A Different and Artistic Angle on the Intellect of Dogs
However well you navigate the endless rabbit hole of social media, you’ll no doubt notice that pet photography in all its forms has blossomed there. Pet selfies, pet portraits, funny moments, model pup poses, and all the loving candid moments in between — our pets have managed to flood our camera rolls and bring boundless joy and laughs to whomever is fortunate enough to catch a glimpse.
As a working professional in the field of dog training and behavior, I have also found myself snapping multiple photos of dogs and their guardians. I often find myself looking back at these amazing moments when the mood strikes, and reminisce with owners months after they were captured. Photography and dogs are a perfect combination. It’s an activity that all can enjoy and are willing to try, further boosting confidence of both the human and the dogs, as it acts as another outlet for strengthening mutual connection and understanding.
However, as a professional knowledgeable in canine body language, I experience a different level of understanding when photographing my clients’ pets. Apart from the usual happy parting of the mouth, bright eyes, and slow wagging tail as the camera clicks at ten frames per second, many do not consider the small factors that can make a dog feel uncomfortable about being in the spotlight. If these signs go unnoticed it may end unpleasantly for both parties — the dog may become camera shy, or even behave aggressively.
Fortunately, there are many ways to capture amazing pet photos without intruding on their personal space and comfort level. Whenever I am fortunate enough to bring my Canon camera with me to a training session, I spend some time observing the comfort zone of the canine subject. A desensitization period always takes place before the shoot, in which I simply lay my camera on the ground and reward for any interest in the camera, such as looking in the same direction with relaxed and loose body movements, sniffing the camera, sniffing around the area close to the camera, looking at the camera and then looking back at either the owners or myself for further direction, or even simply ignoring the camera.
If I notice the dog displaying stress signals such as a side-eye (dog looking away with whites of the eyes showing), running away from the camera, intense barking, tail tucking, flattened ears, tight jaw and rigid body frozen in place, or continuous lip licking, I quickly divert the dog’s attention and put the camera away. Some dogs have even shown these signals when having their pictures taken with a smartphone.
Dog training and behavior management is my primary service, and once I have worked on with owners and their dogs for a period of time. As an alternate activity I offer to provide a mini-photoshoot and share some of the photos so that they may add them to the family album. My experience thus far has been a balance between waiting for the right shot, as many professional animal photographers do, and maneuvering the dog into comfortable and natural positions and seeing where it can lead.
I quickly started noticing that some dogs are not interested in being photographed and would rather snuggle up against your leg, while some dogs prefer to focus their attention everywhere except the squeak of the ball and the camera lens. On the other end of the spectrum, there are dogs I have worked with that will hold a sit and stay cue for several minutes, providing a perfect canine smile and offering a perfect profile.
A dog that may be camera shy and curious in equal measure is a situation where not only do I manage to capture some more unique and rare behaviors, but also get a chance to see the intellectual capacity of our canine companions from a different angle. Such an instance was beautifully captured last summer, when I was fortunate enough to photograph a young female Basenji in the picturesque village of Sag Harbor, Long Island. Our photography session gave me the chance to observe a behavior that I’d never seen before and would probably not have had the chance to witness under different circumstances.
I first met Bala and her owners in the spring of 2018, having connected through the Sag Harbor Veterinary Clinic. Bala’s owners were seeking a professional dog trainer to continue positive reinforcement training with Bala, specifically working on her acute noise sensitivity and boosting her self-confidence around novel situations and stimuli. Ultimately, the goal was to enlarge the circle of people Bala trusted and have an individual with the required knowledge and experience to watch over, play with, feed, and walk her as needed.
Using the verbal cues Bala had already learned with her previous positive reinforcement trainer, desensitization and play seemed to be the best management plan for Bala and her owners. I was notified that, although she well-socialized and cared for alongside her littermates during her first six months at Harmony Hounds (a state licensed and winner of ethical Basenji breeding located in Georgia), growing up on an 87-acre family farm had one drawback: lack of any urban noises. Thus, the slightest unfamiliar noise would startle Bala and novel stimuli, including already introduced objects that were not in their usual place, would also cause Bala to be particularly cautious. Additionally, Bala’s circle of trust with other humans was small and highly selective, and it would take a few introductions for Bala to feel comfortable enough to coexist in the same space without feeling the need to constantly hide or be on the defensive. I was no exception.
Although I had worked with Bala and her owners a few times, she was still cautious during the first few minutes of initial greetings. There were long periods in between our meetups, and unfortunately our meetings were pretty short, lasting only about an hour before I disappeared again. However, despite being on the back burner of Bala’s life for the longest time, last summer I seemed to have made a breakthrough and wiggled my way into the perimeter of her small trust circle. As a sign of officially confirming this new status of mine, she showed me more of the “curious troublemaker” side of her personality; this was a comfort level that was only achieved with humans whom she trusted enough to let her guard down, allowing her tightly curled Basenji tail to let loose.
