I’m going to tell you a little about how I work in my studio with dogs who are anxious and nervous. (Generally it’s easier in a studio with an anxious dog as there aren’t lots of other things to worry them and we can control the environment more easily.)
My other job is at Dog Communication, I working alongside my colleague Laura and we’re very used to being around anxious dogs and dogs with social issues. In the case of having dogs into my studio, we only have to worry about dogs liking people (specifically me!) as there are never any other dogs around. (My dogs are always in a different part of my house when I have clients here).
I’m guessing a few photographers are going to read this, as well as dogparents of anxious dogs, wondering if their anxious dog might be ok at a photoshoot.
So here’s how I start. I always ask in advance, when I’m talking or emailing with my client, if the dog has any kind of issues and if they are ok with new people, slippery floors, people pointing a camera at them – and a few more general questions. I should point out that the studio floor isn’t that slippery but to a dog with anxiety issues, it only takes one thing and they won’t want to even come into the room. So if I know a dog is worried, I’ll put some rugs down on the floor. I shut the studio door, and I always have a radio on too.
When a new dog comes into my studio, I tend to encourage the dogparent to let them off the lead and let the dog just wander around, while I’m sorting out the background paper. I generally use a background known as seamless paper, it’s a huge roll of paper, and I have three hanging up on the wall at the back of my studio. I do this fiddling around so that the dogs can watch me, and get used to me moving around them without any pressure. I don’t wear shoes either, so I’m not stomping around. We’re just chatting about the dog/s and I’m slowly moving around the room setting up the background – this also involves me kneeling on the floor to tape down the end of the paper – another easy way for a dog to come and sniff me. I’m always talking in a gentle slow happy voice, and generally just explaining to the dogparent what we’re going to do.
I always have my lights in place before the dogs arrive. Two softboxes, one 36” and one 24”. I try my very best not to move them around once the dogs are there and if I do, I would only move them backwards or forwards – very slowly. With a lot of anxious dogs I only use one softbox (the bigger one, it’s a 36″ octagon). I use speedlights in my softboxes so they are fairly quiet but there is a recharge beeping noise which some dogs might be wary of.
More lights does not necessarily mean better images. Remember, if you’re a photographer reading this, it’s your skill as a photographer that makes the image what it is.
So, the dog is now in the studio, I’ve set up the seamless paper background and my light is in place. I’ve already instructed the dogparents to bring special high value food treats and favourite toys with them. Now’s the time we get the goodies out! With the dog still wandering around the room not in any particular place – we need to desensitise the dog to the flash.
Everyone says “Oh my dog is fine with the camera flash on my camera or my phone” but this is not the same as your compact camera! A big black and white shape on a stand which gives out a big flash, is nothing like your compact camera – or heaven forbid, your phone camera!!!
I purposely do not point my camera at the dog. I point my camera to the floor and fire the flash – and at that exact same moment, the dogparent gives the dog a yummy treat and we praise the dog too. We do this as many times as is necessary until the dog is happy with the flash. With most dogs this is about 10 times on average. Some dogs once or twice and clearly they aren’t bothered – other dogs take longer.
Gradually I move the camera up towards my face, and gradually the dogparent lures the dog onto the background paper. The dogparent always always ‘works’ the dog for me. I rarely get involved unless it’s very quickly to show the dogparent how to get the dog in the right position. I would never physically move a dog anyway and would always lure them into position using food. Always. Remember it only takes one thing for an anxious dog to withdraw and you’ve lost them for the rest of the shoot. So do not rush the process. If you (or their dogparent) push, pull or stress them in any way, you’re done, finito. It will show in the photos too. Better to get 5 amazing shots than 30 shots of a dog looking anxious and stressed. There is no rush. Make the time to do it right.
I’m not going to go over all the ways I get their attention and the poses etc as that’s for another blog, this is just about the emotional response I want to achieve with dogs during the shoot.
Lots of little breaks are necessary, don’t just keep on shooting. Every 2 or 3 shots we’d reward, and maybe every 7 shots we’d stop for a couple of minutes. They might need a drink, they might need to pop outside for a pee, and it’s good to just sit and chat sometimes. I’m going to show you some images from last week’s shoot with Bets and Jerry, two street dogs from Romania. They were very nervous when they arrived. With the help of their wonderful dogparents and lots of yummy treats, within about 40 minutes they both fell asleep on the background paper, which although not quite what we had in mind, was actually really lovely as they were super comfortable with the situation. We got about 20 awesome images, which is less than I usually get, but I wasn’t going to get these two at all stressed out.
Obviously this image below was my absolutely favourite from the whole shoot, both dogs looking to camera looking totally relaxed. (you can click on the photos to make them bigger.)
Lovely eye contact from Bets in this head shot.
Jerry also looking straight into the lens, what a good boy.
Some more images below of dogs who are generally anxious in their day to day lives.
Little Basil was quite a worrier but fine in my studio.
Vince, below, who gets very worried around people he doesn’t know.
Anxious Nina the Otterhound, whose Mum was very worried she wouldn’t cope, she was absolutely fine.
Mavis on the left, not good with strangers usually. What a star she was!