Entries Tagged as 'Behavior + Training'

Project Dogs: A Letter to Myself (and Others)

Posted on: Friday, April 17, 2015

: from The Labs :


Have you ever heard the term “a project dog”? This is often the term us dog folks use for dogs with some special behavioral needs, in other words, a dog that needs work of some sort, either behavior rehabilitation, training or the like. A “project dog” is not a dog for everyone, simply because the amount of work, effort, time and dedication the dog needs.

If you have read or followed anything I write, you’ll know I love dogs and I am fascinated by canine behavior, I wrote a 4 part series on learning how to “speak dog”, I attended and graduated from Trish King’s Canine Behavior Academy, I volunteer at the behavior and training department for the Sonoma Humane Society doing behavior evaluations of shelter dogs… and yes, I have a “project dog” of my own. She happens to be the canine love of my life. Read More >

An Enviable Bond : Jaymi & Niner

Posted on: Thursday, May 29, 2014

: from The Photo Lab :


One of my favorite parts of our job as animal photographers is witnessing that powerful bond someone can have with a dog. Being invited into such an intimate experience is a privilege and we give it all we have to make sure our work honors and does justice to what we see.


Niner, a stunning Cattle Dog/Blue Heeler mix is a very special dog, he is brilliantly smart, agile and incredibly sharp. He needed a very special person to share his life with and thrive; someone exactly like Jaymi.

Read More >

The Canine Science Symposium Returns to San Francisco

Posted on: Monday, March 3, 2014

: from The Labs :


Chances are, if you are a regular visitor to this page, you enjoy books and writing on animal behavior (as well as great photography and illustration 😀 ). Maybe you spend a great deal of time and energy on building a better bond and understanding with your dog. Others might say you are a bit of a nerd, a Dog Nerd that is. If that is the case, you are one of my people, and you are certainly in the right place.

If you missed out last year on the first Canine Science Symposium, organized and hosted by the kind folks at Pawsitive Tails, you hopefully have your ticket to this year’s! If not, don’t worry, with the help of the amazing Lisa Gunter, we are able to give you an insight into this year’s lectures. If you would like to know more about this fantastic event, or buy your ticket, you can do so HERE. If you have a chance to go, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. To read about last year’s Symposium, click HERE.

Last year, we had a fantastic line up of speakers, and this year is no different. With familiar and new faces, the lecture topics are fresh and fascinating, and sure to get you thinking.
For each speaker, I asked 4 questions about their lecture. Below, I have included their replies and added some notes of my own
(Nat Notes).
So let’s dig in!

Read More >

The Power of Kindness

Posted on: Tuesday, February 25, 2014

: from the Photo Lab :

PL_HS_love_compassion_timeA few weeks ago, Sonoma Humane Society took part in rescuing 63 lucky Finnish Lapphund dogs from some dire conditions. You are welcome to read their entire back story HERE. For this post however, I prefer to focus on their incredible recovery and progress. With around-the-clock care from veterinarians, vet techs, behaviorists and trainers as well as many, many hours logged by caring volunteers, these wonderfully resilient dogs shed their past, along with their matted and once filthy coats, giving way to a shiny and healthy growth, a new beginning to say the least.

Read More >

Willow the Wild: Lessons in Courage from a Fearful Dog

Posted on: Wednesday, November 27, 2013

: from the Labs :

This line from Andrea's poem went right through my heart. To read, or better yet, to hear/see the whole poem, please visit: http://bit.ly/1iRaOKl

This line from Andrea’s poem went right through my heart. To read, or better yet, to hear/see the whole poem, please visit: http://bit.ly/1iRaOKl

In May of 2012 I brought home a foster puppy with special needs. We adopted her in September and in doing so, made a Promise. Now, a year (and a little more) later, she is no longer a puppy, we continue to work hard, she has given us challenges, and endless laughs. Her name is Willow; she has made my heart ache and my life change…

Read More >

A Great Time for Dog Nerds: Notes from the Canine Science Symposium

Posted on: Tuesday, March 26, 2013

from the Photo Lab

What a great time to be a dog nerd… er… enthusiast.

On our way back from San Francisco yesterday, my friend Suzanne Kernek (director of Behavior and Training at Sonoma Humane Society) and I could not shut up about all the incredible information we had just absorbed at the Canine Science Symposium organized and hosted by the wonderful folks at Pawsitive Tails, who offer dog training, dog walking and pet sitting services to busy professionals and families in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Canine Science Symposium promised to be an exciting opportunity to hear from some of the brightest (and youngest) names involved in dog research, canine cognition/behavior and intersections of canine and human behavior; with a powerhouse line up that included the likes of  Julie Hecht, Kathryn Lord, Sasha Proptopova, Lisa Gunter and Erica Feuerbacherboy, was it ever.

from left to right: Erica Feuerbacher, Jeannine Berger, Sasha Proptopova, Kathryn Lord, Lisa Gunter, Julie Hecht and Emma Clarke

Read More >

Learning to Speak Dog Part 5: Communication and Training

Posted on: Tuesday, September 18, 2012

from the Photo Lab
with a special guest post by Nicole Begley

Read others in this series: Introduction  |  Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

To Speak Dog, Listen for Dog Speak
A dog communicates by using his body as well as his voice. Barks, growls, whines, and other such noises are an audible clue to understanding a dog’s mood. I find it funny however that a lot of people find doggy noises annoying and spend a lot of time trying to get them to stop barking or worse, punish them for growling. If a dog cannot use sound, his communication is greatly handicapped. Especially in the case of a fearful or aggressive dog, believe me, you WANT them to growl, that’s a warning; versus reacting in a physical way without warning altogether.
Below I list some more recognizable sounds or “Dog Talk” and their possible translation as found in the book Dog Tips from Dogtown: A Relationship Manual for You and Your Dog

What’s in a Bark?
One of my favorite animal behaviorists (also an author, trainer and veterinarian), Sophia Yin spent some time researching barking and its role in vocal communication. I highly recommend reading her article Barking as Vocal Communication in Dogs, it comes complete with sound clips and the possible meanings behind them. Truly a fantastic and informative read.

Alert barking: Dogs “alert bark” when aroused or possibly see something unusual such as a stranger at the door or in the case of my mom and dad’s dog, a scorpion or other nasty bug inside the house. An alert bark is often easy to pick out since it sounds like an alarm woof: “woowoowoowoowoooooo!”