I started to see her usual lowered head, lifted front paw, and cautious approach being replaced by curious forehead wrinkles, a confident sit, a more relaxed and unraveled tail, and all eyes on the prize: treats! You could almost see the little gears in her brain turning as she plotted her move to do whatever she could to get the treat out of your grasp. And that is precisely what I was hoping for.
Play and problem solving proved not only a useful strategy to continue to strengthen my bond with this cautious yet scheming trickster, but it also aided in acclimating Bala to the sound of the camera shutter and the lens pointing in her direction from various angles and distances. The end result was a light brown Basenji transforming herself into a confident canine photography subject, with a curiosity for this new mechanism (at a safe distance, of course).
Her desire to always keep an eye on me was very clear, but she was flexible in her approach, spying on me by employing a nearby full-length mirror. Little Miss Einstein was able to understand that from a safe space, such as hiding under the bed, she could use the mirror as a way to tell when her owners entered and exited the house without ever seeing the real-life door and leaving the safety of her hiding spot. I realized that I could use Bala’s smart trick of looking at me in the mirror to create a photo of her that really captured her spirit while also working within her comfort zone.
Recent studies have been conducted by Tiffani Howell and colleagues in both 2011 and in 2013, and published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.<span style=”font-size: 60%; vertical-align: super;”>1,2</span> They explored the problem-solving capacities of domestic dogs when using a mirror, and how possible it is for a dog to use a mirror to find hidden food. Although more research should be conducted to further explore the role of age, breed, and perhaps individual personality, it was found that dogs were able to use the mirror as a tool to help navigate strategically placed food, and a small handful of dogs who took part in the study acknowledged a human reflected back at them from the mirror.
Using the mirror to her advantage, Bala was able to keep an eye on me by looking at my reflection in the mirror in front of her, even though I was physically positioned behind her. For overly cautious dogs such as Bala, especially in new circumstances and with less familiar people, having her back to me was a big step.
The ability to process my reflection in the mirror and keep me in her keen 240-degree peripheral vision probably helped Bala track my every movement. Thus, with her new sentry tactic and a healthy dose of confidence, Bala was now able to extend the sniffing circumference of the floor around her, searching for bits of treats that may have been left behind from our last activity. While it is known that sniffing is an appeasing display of behavior, one that signals that the dog is non-confrontational and a non-threat to those in the vicinity, sniffing for treats or other food items is also a natural foraging behavior that can help reduce stress, reduce anxiety, build confidence, and create pleasurable experiences for our dogs. In the case of Bala, I believe both types of behavior were present at the time.
This rare instance of being able to photograph Bala demonstrating her understanding and maneuvering of the reflective properties of the mirror was not only a sign of trust and comfort in my presence, but allowed for a different angle on Bala’s thought processes.
Being able to show a different range of behaviors of dogs and document a day in their life is not only rewarding, but also very useful to me professionally. Regardless of whether I manage to shoot the shots I initially set out to capture, the process acts as a socialization exercise and another approach to relating with our pets, both for owners and for animal care experts. While I did have a general goal to shoot some nice high-quality photos to give to her owners for memorabilia, I went in without a step-by-step plan and just went with Bala’s flow. This allowed the photo capturing to be fluid, engaging, and a fun experience for Bala, and a delight for her owners to observe. It was clear from the moment that I met Bala that she enjoyed attention; it was only a matter of finding a fun and creative way to shine the spotlight on her within her comfort zone. The photography session was a big success. Paired with nothing but positive socialization and high-value food rewards, the experience seemed to shift this young Basenji’s mindset from high alert and constantly on the defensive, allowing her to become a regal and sophisticated pup model.
- Howell, T.J., and Bennett, P. (2011). Can dogs (Canis familiaris) use a mirror to solve a problem? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 6:1 306–312.
- Howell, T.J., Toukhsati, S., Conduit, R., and Bennett, P. (2013). Do dogs use a mirror to find hidden food? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 8:6, 425–430.
Maya Friedberg, VSA-CDT, is a certified dog trainer with a passion for helping owners and their pets reach mutual understanding and a more positive connection. Initially planning to pursue veterinary school, Maya pursued her other interest in social psychology, gravitating more towards group and observational behavior in both humans and dogs. With current plans on pursuing an M.S. in I-O psychology this coming fall, working with private clients with a myriad of backgrounds and experiences acts is an ongoing inspiration for Maya as she continues to strive to help people understand and navigate issues in various areas of personal and professional life.