Scared, Scared, oh, Snacks! How to Help Your Pet Overcome a Fear of the Camera

A white dog with black spots hides his face  with his paw.

Cleo hiding his face when I bring the camera out.

By Deanna Hurt, Stink Dog Photos

Is your pet scared of your camera? Does your pet leave the room as soon as you get it out? Does he or she give you a filthy look and turn around when you extend your cell phone to take a pet photo? I hear it all the time, “Whenever I take my camera out my dog runs away.”

It happened to me too when I first started in pet photography. I was practicing on my dog a lot and after a few weeks he would see me with the camera and sigh; It was a very audible and irritated sigh. I was so new I was only thinking of exposure and composition. I hadn’t yet learned the art of making my subjects comfortable while I take their photos.

I could use force and push the dog’s rear end down–push him or her into place. I’ve seen some other photographers do it. I’ve seen the owners do it, but it’s not my personality or my style. I want photos of a dog who is engaged, happy, and excited. I don’t want photographs of a dog who is scared with his or her ears pinned back. I also don’t want to hurt a dog or cat to get the photo I want. I want them to decide to work with me. “Pardon me lady, but this is as close to you as I want to get right now. Oh, are those my favorite snacks? Maybe just a step or two closer will be ok.”

A white dog with black spots runs through a field towards the camera.

Cleo running towards the camera.

After years of practice I’ve learned that it’s much easier to make dogs and cats comfortable than to force them into a pose. Making them comfortable is pretty easy. You just have to pay them well. “Sure, I’ll sit here and let you point that at me if you give me what I want.” What works for payment? A little hint: It’s almost always food. If it’s not food, it could be other food.

Payment can be snacks, a favorite toy, or playtime. Even just a, “good boy” or “good girl” will do for some of them. Once I figured that out my photography sessions turned into playtime. I talk excitedly. I have toys to play with. I even run and play catch with them. I ask a lot of questions about a client’s pet before I photograph them. It’s all geared towards finding out what motivates them, what makes them excited. If I know that Henry loves snacks, but his brother Harley loves a ball or a stick and could care less about snacks then I bring both to a session. I want them both to have fun. I want them both interested in me so they will look at me, not the owner, and not the squirrel making its way up the tree.

It’s not always easy to find out what works–it’s not like the dogs or cats will tell you, “Yeah, I really love feather toys, but those fake mice freak me out.” Sometimes you have to experiment with them to see what works and sometimes the thing that worked yesterday is not going to work today. So patience is extremely important. No yelling, no pushing, no holding them in place, no punishment when you take their photo.

A black and brown dog runs through a field towards the camera.

Reggie running towards the camera after play time. His owners told me he was shy with new people.

My dog, Boo Radley, loves to get his photo taken. If I get the camera out he follows me everywhere. He is paid well as a model so he loves that job. “You mean I just sit here or follow you and I get those snacks and you talk to me in that silly voice? This is awesome.” I also pay pets again at the end of a session with big squeals, pets, and more snacks. It’s their bonus for a job well done. That’s it, that’s my secret. I pay pets well when they model for me. I try to entertain them and play with them, and they typically respond with big smiles, goofy faces, ears up, and tails wagging. They even beg for more.

A black dog with a tennis ball in his mouth runs toward the camera.

Boo Radley carries a favorite toy.

So next time you take your camera out, put it on the ground and let your pets sniff it and give them some snacks. Pet them, and let them know they are doing a great job by getting so close to that scary thing. Pay them well when you take their photo and chances are soon enough when you get out your camera your pets will come running, too.

Take a look at Deanna’s gallery of pet photos, and the many adoptable pets she has photographed for PawsCo.

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