Attention barking: When a dog wants something, she may ask for it by barking. “Hey! feed me!” or “Hey! play with me!” or “Hey! I need to go potty!” are all good examples and the last one especially is greatly appreciated :)

Boredom/Demand barking: A dog, especially an active one, needs daily physical and mental stimulation. Without it, they become bored and restless and may bark to try and get your attention (or your butt off the couch or away from the computer, bless them). If out of control, demand barking can be very off-putting, but the best way to combat it is by enriching the dog’s day with toys, exercise, games or chewies.

Fear barking: Yes, dogs do bark when frightened, possibly to make said scary thing go away if it’s within sight. “Hey! You! Stay back!”

Playful barking: When happy, or having a good time, it is not uncommon for dogs to bark in a higher pitch bark and accompanied by a loose, wiggly body.


What’s in a Growl?
Growls can mean a myriad of things and similar to barks, different growls can be attributed to different things. Usually associated with stress, fear or aggression; growling can also be a part of play. To help you differentiate one growl to another, keep in mind the circumstance; for example, if your dog growls during a good game of tug: play. If your dog growls as you approach her food bowl: a warning to keep your distance.
Warning growls usually mean the dogs is anxious or stressed over something such as an invasion of space or a threat to his possessions. A growl accompanied by bared teeth and a stiff body is a clear message that the dog is uncomfortable and possibly preparing to bite.
Playful growls to me sound more like a buzz or a hum and can range in pitch and tone. Once you hear a play growl and a warning or angry growl, the difference is very clear.


What’s in a Whine?
Whining is the slightly more complicated one to figure out. Dogs whine for a variety of reasons, not just pain or fear. They can whine for attention, out of anxiety or excitement. Watching the entire body, taking into account the situation as a whole could help narrow down the reason for the whining. What makes the whining start/stop? What is happening around the dog when the whining occurs?

This article on canine vocal communication by The Whole Dog Journal is a great read and if you want to hear audio clips to try and interpret, check out Vocaldog.com. Don’t miss any of the dog-related programs on NOVA and PBS Nature, they are simply fabulous, in particular Dogs Decoded.

Now I leave you in the hands of our special guest blogger, Nicole Begley, with some wonderful tips for pet photographers, but really, for anyone who loves dogs.
Dog Training Tips for Pet Photographers
by Nicole Begley

“Kindness is Powerful” Dog is Good for Victoria Stilwell’s Positively. I LOVE this t-shirt and the message it inspires. Get it today from dogisgood.com

Every interaction with an animal is training. While you may not be in “training mode” when interacting with your dog while you are at the kitchen table working, your dog is constantly gathering information from his environment on what is acceptable and what is not. Animals, including humans, are always asking “what’s in it for me?” and just about every behavior can be broken down to seeking pleasure or avoiding fear or pain.

The basis for traditional dog training techniques is rooted in avoidance. The dog stays near you to avoid a yank on the choke collar. The dog sits to avoid being physically pushed down. The dog stops barking at another dog because it is kicked. It has been scientifically proven that training any animal with punishment and negative reinforcement  leads to: fearful behavior, aggression, reduction in behavior, and avoidance. Please don’t think that just physical punishment will lead to these detrimental side effects, all aversive stimulus will.

Just think about the worst boss you ever had. You know the one: publicly calling out mistakes in group meetings, always telling you what is wrong with your work, not giving you the information needed to do the job correctly, never listening to your opinion about something that affects your job. Now didn’t you: A. Dread going to work in the morning.  B. Get snippy and cranky and probably gossip about said boss with any co-worker that would listen.  C. Work only hard enough not to get yelled at, you certainly weren’t going to come up with new and exciting projects for the company.  D. Quickly duck into the restroom when the boss was walking your way.  There you go….the four detrimental side affects of negative training methods.

Now just think how much more you would enjoy the SAME duties if your boss gave you information that was needed, regularly made a habit of calling positive attention to someone’s performance, actively asked opinions of employees, giving you mentoring and suggestions to help you improve your work in private in the form of mentoring. I know I personally have worked for both of those types of bosses and I will drop everything for the second boss in order to help them achieve a company goal. I was also constantly thinking of new ideas that could improve the company. In addition, since I felt my opinion mattered, even when they made a decision that I didn’t agree with I respected that decision, since I respected the person.

Animal training is no different. Since dogs are so incredibly domesticated and wanting to please us they will continue to work even in a negative training situation. Imagine though how those negative training methods would work on an eagle that you are flying free outside. How would those methods work when you are training a gorilla to come over to the fence, stick their arm into a sleeve and hold perfectly still for a blood draw. They wouldn’t. Just because dogs put up with traditional training techniques doesn’t mean they are right.

Traditional techniques can cause a dangerous situation with little notice. Remember that aggression is a side effect and can happen in an instant. It is just about impossible to create a dangerous situation using positive reinforcement. If there is an animal that is food aggressive then find something else reinforcing, such as their favorite ball. Food is not the only tool that you have when using positive reinforcement training! Anything the animal finds reinforcing will work to your advantage, often it’s food, but can also be toys, belly rubs, or even their favorite person or other dog.

Our clients are entrusting us with the care of their dog during our session. It is imperative that we treat the dog respectfully and in the most positive manner possible. Please learn what the body language of any animal species that you are working with is saying (did you miss our previous post on Reading a Dog’s Body? Click HERE to read it now). Know that if the dog has ears back and their tail tucked between their legs they are not comfortable.

©Nicole Begley Photography. All rights reserved.

It is not worth putting the animal in a stressful situation just to get the shot that is in your head. Besides, their body language will come through in the final image. Now just because a dog is showing some signs of nervousness in a certain situation doesn’t mean that you need to abandon ship. This is where a little positive reinforcement training comes in!

Simply break the behavior down into very small steps. If your dog is nervous of a park bench and you would like them up on it find out where the threshold is that they start to get nervous based on their body language, then move back slightly. Empower the dog to make their own decisions. See if they will come closer for a reward. If they move closer on their own reinforce it!  Allow them to sniff the scary object, and then reward them!  Show them a piece of food in a manner requires them to put their front feet on the bench, and then reinforce with that piece of food. Eventually you may be able to convince them the bench isn’t so scary and they will hop up on it. To see an example of this technique at work in getting a dog comfortable with a camera, click HERE.

