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. Picture: James Dittiger, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Washington - 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 movie theatres, 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. "There were lots of cars driving by - I mean, it was heavy traffic. 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, where the staff took to calling the new resident Baby Girl.

Buhler and TJ Jordi, then the shelter's animal-control director, 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 and based on Cameron's book.

A central story line involves breed-specific legislation or local laws that prohibit certain dog breeds from living within municipalities or counties. In this case, the focus was Denver's ban on "pit bull breeds."

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 to that film, 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 whenever possible.

"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, one known for finding adoptable dogs and training them for on-screen roles.

Has its heroine gone Hollywood? Sunglasses at night? Not Shelby. After additional training, she's now working as a therapy dog on location at places that include veterans' facilities, hospitals and schools attended by students with special needs.

The Washington Post