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How to motivate dogs during pet portraits

Photo of a cute and smiley English Golden Retriever wearing a colorful top hat made from newspaper clippings.

Written by J.B. Shepard, a professional pet photographer and founder of the Puptrait Studio.

Handling a dog during a photoshoot presents some fairly unique requirements. It differs from most approaches to training and behavioral modification in that a photographer is less concerned with compliance and more focused on engagement. More often than not, professional pet photographers seek to trigger facial expressions and moods, rather than encourage any specific behavior, trick or action.

Consent is the key to great dog portraiture

The best dog portraits result from studio environments that foster happiness through consent. It is only through achieving a dog’s buy-in that we are able to capture authentic and genuine expressions.

Photoshoots are Not the Time for Training

The practice of constantly pumping dogs full of treats to trigger positive associations, while an effective training strategy, does not work during photoshoots. At the end of the day, authenticity is at odds with conditioning and submission. When dogs are in performance mode they actively seek commands (or rewards). While pausing to listen is an important step in learning and responding to commands, it limits how a dog is able to express their own personality. Don’t get us wrong, treats are an effective motivational tool. But it’s important to delay rewards. Rather than feeding the dog treat after treat in rapid fire succession, pause momentarily between rounds of treats and allow your dog an opportunity to express itself.

Expression is Not Passive

You’ll hear a lot of dog photography blogs discuss the important of engaging a dog at their level during a photoshoot. This is usually mentioned when discussing shooting angles. But there’s more to this concept than getting low so that the face of the dog is visible. True engagement and communication are a two way street, that requires a give and take from both the subject and photographer. Meaning, during the session your dog should be allowed the agency needed to be an active participant in the shoot. Your dog should be comfortable, free of fear and understand at a basic level, that you wish for it to remain relatively still during photos. But the dog should also be given enough freedom to shift and move within these loose confines. More importantly, the dog should be motivated towards action within this safe space, remaining both comfortable and entertained.

Establish Loose Boundaries for Your Dog

Your dog should be comfortable, free of fear and understand at a basic level, that you wish for it to remain relatively still during photos. But the dog should also be given enough freedom to shift and move within these loose confines. More importantly, the dog should be motivated towards action within this safe space, remaining both comfortable and entertained. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is to have the dog sit on top of a large solid box during their when shooting their portrait.

Use a Posing Box

When selecting a box to pose your dog on, make sure that it is solid enough to safely handle the weight of your dog and that it does not shake or wobble in the slightest. The box should be wide enough that your dog does not feel trapped or uncomfortable, but not so wide that the dog can walk around around too much. The box should be high enough that it discourages a dog from stepping off without a second thought, but high enough that the dog will not risk injury if it falls or jumps off. Your box should not be overly padded, as this will make it difficult for your pup to maintain a reliable footing. But it should not be overly smooth either, as again your dog will be more comfortable if it can easily and immediately gain purchase on the surface of the box, so consider glueing a thing rug or matt to the surface for this purpose.

Different Dogs Are Motivated Differently

It might sound like a cliche, but every dog is unique. While most dogs are more similar than not. Different breeds are impacted by instinctual triggers and drives to differing degrees, which can result in a wide range of behaviors. Individual experiences, training, home environments, when the dog is spayed or neutered, even in-utero litter order can produce even wider variations in personality, temperament and interest — all of which may impact the effectiveness of different training, reinforcement and motivational tools.

Some dogs respond exceptionally well to verbal commands. Deaf dogs tend to respond best to hand signals and facial queues (just one reason we LOVE photographing hard of hearing pups). Dogs that have received formal training, especially working dogs, tend to respond well to clickers or whistles – often associating different complex commands, even between their left or right, with specific tones or whistle patterns. That said, the vast majority of dogs respond well to treats.

There a Few Reasons a Dog will Not Accept a Treat

We have photographed literally hundreds of dogs at the Puptrait Studio. It is exceptionally rare that we find a dog that is not motivated by treats. Typically is a dog refuses to take a treat it is usually due to one of six reasons.

1) The Dog is Scared

Dogs that are scared, stressed or anxious tend not to be as motivated by food. If you are photographing a dog and it refuses to eat, your first thought should be that the dog is probably scared. If this occurs at the beginning of the session it typically means that you need to back off, give the dog some space, and wait for the pup to come to you. But if you are holding a great smelling high reward treat, more often than not a dog will approach you for it when it realizes that you are ignoring them. That said, if the dog is scared in the middle of a session, it’s likely because of something you’ve done.