Really it’s that simple.

One test that I do before any session is test the dog’s response to the sound of my shutter. I always make sure to do this in a way that is less likely to freak them out. Imagine if you just put your camera 12 inches from their nose and snap the shutter, even if there were only slightly nervous of the camera now they are probably completely freaked out and it will be very challenging to bring them back around before their attention is gone and you still have daylight for your session!

I recommend being about ten feet away from the dog and having the camera down at your side.  Then just click the shutter once to see their response. Do they snap their head up and look around for the source of the new noise or are they not affected? I continue to move closer until I see where it is that my shutter sound is causing any sort of curious behavior and I reinforce them for reacting calmly. If they elicited a response that I don’t want to reinforce then I simply back up a few steps and find a threshold in which I can reinforce calm behavior.

©Nicole Begley Photography. All rights reserved.

  1. Get out the big guns, like hot dogs or cheese. Whatever their favorite treat is; use it.
  2. Feed them treats as the camera gets a little bit closer, no noise from the camera, just the camera itself. Let them sniff it. I’ve actually let a dog take a treat from the side of my camera to help them become more comfortable with it.
  3. Once they are comfortable with the presence of the camera back way up and do the same thing with periodic shutter snapping. If they regress and then just back up a bit and try again.
  4. Usually you can work through this whole process in about 10 minutes and then you can start your session.
  5. On occasion you will have a dog that is petrified of the camera or the shutter sound and no amount of counter conditioning will change that behavior in the short time that you have. In those situations your best bet is to grab that long lens and sit on the sidelines. Throwing a treat to the dog periodically wouldn’t hurt either!

I remember one of the first dogs that I photographed was an Airdale Terrier that was terrified of the camera. This dog breed was created to hunt otters, and if you have worked with otters you know that they are mean little ankle biters. Cute yes, evil absolutely. They must have a same PR person as penguins, they look so cute and cuddly but then they will grab that sensitive skin just behind your knee and bite it like no other. Sorry, I digress.  Anyway, this dog would get in front of the leaf blower when it was on but was scared of my little camera. Having a long zoom lens in my bag saved me that day as my 50 mm would have never cut it.


Thanks for reading this far into my post.  I hope that some of this information is helpful to you and remember, if you ever meet nose to nose with an otter or penguin, run.


Nicole Begley spent 13 years in her first career as a zoological animal trainer, working with every species from aardvarks to free-flight birds, and seals to primates.  She now owns a pet photography studio based in Pittsburgh, PA (http://pets.nicolebegleyphotography.com) and also created Hair of the Dog, a blog dedicated to business and marketing tips for veteran and aspiring pet photographers. (http://wwwhairofthedogblog.com)  Connect with Nicole on the Hair of the Dog Facebook page! (http://www.facebook.com/hairofthedogblog)


Learning to Speak Dog Part 4: Reading a Dog’s Body

Posted on: Wednesday, August 29, 2012

from the Photo Lab

Read others in this series: Introduction  |  Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

The topic of whether dogs have feelings has been a hot one for years. To some (like myself) it is a no-brainer, of course they do! There is a great selection of books and videos that explore this fascinating topic. I’ll make sure and list some references at the end of the post.

“…it’s time to stop apologizing for the belief that animals, like our dogs, have emotions. Of course, our dogs can experience emotions like fear, anger, happiness and jealousy. And yes, as far as we can tell, their experience of those emotions is comparable in many ways to ours. People who argue otherwise might as well argue that the earth is flat.”
~Patricia McConnell in For the Love of a Dog

A dog, above all else, is an individual. Therefore take what your read here and everywhere else as a guideline, not a law. Just like we humans can misread each other, so can dogs. Always remember to err on the side of caution. A photograph, an illustration, maybe even a video can aid a lot in recognizing a dog’s body language, but if you want the best experience possible, observe your dogs. Observe dogs at a dog park. Behavior is fluid and constantly (and rapidly) changing.
Studying a dog’s behavior and observing them interacting with the world can be a fascinating spectacle, especially if you know what to look for. And it can be extremely helpful to learn to read your dog’s body language, to understand your dog and get a sense of what he is feeling, what his mood is and what he is trying to say; it will help you avoid potential problems and diffuse existing ones. It will help you get to know each other better. You’ll find yourself learning a new language, and reading your dog from head to tail like a book; because if you haven’t realized it by now, they often speak loud and clear with their eyes, ears, tail and posture.

Some factors can get in the way of a dog’s communication ability. A dog’s physiognomy is as varied today as paint color swatches at the hardware store. Different ear shapes and lengths, coat textures and lengths, tail-docking and ear-cropping for breed-specific “aesthetics”(unnecessary and cruel if you ask me) as well as the great variety in breeds and looks (floppy ears vs pricked or long tails vs fluffy curled up tails) greatly affects their ability to express themselves the way a more wolf-like dog (such as a German Shepherd or a Husky) would.
In some dogs, their body language is very obvious and easily discernible, but in others it is a little more subtle. And sometimes, a dog’s behavior and genetic pre-disposition can play a big role in their body language; dogs that were originally bred to guard or fight have one heck of a poker-face to say the least, and they often move at lightning speed, with little to no warning. The good news is, once you know what to look for, with lots of practice, the basics are fairly easy to spot, regardless of what the dog looks like.

Human Communication vs Canine Communication
People, especially in our culture, tend to communicate in a linear way. We approach someone directly, we extend a hand to shake the other, we hug, we engage in direct eye contact and we move in a straightforward manner. All these things are considered positive in our culture, a sign of respect or giving someone your undivided attention.

Canines on the other hand have a non-linear form of communication. They often move around in a circle or arch. Eye contact is indirect and you can often get a good idea of a dog’s personality and confidence level through her body language; confident dogs move swiftly and more directly while less confident ones are less direct, and move slower in a more calculated way.

Any form of communication can be complicated. In the book Dog Tips from Dog Town: A Relationship Manual for You and Your Dog, canine communication is described as “complicated as the multitude of variables that go into any form of communication. Just as the maning of words said aloud can vary depending on tone, vocal stress, body language context, and other factors collectively known as prosody—you can say “Love” and mean a variety of things—dogs communicate with signals that have multiple meanings, change rapidly and be specific to the situation.”

