Friday, September 3, 2010



As a professional animal photographer for advertising and an animal actor trainer, I have had the opportunity to work with all kinds of dogs over the years, and I thought I'd share with you a few things I have learned.


The time to find your dog model is not the day before you need him. It is important to plan ahead and know what dog you are going to use. The easiest way to do this is to use an agency that specializes in animal models.  Good animal modeling agencies will have a list of experienced, well trained dogs that will provide you with excellent results. They can be found in most major markets. If you have not worked with a particular agency before, ask them for references and make sure that their humane record is exemplary. No one wants to mistreat animals and you do not want someone with a bad reputation on your set.

If there are no animal actor agencies in your area then you are going to have to find dogs on your own. Some good places to start are with your local dog obedience schools and clubs. Most people are proud of their dogs and are more than willing to help you out. Ask the school’s owner if you can watch some classes and meet some of the students. Better yet, take your own dog to school. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn and by how many nice people you meet. The more you understand about dog behavior the better you’ll be able to photograph them. If you are working on a paid shoot, make sure you pay the dog owner for their time.  This is only fair, especially if they have taken time off from work and were kind enough to bring the dog to you. If you are working to build your portfolio, then make sure you offer low resolution downloads that they can post on Facebook, etc. and some nice prints in exchange for their help.


If you have been hired to shoot a beautiful woman walking a dog in the park you better be sure that the dog is trained and walks well on a leash or you could have a runaway dog, a startled model, an unhappy client and even unhappier owner.

Dogs, like all animals, are unpredictable. As much as we photographers would like it, they are not little men in fur suits that we can expect to take direction and know what we want them to do.  It is important to understand that even the best acting dogs can only do one behavior at a time.  If you ever watch a trainer work you will see that they are giving the dog first, one command, and then another. The dog will diligently watch the trainer. or if the dog is used to the routine, it will listen for the trainer's cues as it goes through the wanted behaviors.

Look for dogs that are well trained, friendly and comfortable in with new places and experiences. If you are working through an agency, this will have already been done for you. Even the most well trained dog will look miserable if it doesn’t like the seamless paper he is expected to sit on or the pop of the strobe lights. He may stay, but he won’t look happy. Most clients do not want images of a dog with his ears back and a sad or frightened look his eye.


Make sure the owner/trainer knows what is expected of their dog. Send them layouts if you have them and be very clear about how long it will take and just what the photo shoot entails. You may have to change your expectations based on what the dog can do.

Have your lights and set ready before your animal talent arrives. Dogs, like children, are typically at their best during the first 1/2-hour of their arrival.  They could become bored with hours of sitting around while you fiddle with the lights or break for lunch. “Get ‘em in. Shoot 'em. And then, get’em out.” has always worked the best for me. You will get happier, fresher, expressions on both your dog and your client if you shoot right away.


Be sure to say hello to the owner/trainer and take the time to meet their dog. Move slowly and speak quietly at first, allowing the dog smell you. Dogs have extremely sensitive noses so leave the strong perfumes and aftershave behind.

I like to make a big fuss over the dog. Ask the owner for a treat to give to the dog. Let the dog take it from you and be sure to pet him. This will build trust between you and the dog. Tell the owner/trainer that you appreciate all of their hard work in preparing the dog and getting them to the set.


Make sure your set is as comfortable as possible for the dog. If you are shooting outlines on seamless or another slippery surface you can put narrow strips of gaff tape down to form a non-slip tread where the dog’s paws will go.

Keep the room set building and other activity to a minimum. Many dogs are easily distracted. A dog can’t focus on the trainer if there are people continually moving back and forth in his line of sight.  Loud sounds, like power tools and the hiss of pneumatics can frighten an otherwise well-behaved dog making it look tense and unhappy.

If you are shooting outside, make especially sure the environment is safe for dogs. If you are shooting near busy streets make sure that traffic is controlled, and that strange dogs cannot wander onto your set. Have a plan if the dog tries to leave the set Some dogs will only come to their owners, so it is good to know this ahead of time; you or a crew member could make things worse by trying to grab an already frightened dog.

Next time, I will talk about what to do, and what not to do, when you actually start shooting.

Barbara O’Brien © 2010

all images © Barbara O'Brien PhotographyBarbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home

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