton of research” to pick the right breed. His homework landed him on Belgian Malinois, the same breed of dogs the U.S. Secret Service use to guard the White House. “That’s what the military and police use,” he says.

Stahelski then sought the help of Hollywood animal trainer Andrew Simpson, who also trained the wolves in HBO’s Game of Thrones, to help solve a big problem: Because of Stahelski’s preference to shoot action with wide angle lenses, how could they hide the trainers from the frame during the scene?

“I wanted to include dogs in an action sequence, But the way we shoot, we shoot wide,” he says. “How do we hide the trainers? Andrew was very quiet for five minutes, looked up and said, ‘I think we can do it.’”

Thus began an eight month journey to find the right dogs and train them, as well as the cast and the stunt team, to become acquainted. Months of preparation is necessary in order to minimize risk working with the animals on set.

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Halle Berry as "Sofia" in 'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.'

“Anyone who had to be around the dogs had to spend a substantial amount of time so the dogs were comfortable,” says Stahelski. “When they have to go into that place of arrrrgh mode, they understand it is play, but you do fire up the animal. And if you’re not used to that, you don’t want to distract the animal. Safety and all that.”

There was also plenty of oversight from the Animal Human Society “to make sure everything was good” for the animals. “How do the dogs bite without hurting their teeth? How do they jump so stuntmen don’t land on them? These are stunt dogs, but you never want to go to the point you’re forcing the animal to do something it doesn’t want to do.

“That’s why we selected Belgians,” Stahelski adds. “They’re so aggro. They’re the natural athletes of the canine world. So the dogs thought it was play, that’s what they love to do.”

In earlier versions of the story, the dogs actually belonged to John Wick, but the idea was nixed. “It didn’t feel as good as we were hoping,” Stahelski says. “To give it to Sophia, as an avatar for her daughter the way Wick had for his wife, we thought it came full circle to see a mature version of that connection. We thought that was interesting. I hope it comes full circle to see the animals’ vengeance revisited. The canines get it back.”


John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum hits theaters on May 17.

Media via Lionsgate