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The APN Guide: Working with Dogs and Horses

Journal Entry: Sun Aug 14, 2016, 5:00 PM
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Most of the time working with dogs and horses as animal-models isn't quite as complicated as you may think - all you need is a little empathy and patience.
To make your start into pet photography easy here are a few tips for you.

Finding your first models
It's pretty easy to find people who are willing to let their dogs and horses be photographed by you - just ask some pet owners, either friends or try to use a local facebook group. The best thing would be to start with a friend's pet so you can concentrate on working with the animal and you and your friend will feel comfortable in this situation.
For the first few sessions I would recommend to work with well trained animals so you can focus on your image and the mood you want to create.

DSC 6512 hp by Pfeffernase

The Owner
Yes, we are talking about working with animals as models but the most important person during the photoshooting is the owner of the pet. If he or she feels uncomfortable the animal will feel the owners stress and won't relax either.
It's your job to create a casual atmosphere. Talk to the owner, let him tell you stories about the pet (everyone loves to talk about their beloved fur-babies), joke around, just let them feel that there is absolute no reason to be nervous. You will see - the pet will relax as soon as the owner does so.

Love by Pfeffernase

Know your model
This does not mean to know the one special pet you are going to photograph but to know a few basic things about body language of dogs and horses. It's crucial to see if the animal is stressed, bored, happy,... during the photoshooting and to react regarding to the emotional situation.
You may get the perfect light and composition - if the animal looks stressed out, the photograph won't work for people who know the body language of your model.

It's an incredibly broad topic and if you are interested in detail you may ask for literature but here are a few stress-signs in dogs and horses every pet photographer should know:

  • looking away
  • yawning
  • ears back
  • licking
  • panting
  • scratching
  • shaking
  • whale eyes
  • blinking
If the dog shows some of these signs it's your turn to relax the situation again. The best thing would be to take a short break, let the dog run around, play, maybe you could feed some treats to win the dog's favour. You may also ask the owner what to do to relax the dog again.
This dog was pretty stressed out by the whole photoshooting-situation:
Tarzan by Pfeffernase

Not a single trick worked to relax him again because it was me and the camera pointing on him which caused the stress. All you can do in this situation is use a very long lens to shoot from a distance and do it as casually as possible. Let the owner walk, talk, cuddle with the dog and try to capture some nice photos "on the fly".

It may be harder to tell if a horse is stressed than it is with dogs. Horses could be very introverted and you may not notice the tension until they explode. Here are some extroverted signs:
  • prancing
  • high tail
  • big eyes
  • "hissing" and loud snorting
  • flinching
To see the more introverted signs you may need empathy and experience - most horse people can't tell if the horse is stressed.
  • introversive look
  • crinkles above the eye
  • hard chin
  • tightly closed mouth
  • freezing
  • squeezed tail
  • tensed or slaggy muscles
There are different ways to relax a horse again. The two things that work the best are grazing or walking. If the horse is lowering it's head, relaxing hormones will be released and it will calm down again after a few minutes.
Walking around helps lowering the stress hormones in the body which also leads to unstress the horse.

This horse was positively stressed. She was surprised by a sudden noise, looking out for it. You can see there are no wrinkles above the eye, the muzzle may be closed but it looks relaxed. The look is curious and brave, the ears pointing towards the noise. She may have a high tonicity but she does not look like she would run home any moment.
 DSC0908 hp by Pfeffernase

Positive Stress
You may want to create some positive stress to get the horse or dog to look interested. You can get the attention of your animal-model in different ways. For horses noises of plastic bags or your reflector may work pretty good. Some horses are very relaxed, you may "bait" them with treats or their best friend walking away. Sometimes you just need to be patient and wait for the next stroller to walk by in the distance.
It works the same way with dogs. Funny noises, the treatbag or the favourite toy may lead to interested looks.
You could also use an animal-sound-app for your smartphone.

 DSC1373 hp by Pfeffernase

Go with the flow
This would be the last advice I would give you. You may have a head full of ideas, many posings you want to try out, images you want to create. But working with animal-models won't ever be as you planned it. They may have a bad day or are just too excited to sit or stand still. There is one sentence every owner tells me once or twice during the photoshooting: "Well, he/she never behaved like this before!"

A photoshooting is an absolutely special situation for the animal. It gets all the attention and it has to do things it never did during a normal walk so it won't behave as if is a normal walk. All you can do is try out and use the things that will work out.

The dog won't sit still? Great, use the ants in his pants to shoot some action photos!
The horse won't stop grazing? Great, get down on your stomach and try out the frog-perspective!

It's great fun to work with animals if you are expecting the unexpected and are willing to work without a plan ;)

Journal skin by UszatyArbuz
Photo by The-Panic
StemmyBotanist Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Ahh, body language is so important. I know cats extremely well but am lost when I'm around dogs--don't even get me started on horses. :lmao: Thank you for this tutorial, I've definitely learned a lot!
velvet-coyote Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2016
This is super helpful! I love to photograph my dog but she doesn't always want to be photographed, I'll be sure to use some of these tips to see if I can get any better shots of her! Thank you for posting this!
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