If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ve probably seen tons of images of my dogs Sierra and Bodhi. The thing is, neither of them particularly liked having their photo taken when they were first adopted. Sierra in particular did not like that giant eye pointing in her direction! That was unfortunate, because I greatly enjoy photography and not only do I love Sierra like crazy, but I find her a beautiful subject. And so, my first task was to get her over her discomfort with the camera.
If you’ve ever done clicker training, you’re already familiar with the concept of click-and-treat. It’s simple conditioning, with the dog associating the sound of the click with something super yummy, so that the dog works to earn a click. In this case, the camera shutter delivered the click. I started with the camera in my lap, with each click followed by a small piece of hot dog for Sierra. I gradually worked up to holding the camera up to my face, clicking, and treating. Over time, Sierra got comfortable being photographed. Still, tolerating a camera is not the same as modeling. Since we’d all love to take great photos of our dogs, I’d like to share a few tips. I’ll assume that you know the basics of using your camera. (If not, there are some great tutorials online.)
1. Just as human models need to have posing skills, so do dogs. At minimum, your dog should have a solid stay. Ideally, she should stay on cue whether she is sitting, standing, or lying down. But keep in mind that just because your dog performs well in the house, that doesn’t mean she’ll remain in position on a hillside at a busy park around passersby. Build up gradually to stays with distractions.
2. Another useful skill is attention. Photos of dogs gazing off into the distance can be quite beautiful, but you’ll also want to have images of your dog looking at you. Normally, a dog’s name is used as the attention cue. If your dog is not trained to look at you when asked, and calling her name doesn’t work, try using interesting sounds to get her attention. You can actually purchase duck calls and other noisemakers online, but it’s easy enough to make your own mouth sounds. I’ve personally perfected the sound of a cat meowing, but I’ve also used a sharp intake of breath, blowing a raspberry, and even, “Want to go for a drive?” Experiment to see what works for your dog, but don’t use the attention-getter until you’re in position with your camera settings correct, and don’t overuse the sound. Variety is key if you’re going to take more than a few shots.
3. Get down on your dog’s level. Photographing your dog while you’re standing could still yield a cute image, but try sitting on the ground or even lying on your belly instead. You’ll see a huge improvement. (I do, however, sometimes like to shoot down on small dogs who are looking up at me. Cuteness overload!) To make it easier on yourself physically, you could also position your dog on a slight hill or tabletop.
4. Don’t ever put your dog in danger! I would never, for example, pose Sierra off-leash near a busy road, no matter how beautiful the background was or how much I’d love a shot of her there. If you’ve got someone you can bring along, have that person hold your dog on leash while you take the photo. Use a thin leash, and tell your helper to hold it up and away from your dog on a diagonal. That way it will be easier to remove later on in a program such as Photoshop or Elements.
5. Don’t forget to pay your model! I normally show Sierra where I want her to stand, turn her collar so her tags don’t show, take the photo, and then go back and shower her with praise and hot dog bits. No wonder she tolerates me. Just be sure the experience is fun for your dogs. Bodhi, for example, is happy to model all day long, but I know that Sierra only enjoys it for short periods, so we keep her sessions much shorter. Don’t get frustrated if your dog isn’t listening or the images aren’t turning out the way you’d like. There’s always another day. With practice and persistence, you’ll soon be getting great keepsake images of your dogs.
I’d love to see some of the images you’ve taken of your own dogs!
You can find my books (including my latest, Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home) and seminar DVDs here. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter, and check out my artwork here.