First Impressions and Greetings
The number one mistake we all make upon meeting a dog is to approach them the way we would a person: directly (in a straight line), cooing “ooooh puppy!!” and reaching our hand out to pet them on the head while gazing lovingly into those big eyes… well, there are three main mistakes here: 1) direct approach, 2) reaching over the dog’s head and 3) direct eye contact.
Most dogs dislike being patted on the head; didn’t you hate your aunt pinching your cheeks as a kid? Same thing, so don’t do it. And unless you know the dog well and know he is comfortable with it, do not grab the dog’s face and kiss it! It is an invasion of space (and one I am guilty of with my own dogs, but I’ve raised them and have a relationship with them, they are ok with me doing it, but not a total stranger).
The direct approach and eye contact translate into a challenge, it involves the taking of space and can cause potential problems if you are not careful, or make the dog uncomfortable and weary of you. The right way to greet a dog in most cases is to let the dog approach you. If you are the one coming into their territory (visiting a friend’s house for example), I like to avoid eye contact with the dog, and face away from her (showing her the side of my body, NOT my back). If the dog seems comfortable and friendly and is little or calm, I like to crouch to their level still facing away so they can check me out without jumping up. I don’t like to make any fast movements regardless of the dog and while avoiding eye contact, I am always checking out their body for signals. In the simplest of forms, the more wiggly dog with softer, more fluid motions, indicates a friendly dog, up for human contact. On the contrary, a tense, stiff or frozen body and tail, indicates a not so friendly dog and one that would rather I keep my distance.

Pay close attention to Lili Chin’s acclaimed illustration on How NOT To Greet a DogThis is an extremely valuable lesson you can learn and teach others, especially kids.


The Big Picture
Observing the “whole dog” at a distance can give you a quick and general idea of the dog’s mood. How does she hold her body? Is she wiggly, moving loosely? Or is she standing tall, stiff and still with her mouth shut tight? A dog with a loose, soft and wiggly body is one that is comfortable. Any stiffness, freezing on the other hand will tell you the dog is anxious, uncomfortable or on guard. Rolling over can very well mean “gimme belly rubs” but be careful to check for a relaxed mouth and tail. If the mouth is shut tight and the tail is curled up in between the dog’s legs, she is trying to diffuse a stressful encounter and could actually be saying “I don’t want trouble”. People often mistake the rollover for an automatic belly rub request, will get too close only to find that the dog snaps or submissively urinates in response. See  video and illustrations below for some general things to look for on the whole.

The Details
Once you have a general idea after observing the dog as a whole, you can zoom in on individual body parts that will often give you key clues on the dog’s emotional state.

Ears along with a tail can communicate a great deal. Ironically, these two vary greatly from dog to dog, making communication a breeze or a nightmare. For a detailed description of each of the most common ear shapes recognized in various breeds, check out this article by Stanley Coren.

Just like in a person, a dog’s eyes can be very expressive. A dog’s eyes can reveal subtle changes in mood with the shape of the eye, the pupils and the canine equivalent of a human eyebrow, the skin above the eye. In our human world (and culture), eye contact is a sign of attention, respect, love… you name it, it tends to be a positive thing. Not so much in the canine world. Dog’s will look at each other’s eyes, but often look away to defuse any sing of a threat, and dogs that know and like each other will have no problem with eye contact between them. Direct and extended eye contact can translate into a threat/challenge. Unless your dog is familiar with your loving gazes, and especially if it is a dog you’ve never met before, avoid staring.

One of the most complicated yet revealing parts of a dog, the mouth gives us a wealth of information. I often think of a dog’s mouth as comparable to our hands; we use them to experience the world, and just like a dog presenting “*displacement behaviors”, we fidget and play with our hands when uncomfortable, nervous or don’t know what to do as a way to try and calm ourselves.

Piloerection or “raised hackles” in a dog is a sign of heightened arousal (get your mind out of the gutter, it just means an enhanced state of alertness), and it comes in many shapes, from fear to plain happy/excited. Raised hackles are most often associated with aggression, but that is not always the case and in many ways, it will not always be voluntary like what a puffer fish does. Think of when you get goosebumps; you don’t only get them when you are cold, do you? Piloerection can be challenging to spot on a dog with a very fluffy coat, in which case, reading the other body parts will be a better bet.

Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail is not always a sign of a friendly dog; depending on the situation, how fast the tail is wagging and how high or how low it is in relation to the dog’s body, it can mean anywhere from excitement to anxiety.

Put all these body parts together and you’ll soon start seeing little clues here and there of a dog’s mood. In this video, recommended to us by our fellow Canine Behavior Academy graduate Lauren Flato of Sit, Stay,Wag Dog Training, you’ll see great photo examples of body language and calming signals.

I love this poster by Lili Chin and have used it to teach kids (and adults) how to read basic body language in a fun way they are likely to remember.

*What is a displacement behavior?
A displacement behavior is an otherwise normal activity performed at a time that seems out of place. For example, a dog yawning when sleepy is of course normal, but if the dog yawns when he is not tired, it may be a sign that he is uncomfortable. Dogs often use displacement behaviors to calm themselves in situations that make them nervous or anxious. Similar to a displacement behavior, a Calming Signal is a behavior or activity that a dog performs to communicate and “calm” or diffuse a potentially stressful situation with other dogs (or people).

If you want to learn more about Calming Signals, definitely check out On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals and Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You (DVD) by Turid Rugaas.

Lili Chincomes to the rescue yet again with this great pictionary of calming signals in dogs. It has come in VERY handy in my work with dogs in general, but especially with Willow, our fearful foster pup.

Illustration by Lili Chin

Calming Signals at the Park
Our foster pup Willow has beautiful body language, her body is so easy to read (in part because of her enormous bat ears and long tail haha) that I wanted to get her on video specifically for this blog post. Here, we are at one of our favorite parks for a play session. Willow is in her awkward adolescent phase in which all dogs test their boundaries to see where they fit in. She LOVES other dogs, but can be a rambunctious puppy for some more refined adult dogs. Notice just how many messages can happen in a manner of seconds here:


**For Pet Photographers: What does a camera lens remind you of when you are in front of it? It is a giant, unblinking eye. This is why so many dogs shy away from it and why proper precautions should be taken before you shove a lens in a dog’s face.

