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How to Train Your Dog Model

pet photography tips Dec 12, 2017

Maybe (like me) your journey into professional pet photography started out with you photographing your own dogs. Also maybe (like me) you found it increasingly tricky to get them to cooperate with having their photo taken. These essential tips will get you back on track with photographing your own dogs, and off on the correct foot when starting fresh with a new muse!

1. Start off slow

Your dog’s initial introduction to your camera should be the same as if you’re meeting a new dog for the first time. Depending on if it’s an 8-week old pup or a 10-year-old rescue dog, it might have had either absolutely no experience or possibly a bad experience with cameras before. Introducing the camera slowly and really take your time to generate positive associations with click of the camera’s shutter.

To establish positive associations with the camera, I like to use a similar method to clicker training. I use the sound of the shutter as the audible “marker” to let them know a treat will follow shortly after.

No need to point the camera at the dog as if taking a photo to start with, just hold the camera in your lap, click, and reward the lack of a fearful reaction. Progress to holding the camera out towards them or off to the side, then to putting it up towards your face, then to holding it in front of your face. Always make the treat come from the direction of the camera when it’s up near your face, we want their gaze to be directed at the camera, not your hand.

Sooner or later they should become desensitised to the click of the shutter even to the point of positively associating it with good feelings, yummy treats and lots of praise.

Time is a luxury you have with your own dog that might not be on offer when photographing other people’s - so take advantage of it!

This photo is of our boy Fletcher at 8 weeks, the day we brought him home. I played around in the front yard with the camera, not trying to make him pose, just capturing candid moments. I knew this introduction would be important - after all - he was my new #1 model! I made sure there were lots of treats on offer and always followed the sound of the shutter with a treat. It was the beginning of a beautiful photographer-model relationship.

Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 135mm ƒ/2L, ISO 500, 1/800 sec, ƒ/2

2. Short and sweet

Because you are probably going to be taking many, many of photos of your own dog over the years, there’s no need to engage in extensive sessions like you would with someone else’s dog. Keep it short and only ask a few things of them, especially in the beginning. If you’re just taking candids (such as them playing or running at the park or the beach) then shoot away for as long as you like, but when you’re deliberately asking things of them, keep it short.

If they love being in front of the camera and love to please, lucky you! You can usually shoot for a bit longer each time with no negative effect. Never take it for granted though and always make it a special occasion for them.

This photo was from an impromptu photo session with Fletcher in my front yard, 12 days after bringing him home. From first shot to last shot, the elapsed time with my camera was just 5 minutes, and the rest of the time I spent playing, training and interacting with him.

Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II @ 70mm, ISO 500, 1/640 sec, ƒ/2.8

3. Make it high reward

Co-operating with you while you’re taking photos should always result in some super special rewards for your dog. Depending on what drives them and what they value most, have a reward that only happens once a session is over, or at points during the session when they’ve been particularly co-operative.

If they love to play, have a special game that you engage in at the end. If they’re a greedy guts, reward them with an amazingly delicious treat that only comes out when you’re taking photos. If they’re cuddle motivated, set aside some time for some extra snuggles and attention. Make it something special, and make it something that they only get when the camera comes out. Find out what drives them!

For Opal, her main motivation has always been treats. Treats, treats and more treats! She’s happy with anything really, but to ensure I keep that level of interest and co-operation high, I usually get some special treats like cheese or bacon rind out if I want to shoot something special that might require a bit more from her.

Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II @ 70mm, ISO 800, 1/640 sec, ƒ/2.8

4. Keep it interesting

The last thing you want your photo sessions with your dog to be are routine. If they know that every afternoon at 4pm you’re going to be out in the backyard, asking them to “stay, STAY!” while you point that boring black clicky thing at them AGAIN, expect to be met with resistance.

Think different locations, different times of day, different scenarios. This will also help you to improve your photography and not end up with the same types of shots all the time. Keep it interesting for them and they’ll associate camera times with happy times. Often if you’re using them as a test subject for location scouting, you’ll be achieving that aim simply by taking them to explore new places with you. Every now and then though, take them exploring but leave the camera at home and just fully enjoy your time with them without being in photography mode.

As soon as Opal was old enough to accompany us on adventures, we headed off to explore some new places. I didn’t always take my camera, but when I did, I made sure it was secondary to being truly present with my dogs and taking note of how they interacted with each other and their environment.

I actually like some of the candid images (like this one) better than the posed shots. Not constantly asking them to pose for photos made me come up with creative shot ideas - and made them a lot happier in the process by taking the pressure off so they could explore and just be dogs.

Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 135mm ƒ/2L, ISO 1000, 1/1000 sec, ƒ/2

5. Have an outcome in mind

A great way of keeping things fun and interesting when photographing your own dog is to decide on a personal project and aim towards achieving something tangible with the photos you’ve taken. Perhaps you could create a 12-month calendar from the best shots you’ve taken this year? How about a photo book divided into chapters showcasing all the cool places you’ve visited together?

Like the mechanic whose car desperately needs a service or the builder whose house gutters need replacing, we photographers have a habit of neglecting the things closest to us in favour of activities that will earn us a living or directly result in work. Photographing your own dog for the purposes of a project will bring the focus back to yourself and the things that are important in your life.

Don’t let your time with your own dog suffer at the expense of photographing other people’s. You’ll thank yourself for it later. And if you have a challenging pup, persevere until you find the key, you’ll be surprised at what your own dog can teach you!

Sometimes it’s a case of training yourself, not just your dog.

This is one of my favourite photos taken in 2017 of Fletcher and Opal together. Along with some a collection of other shots I’ve taken of them together, it’s going into a personal 2018 calendar for our house!

Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II @ 95mm, ISO 200, 1/800 sec, ƒ/2.8

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