Never make a dog aware of a fearful stimuli or force a dog to engage with an anxiety causing situation. Instead, direct the dog’s attention elsewhere, take a break, and identify the specific fear inducing trigger. Emotions are not rational, but they can be easily and quickly associated with what are otherwise safe stimuli. It is much more effective to play it safe and slow, then to rush a shoot and then try to force a dog to unlearn a fear inducing trigger or association.

2) The Treats Are Subpar

When photographing a dog you want to use high motivation treats that are small and easy to consume. This usually means that the treats should have a relatively high fat and salt content, and should be something that is entirely new to the dog or something that they don’t consume often or in large quantities. Avoid dog biscuits, cookies, bones, or other hard to chew / breakup treats. Dehydrated ground beef jerky, small chunks of hot dog, bits of deli meat, and potato chips all work wonderfully, are very cost effective, and readily available.

3) The Dog Only Eats People Food

It’s no secret that dogs are typically forced to get by on food that doesn’t meet human standards. I say typically because some spoiled pups only eat what their human pack members eat. We’re not joking. Last summer we photographed an adorable Maltese puppy that was found as a stray by a prominent Belgian chef and Baltimore restauranteur. The absolutely refused to eat anything that he did not see his caretaker eat. Lucky for Chef, we only serve ground beef jerky at the studio. Once every one partook of our treats we were off to the races and the rest of photoshoot went off without a hitch. While this particular hiccup is somewhat rare, it is something to keep any eye out for and one more reason professional pet photographers should stick to using human safe treats when shooting.

4) The Dog is Stubborn

Some dogs are just willful. It doesn’t matter if what you’re offering is something they would normally want. The one thing that makes them the happiest is seeing you not get your way – or at least, you not infringing on their independence. Some breeds tend to be more stubborn than others (Australian Cattle Dogs we’re looking at you), but even dogs from what are normally considered agreeable or happy-to-please breeds (most notably larger working breeds like Akitas and Rottweilers) can grow a rebellious streak if not trained or socialized properly. In these instances it helps to use a less direct approach.

5) The Dog Only Listens to Their PersonĀ 

Sometimes this is a purposeful trait introduced through careful training (working guard dogs and service animals), though this is also common among many breeds in the herding group. If the dog you are photographing is a Corgi, German Shepherd, Border Collie, or Australian Shepherd you may have better luck letting their owner take care of handling duties. Most owners with these types of dogs are aware of this behavior quirk, but not all will think to bring it up during a session (you’re supposed to be the expert after all). So, if the dog is trained, but not listening to you don’t be afraid to ask the owner to step in and help with handling their pet.

6) The Dog is Full

If your dog is hungry, they will likely be more encouraged to receive a treat. You should never starve a dog or with hold food as a punishment. But if you know that you will be photographing your dog (and in turn, will be feeding them a ton of treats) it can help to plan ahead by spacing out meals appropriately. This means not feeding them a full meal immediately before your session or following your shoot. It’s also important to consider what kind of treats you are giving your dog. Overly salty treats might make for effective rewards early in your session, but might leave your dog feeling parched or bloated mid shoot. And, larger or denser treats might end up filling your dog up faster than smaller morsels. As a general rule of thumb, you always want to use the smallest treat possible to continue to motivate your dog.

Be Patient and Remain Empathetic When Photographing Dogs

Motivating a dog during a photoshoot requires a gentle touch. You never want to rush a dog into an uncomfortable situation. Make sure that you are giving your dog plenty of time to adjust to new environments, situation and gear such as large camera lenses, light modifiers, stands and flashes. To that end, never push your dog beyond its limits. If you’ve been shooting for a bit and your dog suddenly begins to appear less enthusiastic, annoyed or tired, take a 5 minute break or just stop the session entirely. Remember, when it comes to photographing a dog’s portrait we can not force an expression. Let the dog come to you and be sure to listen to the dog’s body language throughout its photoshoot.

Pro pet photographer, J.B. Shepard, featured here with a rescue dog from Bella's Bully Buddies along the Baltimore Harbor waterfront in Canton.

About the author: J.B. Shepard, is a professional pet photographer, dog advocate, and founder of the Puptrait Studio. J.B. lives in Hampden, with his wife and two dogs — George (a Boggle) and Lucky (Jack Russell Terrier).

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