UNDERSTANDING YOUR SUBJECT: ‘SPEAKING DOG’
I was recently asked by the Master Photographers Association to write an article for their magazine around the importance of understanding dogs, as a photographer. This is a subject that’s very close to my heart, and something I could waffle on about for hours, so naturally I jumped at the chance!
I wanted to share a taster of my article in this blog post – I will say now that this is aimed at photographers, but there’s probably some valuable info in here for dog owners too, so please have a read – I’d love to know what you think!
Remember that context matters: panting is a stress signal, but normal for a warm afternoon session outdoors
Every genre of photography requires specific skills – these help us create beautiful images and amazing experiences for our clients. One of these skills is communication, and it’s particularly important when it comes to dog photography.
Dogs don’t talk. But they do communicate – really well, actually! If you can understand them. Learning to ‘speak dog’ is an invaluable tool – not only will you be able to get the best out of your four-legged subjects, but most importantly you’ll also be able to avoid difficult situations and even physical harm.
I’m not a professional canine behaviourist, but I am a Certified Canine Body Language Specialist, and I’ve spent years studying for my own development as a dog photographer. I’d strongly suggest that you take the time to do your own personal research in addition to what I talk about below.
There are three important reasons why you should get to know your subject matter inside out…
HEALTH & SAFETY
The safety of you, your client, and their dog are paramount. While we should all have insurance, we don’t ever want to actually use it. Dogs can bite when stressed or frightened – but they also give off plenty of signals before they do. Spotting an uncomfortable dog can help you avoid a dangerous situation.
You want your client to enjoy themselves, right? An understanding of their dog shows them that you know your stuff, and that you care. For many dog owners our dogs are our world, and if you can help the dog feel comfortable it’ll probably make your client happy too.
You could be the best photographer in the world but if you’re shooting a stressed-out dog, no amount of camera settings or post-production skills are going to save those images. Your client hired you to capture their dog at their best. They will not want to buy photos of their dog looking miserable.
Remember that context matters: some breeds, like Bulldogs or Pugs, have naturally wrinkled brows and bulging eyes/visible eye whites
Dog behaviour has been studied for years by experts with much more experience than me. However, I can share my own basic tips for identifying and managing stress in dogs when you’re on a shoot…
1. RECOGNISE STRESS SIGNALS
Dogs use their entire bodies to communicate. It varies from breed to breed but there are some common things to look out for. An unhappy hound will often show one or more of the following:
- Ears pinned flat against the head – ears are one of the most expressive features that a dog has. Any sign of tension in the ears can be an indicator of stress, even if they’re set forwards. They should be relaxed or perked up attentively, depending on the breed (a Greyhound’s ears usually sit flat to their head, even when they’re happy).
- ‘Whale eye’ – often combined with tense facial muscles (no, that dog is not ‘smiling’). Seeing the whites of the eyes usually means the dog is overstimulated or stressed, although this can be natural in breeds such as Pugs
- Lick-lipping, yawning, panting – every now and again is normal, but repetitive actions (especially out of context) can indicate that the dog is trying to expel their stress or self-soothe in an uncomfortable situation
- Looking/turning away – a subtle and polite way of a dog telling you “nope, I don’t want to be involved in this stressful activity, please stop”
- Low, stiff or rapidly wagging tail – most of us recognise that a dog is fearful when their tail is tucked between their legs, but a wagging tail can also indicate anxiety. Tail positioning can be particularly breed-specific, so do some research
Remember that every dog and breed is unique, so when you’re looking for stress signals, it’s important to keep an eye out for context (is the behaviour normal for the dog/situation?), combination (is the dog showing multiple signs?), and repetition (one yawn or lip-lick is probably fine, but repeated behaviours could indicate stress or discomfort).
I always do my best to keep dogs calm and comfortable during my sessions – but stress does still happen from time to time! Here are some examples (from when I was starting out) where the dogs were clearly giving me signs that they weren’t happy…
Look at the tension in this dog’s face, head & body. His eyes are hard and glassy with dilated pupils, his brow is furrowed, and his ears are super alert. Pay particular attention to his mouth – that is not a happy ‘smile’, this dog is stressed!
This classic ‘guilty’ look is often a sign of fear (dogs can’t actually feel guilt). It’s all getting a bit much for this lab – he’s turning his head away from the camera with clear ‘whale eye’ and furrowed brow, telling us that he’s not happy with the situation.
Studio settings can be scary places for dogs, with strange lights, sounds and props. This dog’s paw is raised in anticipation of needing to escape, and take note of the tight mouth, subtle whale eye and pinned back ears.
If you spot any stress signals, give the dog a break. Scatter some treats on the floor or let them sniff around. Give them space and limit your interactions with them. Take as long as you need to ease the tension before you pick up the camera again.
2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Talk to your client before the session, get them to fill out a questionnaire – discover their dog’s fears, their motivations, their energy levels, their breed. Their dog doesn’t like crowds? Choose a quiet, secluded location. Their dog has a fear of loud, abrupt noises? Don’t pack your whistle. Their dog has an obsession with sticks? Don’t use one to get their attention and drive them wild. Learning about the dog in advance will help you avoid stressful situations, especially those that are unique to that particular dog.
3. WORK WITH THE OWNER
Dogs pick up on stress easily, and it doesn’t take much for your client to get worked up when their dog won’t sit ‘perfectly’ or decides to pee on your camera bag. Stay calm and confident – reassure your client that they’re doing great. Give them clear guidance on where to stand and how to hold the lead (working on-lead is the safest approach outdoors and easily remedied in post-production). If things aren’t going to plan, don’t get frustrated. Give everyone space, patience, and positive reinforcement. A relaxed owner will often result in a relaxed pup.
Remember that context matters: Lip-licking is a sign of stress, but not always. In the image above Hugo had just finished off a tasty treat!
There’s so much more to dog photography and canine behaviour than what I’ve mentioned here. But hopefully you’ve found this helpful and are looking to learn more! I’ve included some more websites, books and resources below to get you started…
- ‘Tail Talk’ by Sophie Collins
- ‘On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals’ by Turid Rugaas
- Dogtography by Kaylee Greer
- Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors: https://www.apbc.org.uk/
- Dog Training College: https://www.dogtrainingcollege.co.uk/
- Blue Cross: Be Safe with Dogs: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/be-safe-dogs
Remember that context matters: A dog may turn/look away from something it finds stressful, but here Ted was just looking at his dad!