Desensitizing and classical or counter-conditioning (associating scary things with good things) can work wonders in camera-shy dogs, as well as avoiding putting the camera in front of your face and instead shooting from a lower level. Use that back-autofocus button and keep the dog’s attention on you. I have included a video below showing you how I did this with Willow, our fearful foster pup.
When you are doing this, remember to please take your time and go at the dog’s pace, NOT your own. Forget your bottom line or your “allotted shooting time”; when working with animals, especially ones with special needs, this is a moot point. Get as much information from the dog’s person prior to your photo session, or if it’s a shelter dog, talk to the people who know him best, read the behavior assessment. DO NOT just go in there thinking you’ll win them over with your “dog magnetism” and yummy treats. Every dog is an individual, respect him as such.
In the video you’ll see my short session with Willow, a fearful 6 month old Shepherd/Kelpie mix we have been fostering for some time now. We had two prior sessions before this video was taken, so I am moving a little faster, because she is a bit more comfortable. We are working in an environment she feels happy and comfortable in (our bedroom) and you’ll notice the room is very quiet and I am barely whispering anything other than “good girl”; reason being I know Willow can get overwhelmed with too much noise, it is not just the camera itself but the sound of the shutter I want to get her comfortable with, and I want to make sure our training session is short, sweet and above all else, positive. The photograph at the top of this post is from this session :).
I am using high value treats (Natural Balance which she just loves) and before I ever shoot an actual photo I introduce her to the camera and pair it with treats, get her acquainted with its smell, look and sound. You’ll notice Willow will happily take treats which is good, it means she is comfortable enough to eat, her ears are upright and forward in “attention”, she’s choosing to lay down on the bed, (I never ask her to do anything other than to hop on), but she is showing me some calming signals like looking away, she’s alert to every sound and movement in the room and while her mouth is mostly relaxed, it does remain closed; so I am careful to not push her past what she’s comfortable with and if I do, I take a step back. Today, Willow is fully desensitized to the camera and gets excited upon seeing it, because it always means “yummies!” I am now using this same technique to get her comfortable with the sound of velcro (from her Thundershirt), which she’s quite afraid of.


Being a good photographer involves a great deal of multi-tasking. While you are composing your shot, you are calculating your exposure, thinking of where the light is, where your subject is, what you’d like your subject to do, how much time you have, making your clients happy etc. Photographing animals involves yet another thing to worry about, reading their body language to try and predict how they will react and therefore how that will affect your work. We know you have enough to worry about without all this information being thrown at you, which is why I recommend always having an extra pair of eyes if you don’t feel comfortable doing it all yourself. You focus on your work, and let the other person focus on the dog’s (or insert animal here) body language and comfort level. This is why Bill and I work so well together. We switch cameras back and forth, and one of us is always focused on getting the shot, while the other works with handling and observing the dog for any signals.

Listen to your Gut
When something just doesn’t feel right, the little hairs on the back of your neck stand on end or you get even the slightest feeling of uneasiness from a dog you are working with; please, please listen to it.
I believe your own body gives slight signals that allow dogs to “smell fear”. It is always better to be smart than to be sorry. Case and point of fellow pet photographer Theresa Swain’s experience. Theresa has over ten years of experience photographing rescued dogs, and in those 10 years, this is the only case that gave her the heebe jeebies. Thankfully, Theresa was in good company that day; someone who knew the dog she was photographing very well was present at the photo session and did everything she could to keep Theresa safe and the dog at ease and under control. Somehow though, Theresa mentioned she didn’t feel comfortable. She noticed the dog averting her eyeslicking her lips and holding her mouth closed and did not hesitate to lunge at Theresa if she moved too quick or too close.
Theresa writes:When I arrived at the owner’s home, she had the dog in a bedroom and escorted me out to the yard – there was no barking. I was armed with treats and so was she. She went in to get the dog and explained to me that the dog would bark at me at first, but would calm down as long as I didn’t stare etc… The dog charged up to me upon seeing me, but took some treats from my open hand, but if I moved too quickly (IE raised my camera or arms)  she would balk and bark at me. The owner had cue words and her safe pillow in the yard and used both to calm the dog any time she got aroused. After a few minutes of trying to warm her up to me, I decided it was best if I was a bit further away, so the owner tossed a toy around for the dog and also got her to sit, lay down etc a good distance from me.  Again, if I tried to change position while shooting she would bark or lunge like in the photo. I usually kneel or lie down to take photos but not this time!! I didn’t really want to be in a vulnerable position with this dog who was in a highly aroused state.  I got a few photos and got outta there!”
I am so grateful to Theresa for not only sharing this experience for others to learn from, but also for letting me share the images she took of the dog in question. Theresa was smart in keeping her distance, listening to the owner’s instructions, getting out of there quickly and not making herself vulnerable by kneeling or laying down as she usually does to photograph dogs. The dog never bit her, because she listened to her gut and had a second pair of eyes/hands looking after her. Had she kept on going or disregarded the various warning signs from the dog or the owner’s instructions, I fear a bite would have been very likely.

Notice all the words I bolded in Theresa’s story. These are all signs of a dog that is uncomfortable, worried and possibly a case of a fear-aggressive dog with an active defense reflex (“I will make you go away scary thing!”). There is a very thin line between fear and aggression and two ways a dog can act based on that emotion: offense or defense, fight or flight.
In other words, a dog can do what it can to make scary things go away (bark, growl, lunge etc.), or try to run away and hide from them (hiding, crouching, shutting down). This dog seemed to have a very short fuse, since slight movements pushed her to her limit and triggered her to lunge at Theresa. If this happens once, the dog has been pushed past her threshold and it will be unlikely for her to calm down soon thereafter (it can take as long as 48 hours for cortisol, the stress hormone, to leave the system; so the dog will remain in an aroused state for a long time after an incident), so forget “giving her a break and trying again”, stop the shoot and try to end it on a positive note. The only thing I would have done differently from Theresa would have been to use a telephoto lens and shoot from afar (since the dog seemed more at ease if Theresa kept her distance) or ending the session after the first lunge entirely and trying again another day with a different approach tailored to this specific situation.
Analyze Theresa’s images below:

All images ©Thesea Swain Photography

Notice the diference in posture and body language from the image on the left and on the right? All images ©Theresa Swain Photography

I don’t think this was a bad or mean dog. Personally I think this dog can tend to be fear-aggressive or very protective of her territory and therefore requires a good deal more space from newcomers. She doesn’t seem to have a very high threshold of tolerance and in cases like these, proper precautions should always be taken and always err on the side of caution. Theresa mentioned the dog’s owners are working with certified behaviorists to try and modify some of these behaviors and that just tells me this dog is loved and well-cared for by responsible people. If only all dogs were so lucky. Thanks again to Theresa Swain’s for sharing this experience and her photographs!

