Parlez-vous Frenchie, Sprechen ze Dutch Schnauzer, Govorite li Hrvatski Dalmation, Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma Pug, Nihongo hanasemasu ka Akita?
When it comes to “speaking dog” very few pet owners are actually fluent, and this can lead to misunderstandings, unnecessary anxiety and out of character behaviour from their Fur Baby, especially in new or unfamiliar situations, such as a photo shoot.
Dog training is unregulated so if you ever want to use the services of one make sure they are a certified trainer! Whilst pet photographers are not usually certified dog trainers, as part of our training we learn about operant conditioning (sit, stay, come and action commands) and positive reinforcement to encourage animals to work with us in a non-threatening way. We also learn to “Speak Dog” by observing the subtle signs that indicate they are feeling anxious or nervous, and approach them in non confrontational ways to reassure and calm them. We use classical conditioning strategies to bring out the positive emotions that you want to see in those photographs.
All dogs are food motivated, but if they are very stressed they often won’t eat. If this happens we take a break, let them go outside and reset and then come back and start again.
There is NEVER any punishment of “bad behaviours” (we ignore or redirect it) and make sure we strengthen and reinforce the positive behaviour. We take breaks and ensure that we go at your dogs pace and comfort level and never try to force a dog to do something they don’t want to.
Dogs also pick up on stress or nervousness in their owners as well as the situation. So whilst your dog may behave well at home, they can become overstressed in unfamiliar situations and they can display totally out of character behaviours, like snapping, barking or even biting.
Professional Pet Photographers a looking for major body language signs - dogs don’t speak English they communicate with their bodies. Dogs tails are a big indicator - is it up, down or between their legs? Are they backing away from the photographer or turning their head to look away and avoid eye contact?
We also take note of more subtle signs such as tongue flicking - if the tongue is always out it might be a sign of nervous or anxiety. Dog’s generally don’t look face-to-face with other animals so putting their head to the side and looking away, pinning their ears back or lowering their heads can all indicate they are not comfortable. Sometimes they will lay down and pretend they are tired or sleeping but as a sign of stress not genuine tiredness. Excessive yawning can also be a sign of stress in dogs. That said we always consider these signs in the specific context within the normal behaviours of that dog that’s why we work with Fur Baby parents ahead of time to find out more about their dog before we do the shoot.
If the dog is exhibiting several of these signs over and over, we need to take note of this because their level of anxiety can be escalating and they may lash out. We want to keep everyone safe, including the dog.
The two most stressful parts of a photo session for the dog are usually when we first start and they have the camera pointed at them and hear a weird clicking sound and when we take shots from above. I usually greet them without my camera first and I have high quality treats that help me make friends quickly as well as lower value treats if they get too excited. I also initially let them come to me rather than me directly approaching them and let them smell me (a big way dogs communicate). For this reason I don’t wear perfume when I have a shoot scheduled. I stroke them under the chin rather than the head to start with as this is much less threading to start off. Once they have accepted me then I can start to slowly expose them to my camera and the noise it makes, without pointing them at it. I start outdoor sessions with my long lens and work towards the wide angle lens shots towards the end, as these are closer and over the dogs head and can be scary if they haven’t become comfortable. Animals in nature attack from on top so they can get very frightened and intimidated.
If the dog is very nervous I will turn to the side when meeting them rather than being front on. I might also blink my eyes several times or put my head down or look away - so I am not staring them down.
Dogs know when you are awake even before you open your eyes, they pick up your breathing pattern changes. They notice if we hold our breath and it makes them nervous. So I make sure I breath slowly and deeply, and relax myself which sends the message to the dog that I am not a threat to them and the situation is not stressful.
In older dogs who may be vision impaired or blind, I use high pitched noises and more smelly treats. For Deaf dogs I will use a little LED light to gain their attention. For younger dogs who have a congenital condition resulting in a sensory impairment the owner will often have a special way of communicating with them and I find this out ahead of time. I might even suggest that we do the session in your home where they feel totally familiar and comfortable rather than coming to the studio.
I also check during out Design Consultation on specifics for each dog such as allergies, marker words, training aids they use such as clicker, special toys, any behaviours or things I need to be aware of to help plan the best place, best time and best kind of shoot to ensure their dog is happy and safe from the start. If their dog can come in at this point it gives them a great opportunity to become familiar with all the strange things in the studio before the actual shoot, so it is then much less frightening when they come in for the actual shoot. I usually start with them on lead just to be sure that they don’t get too hyper and hurt themselves or damage any of the expensive equipment. I give them some great treats and lots of positive reinforcement so I become their fun “Aunty Karen” and they can’t wait to come back for their shoot as they now associate the studio as a fun and safe place.