Shoot Your Dog!

November 14, 2013

sunset duoOf all the activities you could engage in with your dog—agility, nosework, or simply taking a hike together—there’s one that probably doesn’t immediately come to mind: photography. Sure, we all have snapshots we’ve taken of our dogs over the years. But wouldn’t you love to have beautiful, lasting mementos? You needn’t be a professional photographer, either; I’m certainly not. And as far as quality, nowadays even the entry level DSLRs and advanced point and shoots are capable of producing great shots.

There are two parts that go into photographing your dogs: your skills, and your dogs’ skills. I’m not here to talk about the first part. Believe me, I’m still learning myself. But let’s consider what goes into getting a good photograph of your dog, or, even more challenging, more than one dog. First, the pose. Your dog will need to know a basic Sit or Down, or a Stand, if that’s your preference. Then there’s the Stay. You might think, Well, of course my dog knows Sit and Stay. But will he be able to do it at a public park or other place that offers a lovely setting, while other dogs and people are walking by? That brings me to the next skill: attention. It’s easy enough to call your dog’s name and get his attention in your living room, but again, what about with distractions? Photos of dogs looking off into the distance can be captivating, but most likely you’ll eventually want one of your dog looking at you, as that’s where the real connection happens.

Taking it to the next level, if you don’t want to have to Photoshop leashes out after the fact, your dogs will need solid off-leash obedience skills. (Don’t ever put your dog in a dangerous position to get a photo; if he doesn’t have the skills, have someone stand out of frame and hold a leash.) The photo above was taken with Bodhi and Sierra off leash, before we headed out to the park. The sky was so beautiful that I wanted to use it as a background. This was on a hill outside our house where bunnies and squirrels abound, and trust me, when we first got the dogs, I would not have trusted them not to bolt. Building up their skills took some time and practice. The photo below was taken at the park, where people were passing by with dogs.
picnic tableDon’t think you have to have started these skills with your dog as a puppy. Just as with any other kind of training, dogs are never too old to learn. Both of my dogs came from shelters at around the age of two. It was pretty obvious that neither had received much if any obedience training. But, using plenty of patience, guidance, and rewards, they both learned quickly and enjoyed the process. Speaking of enjoyment, some dogs don’t love having a camera pointed at them. In that case, just pick the camera up, put it down, and give your dog a treat. Once he’s comfortable with that, pick it up, point it at him for just a second, put it down and treat. The next step would be to click the shutter while it’s still at a distance…you get the idea. The goal is that eventually, when you point the camera at your dog, he’ll actually look happy! I had to convince Sierra that the camera was her friend; Bodhi was apparently a model in a past life, and took to it right away. The only problem around my house is that when I want to sneak up and capture a heartwarming scene like my husband petting both dogs upon his arrival home after work, once the dogs hear the camera click on, they drop everything and run to me, tails wagging. I guess there are worse problems.

I hope this inspires you to get out there and shoot your dogs, in the best way possible. Oh, and not every shot has to be a portrait; sometimes the most engaging, heartwarming ones are actions shots or even our dogs just being plain goofy. Just get down on your dog’s level to make it more interesting. And don’t forget, models need to get paid! Bodhi recommends hot dog slices. Happy shooting!
goofy ball boy


Wag This Way: Left or Right Offers Insight

November 4, 2013

tail wagI just got back from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers conference, where one of the seminars I presented centered on the lesser known aspects of canine body language. Among other things, I discussed a study from Bari University in Italy about tail wagging.

The study involved 30 mixed breed dogs between the ages of one and six. There were 15 intact males and 15 non-oestrus females. These were family pets, by the way, whose owners had agreed to participate. The dogs were put into narrow box-like structures with cameras that would track not only which direction their tail wagged, but the precise amplitude. There was a slat at the front of the box through which the dog could see out. (Imagine one of those movies where the character knocks on a door in a seedy neighborhood and the doorkeeper slides the slat open to ask for the password.)

Each dog was presented with a stimulus for one minute, rested 90 seconds, and then saw another stimulus. (The test lasted 25 days with 10 sessions per day.) There were four different stimuli: the owner, an unfamiliar person, a cat, and a dominant unfamiliar dog, who happened to be a large Belgian Malinois. The results were interesting, to say the least. The dogs’ tails wagged to the right for the owner (that’s the dog’s right, by the way), the unfamiliar person, and the cat. Predictably, the widest wag was for the owners, the next widest for the unfamiliar person, and the narrowest for the cat. But when presented with the Malinois, the dogs’ tails wagged to the left.

Why would that be? We know that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. The anterior of the left hemisphere is associated with feelings of love, attraction, and safety, so it makes sense that a dog’s tail would wag to the right for their owner and others for whom the dog felt positive feelings. The right anterior hemisphere, however, is associated with fear and withdrawl, among other things. When the dogs saw the dominant Malinois, those left directional tail wags were telling a tale, and it wasn’t a happy one.

The study is fascinating enough on its own, but now the researchers have published a new study in the journal Current Biology. Building on the directional wag theory, they wondered whether other dogs would be affected by a dog’s tail wagging to the right or to the left. Would they know the dog was feeling friendly, or not wanting to be approached? As it turns out, yes, they did! They found that dogs who viewed a dog wagging to the right (the warm, fuzzy, left-hemisphere activated response) would show a relaxed response. In dogs who saw a left side wag (produced by the negative/withdrawl brain function), though, there was increased anxiety and even an increased cardiac response.

The research team posits that the directional tail wags might effectively be used to advantage during vet visits or that dummies could be used to elicit positive responses from dogs. Interestingly, during the seminar where I mentioned the tail wag study, I also discussed what I call the Robodog Study, where a robotic dog was used to gauge the response of other dogs to a short or long, wagging or still tail. Canine body language is such a fascinating subject, and these studies only touch on, well, the tail end of it. You can check out the DVD of my full day seminar Talk to the Paw: Understanding What Dogs are Saying—and What We’re Saying to Them here. In the meantime, watch your dog’s tail when he meets new people and other dogs; you just might learn a little bit more about his likes and fears!

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