**IMPORTANT: The choice to photograph a potentially dangerous or aggressive dog should be made VERY carefully. Unless you have extensive experience in photographing different types of dogs in different circumstances, have a good understanding of canine behavior and body language, AND you are using a telephoto, AND you keep the dog leashed at all times, then you probably should err on the side of caution and avoid the whole thing. Good intentions do not make up for a lack of experience or skill in working with reactive animals. 

Communication is a Two-Way Street
Taking your own body language into account is hugely important. This does not mean mimicking dog behavior, we are not dogs and dogs are not human. The trick is to handle ourselves in a mindful manner that will make it possible for the dog to interpret what we are trying to communicate. Moving at a fast pace, slamming doors and cabinets like you do when you are running late for work can be scary for a dog that is a little more fearful. Or if you are animated in conversation, squealing and flailing your arms all over the place in jerky movements could seem a little threatening to a dog. Be mindful. It won’t just be good for the dogs you encounter, it is good for you too. To seem less threatening to a dog, take account of your energy and your pace. Act naturally and calmly, and turn your body sideways (instead of straightforward) to let the dog know you mean no harm. Be aware of the dog at all times but don’t stare, or the dog will feel challenged.

The 3 Second Rule
One of the greatest lessons I learned in Trish King’s Canine Behavior Academy and working as a volunteer for both the Sonoma and Marin Humane Societies is the 3 Second Rule, which Trish learned about at Wolf Park, a renowned wolf sanctuary, and later recommended shelter volunteers to put it in practice while working with shelter dogs. Upon meeting a new dog, don’t reach for the dog or try to pet him right away, it is better if the dog approaches you and wait him out. Until the dog feels comfortable (and you feel comfortable doing it), gently stroke the dog on the side for no more than three seconds (1 stroke, 2 stroke, 3 stroke…remove hand). If the dog leans against you or nudges you for more pets, then resume petting, if they don’t that’s ok, just be respectful of their space.

Asking a dog’s person first if it’s ok to say hello is ALWAYS a good idea. It is respectful to the person and kind to the dog. However, I like to add that the same question should be asked in some form to the dog himself! Mom might say it’s ok to pet him but who asked the dog if HE wanted to be petted by this individual? And if I haven’t drilled this point enough, please remember dogs are individuals. Just because your own dog LOVES a hefty scratch at the base of his tail or a deep and lengthy ear massage, DOES NOT mean EVERY other dog will enjoy that.

Lost in Translation
Canine body language interpretation is not an exact science, and just like any form of communication, misunderstandings can happen. While it is important to be as objective as possible, it is hard to not want to throw our own emotional subjectivity in there.
If you’ve ever been bitten, try and think about what was going on before the bite, where were you, what were you doing, how many people/animals were there, did you see any warning signs in the dog’s body language (some dogs, like Rotties will give you only a brief signal beforehand) etc. Analyzing this will give you an idea of what went wrong and what can be done to prevent a situation like this in the future.
Proper management and setting the dog up for success is key here. It is my personal belief that a dog will not bite without provocation (regardless of how slight and whether we know we are the ones provoking them) and 9 out of 10 times it can be the person’s fault due to ignorance, fast movements, moving without thinking, carelessness, not knowing the dog, not having enough time to read the body before the bite or not paying attention etc. It could happen to any of us. Some of the best and most knowledgeable behaviorists and trainers have a collection of stories of bites they’ve received. We are human, we can make mistakes. If we figure out what we could have done differently to avoid that bite, we do so in the future being careful not to generalize what happened with that individual dog that bit us; you learn and you move on.

If you want to learn more about recognizing body language in dogs I urge you to do your research and go to the source! Observe dogs at a dog park, volunteer at a shelter, read and watch everything you can get your hands on regarding canine body language, there is no shortage of material out there! Below are some of my favorite books and DVDs on this subject:

The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell    |    Canine Body Language by Brenda Aloff    |    On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas    |    Lost in Translation? by Patricia McConnell

Our next post will include a brief portion in understanding a dog’s voice, the meanings behind growls, whines and barks. But I am thrilled to announce a guest post by our fellow pet photographer Nicole Begley, who spent 13 years in her first career as a zoological animal trainer, working with every species from aardvarks to free-flight birds, and seals to primates. Nicole is also the brilliant creator of the popular Hair of the Dog, a blog dedicated to business and marketing tips for veteran and aspiring pet photographers.

Until next time, keep those eyes open!

Learning to Speak Dog Part 3: Trust

Posted on: Monday, June 25, 2012

from the Photo Lab

with a special guest post by Trish King

Read others in this series: Introduction  |  Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

Our graduating class! Trish is in the middle, yours truly in the bright yellow sweater ;)~ I miss my Saturday buddies.

You need only attend one of Trish King’s seminars to realize your relationship with your dog will benefit from all she has to teach. That’s who Trish is to me, a great teacher, and I am sure my fellow Courses in Canine Behavior grads will agree. What I learned from the books, videos, experiences, behavior consults and conversations in Trish’s Courses in Canine Behavior forever changed my view of dogs and my relationship with them.

It is for this reason that I was incredibly excited and not to mention grateful that Trish agreed to guest post for this third installment of our Dog Speak blog series, and the topic she chose to write about could not have come at a better time for me (you’ll learn why a little later). So, enough from me for now, I leave you in the care of Trish King, canine behaviorist, author, trainer and teacher.

Trust: Developing a relationship with your new dog…

You just acquired a new dog – maybe a youngster, perhaps a bit older – and you’re in love. Let’s call your dog Dolly. You were drawn to her in the shelter or rescue, and now you have her home.  She is wonderful, with just a few tiny exceptions.

