Author: Brianna Bero-Buell, Trailblazer
One of my favorite parts about adventuring with my dog is taking photos of him enjoying nature. I probably spend more time photographing him than anything else! In this post, I’ll share with you some training tricks and photography tips that I’ve learned over the years to help my dog pose like a pro.
Before we dive in, please remember:
ALWAYS respect nature! Avoid going off trail and do not ask your dog to stand on delicate surfaces that may disrupt the ecosystem or put your dog’s safety – or yours – at risk. If you can’t stand there, neither should your dog. No photo is ever worth your dog’s life.
Now onto the fun stuff!
Nail down that Stay!
“Stay” is one of those absolutely ESSENTIAL cues to teach EVERY dog no matter if they are an avid adventurer or a pro couch potato. It can be a lifesaver in countless situations.
For photos, a solid stay helps you step away from your dog to capture their whole body and the landscape in the frame. Make sure you practice asking the cue and moving yourself away and into a variety of body positions like kneeling and lying down. If your dog can hold a stay no matter what you do, that gives you the option to get some low camera angles and take a variety of shots.
If your dog is just starting out learning to stay, scroll on down to the bottom of this post for some tips on how to teach stay!
Go stand on this thing!
The cue “Place” communicates to your dog “hey, get onto this here thing and stay there till I say so!” It’s a super duper useful cue when there is a really neat rock or log that might make for a cool photo. If you go urban hiking (a.k.a. strollin’ your city streets) you can even teach your dog to Place on weird objects like fire hydrants!
Teaching place is quite simple! Lead your dog with a tasty treat to whatever it is you want your dog to be on and say “Place” or whatever cue you want (just be consistent!). As they venture near the object and touch any part of their body on that thing, reward profusely! Ask for the cue again, and wait a bit longer until more of their body is on the object. Keep in mind: the dog has to initiate the contact on the object. Do not force the dog on it, especially if the object terrifies them. Move away, and try again when they are feeling braver. Place can be a really great confidence building exercise for timid dogs provided they have the freedom of choice to touch it (or not!).
Once your dog has all four (or, in our case, three!) paws on the object, ask for your stay, and take your photos! Give a release cue to let your dog know they can come off the object.
Get that eye contact!
There isn’t much more that melts my heart besides snapping a shot of Remmy gazing straight into the camera! To get that eye contact, your dog needs to learn that looking at you is the best thing since sliced bread. Use a treat to lure their gaze up towards yours and as their eyes turn to you, say “Look” (or, again, whatever word you prefer!) and reward when you lock eyes on each other. Repeat and build up the length of time between giving the cue and rewarding your dog. As the dog learns the cue, you can phase out the food lure and offer it sporadically. Do not force their face towards yours. That’s rude and not fun for anyone.
Your dog doesn’t always have to look at the camera! Some of my best shots of Remmy have been when he isn’t looking at me. There is value in capturing that stoic look a dog gets when they look off into the distance, smelling the breeze. Some of that comes from luck and having a solid enough stay that your dog won’t bolt after that thing they smell.
Is your dog wary of the camera?
Some dogs can be understandably uncomfortable with a blocky-shaped, clicky thingy (a.k.a your camera) near their face. Work on the look cue first without the camera, and then begin to gradually phase in the camera. I often toss a treat to Remmy from my camera to reinforce that good things come from looking at the blocky-shaped, clicky thingy.
You can also get your dog’s attention and capture that endlessly adorable doggy head-tilt by squeaking a squeaker or saying their favorite word like “Cookie?!” or “go bye-bye?!” Ending your tone in a lilting, higher pitched vowel sound can really work wonders! Don’t overuse it though; your dog might not respond as strongly if you ask it a million times! That goes for all behavior cues in your repertoire.
The Rule of Thirds
Before you hit the trigger, take a moment to balance the composition. By that, I mean you don’t necessarily have to have your dog take up the entire frame. Get that stunning landscape to pop, too and understand the rule of thirds. Imagine there is a tic-tac-toe board that makes a grid on your screen. Position your dog in the outer thirds of the grid. Also, try to avoid cutting off your dog’s limbs. Not literally, but try your best to get all paws in the frame.
Embrace the leash!
It’s not a bad thing to have the leash in the photo especially if it’s a rad one. It also shows you are a responsible dog owner if you are hiking in areas where dogs must be leashed. Make sure it is untangled! If you do take a leash off for a photo, make sure your dog has a reliable stay and recall and you are reasonably certain there is no chance that he’ll take off after something. If he doesn’t have a solid recall, LEAVE THAT LEASH ON!
Take a ton of photos!!!
In the digital age, you can always delete the ones that don’t turn out. But, you might also get some fantastically derpy shots that are just as worthy of sharing!
Recognize and respect when your dog just isn’t feeling it.
I can tell when Remmy is just done with taking photos. He stands with his head hanging a bit, his mouth is closed, his tail droopy, he won’t look at me, and his ears just aren’t as perky. Sometimes it’s because he’s tired. Sometimes it’s because he isn’t in the mood. I respect that. I want photography to be fun and engaging for him, and if he is visibly uncomfortable with the camera, there is no sense in wasting time and forcing him to participate – that will weaken his bond to me and create bad juju with the camera. The best shots of your dog will come when they are having as much fun as you are!
Oh, and, if you’re hiking with a group, respect the pace of the group and try not to hold up everyone while you stop for the hundredth shot of your dog. Or, hike with people who do that, too!!
Tips on teaching Stay
Decide on whatever verbal command and/or hand signal you want to use and commit to that. It can literally be whatever word you want! Start training in a quiet, low distraction place like your home. If you have multiple dogs, train each dog separately. You’ll save your sanity and the dogs will learn much faster!
When your dog is positioned near you (standing, sitting, lying down, or otherwise just being still) give your cue and wait a split second, then reward with whatever your dog loves. Start your initial session small and reward for just a couple of seconds of stillness. As your dog figures out that your cue means to keep still, steadily up the ante by taking a brief movement away from your dog, then promptly return and reward if they maintain their stay. As you build the duration of the stay, also add distance, and change up your body position (facing away, lying down, hold up your camera, walking in a circle around the dog, etc.).
Almost as important as the stay behavior is the release cue! This word lets the dog know that they can stop posing like a BAMF and come to you to continue exploring. Give the release cue (“OK!”, “Free!”, ” Break!” or whatever) when you are standing a short distance away from your dog and after you’ve asked them to stay. Reward for any movement towards you (this also helps reinforce their recall to you)!
Don’t rush the learning process! After all, you didn’t learn to drive in just one day with an instructor who spoke in a different language (but if you did, mad props to you!). You want your dog to be successful nearly every time! If they break the stay as you’re training, that’s ok!! Go back to the distance that your dog was successful and do a few extra reps to make sure that distance is reliable. When you are ready to start practicing the cue outside, set you and your dog up for success by choosing a low-distraction place and keep your dog leashed. If the area you are in is not fenced, consider using a long line (not a retractable leash) at least 15-20 ft long and keep that attached to your dog’s harness at all times.