My favorite work is to make lifetime images celebrating the relationship among family members and their beloved pets. It is a responsibility I take seriously. I love hearing the stories about a client’s children and pets, and love seeing old images that have warmed their hearts for years, or perhaps even inspired some part of our session that day. But every now and again, some of those images I see make me cringe. You see, part of that responsibility of celebrating the family with images that many folks don’t think about, but is always first and foremost in my mind, is to ensure the safety and well being of those living things in front of my lens during our time together. Look at these samples:
[NOTE – these images are not mine; located via Google image search]
I’ve had folks show me images not dissimilar from the 3 examples above – to demonstrate to me how “cute, playful or beautiful” they are. “What a connection our boxer has with baby Jake” or “Look at how Fido just LOVES baby Suzie…” or even “Look at how playful our lab is with baby Timmy.”
What I see in each of these 3 images is a biting incident narrowly averted.
In each of these images, the child pictured is unintentionally directly or indirectly creating a stressful situation for the dog, and the dog is signally very clearly that she is not OK with what is happening, and would like very much for it to stop. Unfortunately, most owners are not familiar with the signs the dog shares when she is anxious and uncomfortable, and only when the situation escalates to a growl or bark, will they intervene – and then usually, to discipline the dog for growling or barking.
So here’s the part where we get to the “What No One Tells You” part. When you work with your pets and children, there are signs you can be mindful of to respond if Fido is feeling anxious or stressed. If you are selecting a professional photographer – during the interview process (you are interviewing and talking with your photographer before you sign a contract, right?) – ask them how well they recognize those signs in animal body language, where have they learned about it, how do they manage the interaction? Think about the photographer’s ability to keep your children and pet safe, because at the end of the day isn’t that more important than the price you paid for the session, or your interest for a ‘cute’ image?
So what to look for? Keep on eye on signals of anxiety from Fido like lip-licking (when not eating/drinking); or lowering her tail, or rolling her eyes so predominantly the whites show – called “whale eye.” A few things to note in the sample images above – baby is making direct eye contact with beautiful dog, but being held far too close to Fido’s face. This can be perceived as confrontational and dominant behavior on part of the baby, perhaps even re-defining the hierarchy of dominance in the house (and OH YES, there is a dominance hierarchy in your home 🙂 ), and if Fido feels anxious, threatened or a need to assert herself with a bite, if even just the ‘go away and leave me alone nip’, the baby is completely vulnerable.
Image 2 shows more risk of bite danger – playing with Fido’s mouth, her teeth, taking her food or treats away, all can be stressors that contribute to behavior maybe she has not previously demonstrated. Her ears are out and down and eyes wide. It is stressful enough making images – with all the new smells, funny objects being pointed at her, strobe lights flashing..so Fido likely comes into the experience with heightened anxiety before any of this type of behavior occurs.
Finally, image 3, ears back, dog pulling away demonstrating classic whale eye – the dog is anxious, wants the child to stop, and likely if the child doesn’t stop, the dog will either retreat if she can, or bite if she cannot, to make it stop.
So now you have an idea of some of the behaviors to look for – what do you do if you see it? That’s easy. Just stop what you or the child is doing. Done! Seriously, Fido will tell you when she’s OK, you’ll see her return to what more closely resembles her normal behavior. Another important thought I share with people – if the interaction with Fido escalates to a bark or growl – our first reaction can be to scold Fido for doing that. I’d offer that is in fact the LAST THING you want to do. By scolding her, what she’s learning is that you don’t want her to warn you she’s feeling anxious and before she’s going to bite – so you’ll end up with a dog who bites with very little or no notice, and that unpredictability can turn out to be very dangerous. Let her bark and growl, she’s communicating the only way she knows how that she doesn’t like what’s going on, because someone didn’t catch her more subtle signs earlier, and if you cease that anxiety inducing behavior, both Fido and you will be happier and healthier for it.
Just this Christmas season, during a holiday mini-session at a local nursery, a client who has followed me for a number of years with her dog came in. Her dog was uneasy, and I could see it, but in the interest of serving her and getting her images done, I approached closely and in giving instruction to my client, the dog growled and showed some teeth. My client immediately scolded the dog and apologized – certainly a natural reaction. I was quick to let her know it was OK, that her pup was letting me know what I did was causing some concern, so I simply stopped that behavior, gave the pup a minute to collect himself, and we went about our business a different way he was OK with, and ended up making beautiful Christmas images. He was telling me, in the only language he knew, he wanted me to stop being close to his momma, so I did, problem solved. Good dog for communicating that.
This is the part where I advocate for using photographers who specifically brand and work with pets – vs a pro from another photographic discipline who might work with dogs on the side to fill time. For our business, I spend as much time reading and learning about animal body language as I do about refining my photography. I love to make this adorable images you and your family will have for the rest of your lives, but want to do it so everyone is safe, happy and healthy.