For instance, when you pet her, she leans into you, putting her head on your knees. This feels great to you, but other people aren’t getting the same response. Sometimes she shies away or won’t come close to them, and occasionally you’ve heard a barely audible growl, almost under her breath. If she is lying on her bed or in her crate, she freezes when people come over to pet her. Sometimes she stares at them suspiciously. This worries you. When she meets dogs, she seems friendly, though less so when she is on leash than when she is off leash. In fact, over the three weeks you’ve had her, that behavior – like the others – has deteriorated rather than improved.

This is actually not that unusual – the dog you meet when you adopt is often not the dog you see weeks or months later. Like humans, dogs don’t display all their behaviors upon first meeting. In addition, they change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not, depending on the environment they find themselves in.

The first thing you loved about Dolly is that she seemed to bond to you instantaneously. The desire to bond is strong within dogs – they need a family (pack) to survive, and they know it. Most are above all things, social. Even dogs that are not particularly sociable will bond strongly to one or two people, and the speed with which they do it can be amazing.  In shelters, dogs often bond closely with the first person who takes them out of the run, or sits with them in it.  Once that bond has been formed, the dog feels a certain amount of security – enough that she thinks her new human (that would be you) will protect her, should danger threaten. She will also form a strong attachment to her new home environment – her territory. If it is “invaded,” she may become very suspicious. Thus, the friendly dog you met becomes the suspicious dog you now have, who is wary of strangers and defensive of her territory.

All is not lost – there are many things you can do to help Dolly. However, most of them will take more time than you wish, because what you will be trying to do will be to build trust. Unlike bonding, trust is earned, and cannot be rushed. Training of course will help immeasurably, but it is secondary to trust.

What is trust?
For your dog, it is the belief that you will keep her safe. But how do you convince an animal who must learn through experience, particularly when her previous life was either unknown or not happy? You cannot tell her, since she won’t understand. Petting shows affection, but nothing more than that. And training obedience will tell her what you expect but not what she can.

I think it is shown by consistency and predictability. If a dog can reliably predict the outcome of a certain set of circumstances, she will learn to trust that the next time that circumstance occurs, the same outcome will too. For a dog adopted in adolescence or adulthood, this means that you must be very careful. It’s easy to make meals, attention or bedtime predictable, but encounters with other people or dogs might not be so easy to manipulate. If a friend of yours comes to visit with you and – with the best of intentions – frightens your new dog, she may decide that that friend is more of an enemy.  More, she might decide that all friends of yours are potential enemies, or that all male friends or female friends are. If she meets one dog that responds inappropriately, she might generalize that behavior to all new dogs.

This is why many dog form strong attachments to the people and animals they meet in the first days or weeks of their new home life, and then try to make any new acquaintances go away by barking, snarling or snapping. You can help to avoid this, although the dog’s temperament and learning may make it difficult to completely do so.

First, make sure that you are reliable and predictable, to the best of your ability. There may well come a time when you will need to be unpredictable, but that time is not now. Make sure you set rules of the house, so that she knows what is expected of her. Feeding times, rest times and play times are all important, as are the locations where she eats, rests and plays!

Secondly, try to insure that all of her first experiences are calm, slow and friendly. If she has shown a tendency to be shy with new people, have all new people behave slightly aloof at first. It’s generally best to have guests come in, ignore the dog, sit down, and then wait for the dog to approach. When she does, the guest should not pet her for more than three or four seconds at first, since prolonged petting can produce anxiety. The dog will let the person know when she would like more interaction. If the person is to be a regular visitor, tossing treats is a great idea. If the person is a one–time visitor, then allowing a few sniffs and then bringing her back to sit with you is likely to be preferable.

Introductions to dogs should also be done carefully, if your dog appears to be nervous. Parallel walks generally work well, with the more fearful dog initiating any interaction. Anxious or fearful dogs generally do not like to be followed by other dogs, and usually want to sniff the rear end of the new dog first to get a quick introduction without the intimidation of eye contact.

I’d suggest continuing with this pattern for weeks and possibly months, depending on how quickly your dog shows relaxation in new situations. Allow time for latent learning – don’t have new experiences follow one another too quickly. She will become overwhelmed, and the learning will stop. Patience is key.

As your dog learns that you are trustworthy, experiences that would have frightened her previously will stop. She will look to you for guidance…and of course, that’s what true leadership is.

~Trish King

Trish is a nationally known  speaker, behavior consultant, trainer and teacher whose versatility, expertise  and empathy make her unique in her field.  What sets Trish apart is her  ability to relate to and enjoy both dogs and humans.  Trish has taught the Canine Behavior Academy for dog  professionals and dog lovers for over 10 years.  In addition to continuing  at the Marin Humane Society, this school – now named Courses in Canine  Behavior – will be located at several different venues, including  The Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, California, and the Sacramento SPCA  in Sacramento.  Over her long career, Trish has seen thousands of dogs of  every breed, shape and size.  She understands that your dog is different  from every other dog, just as you are, and will need a personalized plan for  improvement. Trish will work with you to help you decide the best course for  your dog.  She will offer a variety of realistic options that will provide  you with maximum benefits for your situation.  Her clients have found her  to be very easy to work with, flexible and understanding of their  needs. Trish was the Director of Behavior & Training at the Marin  Humane Society for 23 years.  Her department set the standard for shelters  and training facilities across the country.

Willow (left) our fearful foster pup immediately took to Corbin (right), and earning her trust has been an incredible experience.

This guest post by Trish could not have come at a better time for us. About three weeks ago, we became foster parents to a female, 5 month-old German Shepherd mix pup named Willow who came to the Sonoma Humane Society from Clearlake County Animal Control. When Willow arrived at the shelter, she was terrified of everything and was starting to shut down. The amazing director of behavior and training at SHS recommended she go into foster care and we volunteered to take her in and work with her to try and bring her out of her shell and show her what a loving home environment is like in hopes of prepping her for adoption. Willow completely opens up in the company of other dogs, and she has quickly become bonded to our pup Corbin. Trish’s techniques and tips on earning a dog’s trust have been immensely helpful and Willow has slowly but surely been making some lovely progress.
Our next blog post will be dedicated to Emotions in Dogs and how to recognize them through body language, something that I find invaluable in working with dogs and particularly now in working with a very fearful little girl. I will keep you posted on Willow’s progress and would love to hear your stories of living with/rehabilitating a fearful dog.

If you ever have an opportunity to see Trish speak or attend one of her classes, I would highly recommend you go. To see a list of seminars and workshops available or to meet with Trish about a particular behavior issue you may have with your dog, visit her website right here.

Learning to “Speak Dog” Part 2: Space, The Forgotten Frontier

Posted on: Tuesday, June 5, 2012

from the Photo Lab

Guest Blogging by Jessica Dolce

Read others in this series: Introduction  |  Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

Space. Some us us like a lot of it and some of us prefer closeness… whether we are old friends or just met. Either way, it is a personal preference; one that should be respected. Believe it or not, it is the same in the world of dogs, except in their world space is a HUGE deal. Expercts believe in fact that all aggression-relted issues in dogs tend to be about space: taking it, protecting it, you name it.

A key to understanding canine behavior involves understanding a dog’s needs; and since space is such a huge part of it, I could not have been more excited to have Jessica Dolce, dog lover, dog walker, blogger and the person behind the hugely popular DINOS: Dogs In Need Of Space guest blog for us today! Please make sure and visit the Team DINOS Facebook page and check out the Team DINOS shop, filled with great products (designed in collaboration with Jessica by our very own Design Lab Creative Studio!) to help support people living with DINOS dogs and spread a positive message to the community.

I’ve been dog walking for almost ten years. I’ve also worked and volunteered in animal shelters and in just about every pet related business on the planet. I hang with dogs full time and they’ve been kind enough to teach me what they need to feel safe and happy in our world.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from dogs is a simple one that we humans have a hard time understanding: dogs have personal boundaries. Just like people, sometimes dogs needs space.

They need space for a lot of different reasons. Some of the dogs I walk need space from other dogs because they just had surgery and are in pain. Or they’re reactive and are learning how to stay calm around dogs in public. Many of them are adolescents with no manners who need space in order to learn polite greetings. And some are fine with dogs, but terrified of strange people. A bunch are just old and don’t want to be bothered. Fair enough, right? But day after day, as I walk my pals, I encounter a real problem for us: many well meaning people have no control over their dogs (or themselves). People allow their dogs to drag them across the street, forcing nose-to-nose greetings with strange dogs. Or they ignore leash laws and let their dogs run loose in designated on-leash areas.

When I encounter these scenarios I feel like I’m robbed of my ability to do what’s best for the dogs I’m walking. The dogs are telling me what they need – space – but I can’t always get it for them, because people aren’t respecting our boundaries. I can keep my dogs on leash and train them until the cows came home, but no matter how solid their sit-stay and ‘leave it’ is, our successes are ruined by setbacks caused by unwanted, uninvited encounters with dogs that are not under their owner’s control.

I’m not sure why, but it seems that somewhere along the way humans have started to think that a “normal” dog is one that can and should meet all dogs, at all times, and like it. So we mistakenly let their dogs run up to every strange dog they see, assuming that all dogs want and need to meet. And this leads to two problems: there are lots of unwanted, sometimes unsafe, encounters between dogs. And there are lots of people who think their dog is bad because they fail in these set ups.

From my work in shelters I know that many people think their dog is “bad” because they don’t like other dogs or because they are reactive. That really stresses people out –thinking they have a bad dog – and sometimes they think this means they’re bad owners. When people are unhappy with their dogs, they don’t always keep them. So I think it’s important for people to know that being able to interact with all dogs, at all times, is not a requirement for being a “good” dog.

I know the dogs I walk and work with at the shelter. They are good dogs, even if they don’t want strange dogs or humans up in their faces. They just need a little space when they’re out in public. That’s all. They’re DINOS. Dogs in Need of Space.

Giving dogs space allows more dogs to be successful out in the world. Here’s a few reasons why:
Many, many dogs need slow introductions to strange dogs. Most dogs dislike nose-to-nose greetings. It’s not natural for them.
Leashed dogs are typically not comfortable meeting an off leash dog. It’s an out of whack dynamic. One dog is restrained, the other loose and moving freely.
And some dogs are comfortable meeting dogs any which way, but are working and need space, like service dogs. Service dogs need space to do their jobs properly.
There are even some dogs with illnesses, like epilepsy, that make it dangerous for them to interact with strange dogs.

You don’t need to be an expert on dog communication or body language to understand this concept. If your back hurts, would you want a stranger running up to you on the street and jumping on you? Would you stay calm if an excited stranger chased you down the block? If you were busy working at your desk, would you want someone poking you in the butt? Of course not. Well, dogs don’t like it either. And that’s ok.

We all have a responsibility to properly manage our dogs and obey leash laws. If we do that, and act respectfully toward one another, there’s enough room for all of us – DINOS included – to enjoy public spaces together.

Here’s what we can do to help DINOS and please remember to have compassion. One day your dog might become a DINOS due to illness, injury, old age, or a bad experience with another dog. At one time or another in their lives, almost every dog is a DINOS.

-Please have your dogs under your control at all times. If there are leash laws, please obey them. Even if your dog is friendly.
-Ask permission before you allow yourself or your dogs to approach an unfamiliar dog.
-Wait for an answer.
-If it’s no, please don’t be offended or speak harsh words. You never know what another person and their dogs are going through.
-Allow them enough space to pass safely.

Be polite, be responsible, be compassionate.

I think we can do this as a community of dog-lovers. We can help create safe public spaces for everyone to enjoy. The dogs really need us to do this for them. A few seconds of polite communication between humans can save them a ton of stress.

Dogs do so much for us. We owe them one.

Jessica Dolce

Jessica Dolce is an animal welfare advocate. She’s spent the past ten years walking dogs and working with shelter dogs in Philadelphia and Maine. Jessica blogs at notesfromadogwalker.com and can be found cheering people on over at the DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space Facebook page.

I am a DINOS: a Dog in Need of Space. I need space from other dogs, even if they are friendly. I need space because I am a working dog. I am recovering from surgery. I am a senior citizen. I am scared. I am contagious. I am uncomfortable around other dogs. I am an epileptic. I am a service dog. I am afraid of people, even if other dogs love them. I am learning leash manners. I am blind. I am in training to become a Guide Dog. I am reactive. I am a dog. I need space. Please respect my personal boundaries. Obey leash laws. Ask permission before approaching. Have your dogs under your control at all times. I am a DINOS. I am a good dog.

Theme by Blogmilk   Coded by Brandi Bernoskie