How To Get The Best Dog Group Shots
Is getting a group photo with your dogs like pulling teeth? Do they seem to scatter whenever you need them to stay still the most? Here are some musings on how to get the most out of your photos!
Would You Work For Free?
We so often expect our dogs to do the things we ask because we are the humans and they are the dogs and that's how things work. SURPRISE! That's actually not how it works! A dogs' behaviour is always based on what is motivating them. What is motivating them to avoid doing a certain thing because something unpleasant will happen if they do it, or what is motivating them to do a certain thing because something awesome will happen if they do it. I like to be fun, upbeat, and have dogs do things in exchange for things that they want. We don't work for free, so we shouldn't expect our dogs to. I can certainly say if I got handed a $50 bill every time I did the dishes, it would happen a lot more often in my house!
Food or Toys?
Both! Some dogs prefer treats, while other might like to chase a ball or stick. I have a few who enjoy being petted and loved, but very, very few. Be realistic about what actually motivates your dog. If I go to pat my dog for doing something good, he will literally duck away from my hand and look at me like I have two heads. He wants his dehydrated beef lung and he will accept nothing less!
My criteria for photos is just that dogs stay still. They can sit, stand, or lie down, whatever they find easiest. With any new dogs that I start walking I always start teaching this the same way. Feed a treat or hold a treat near their nose, then quickly pull your hand away towards your face or the camera, then immediately deliver the reward back to them. That might have been one second. One second of staying still earns them a tasty treat. Easy, right? With some dogs, especially young dogs, or our more "spirited" dogs, that motion can be quite exciting and they might chose to follow the treat instead of staying still. No big deal, doing that earns them nothing. Break the task into smaller steps. So you may just pull your hand halfway away from their face instead of all the way to your face, and then reward. Slowly build on the successes you are having and gradually add some more time between rewards. One second quickly becomes two, to three, to five, to ten.
Sometimes dogs already have this skill, and that's awesome! It makes life a lot easier, and you can add some other difficulties, like practising that skill with other dogs around. Also adding distance between you are the dogs. The same as when you were adding duration of attention and staying still, start with one step away, then go back and reward. Then perhaps two steps, and three steps. If you ever find that you are having more failure than success, just go back to the last point at which you were having success!
Use an Elevated Surface
Using an elevated surface makes working on "stay" a million times easier! It takes much more effort to jump down off a rock, and is much more of an active decision to do so. As opposed to being on flat ground where the boundaries may bit a bit more unclear. You will often see dog trainers using raised beds and platforms when training dogs, and this is why! When dogs are up on a rock or tree stump or whatever the object may be, reward them generously while up there. And if they jump down, no food happens. If they jump back on, the gravy train starts again!
I walk a border collie named Peter who, if he sees a rock or log up ahead, will run a good 20-30 feet ahead so he can jump up on it, and then wait for me to catch up to reward him. It is something that was rewarded so much that he does it without being asked.
Teaching your dog cool tricks can add a whole other awesome element to your photos! A good sit pretty, handstand, hold an object in your mouth, paws up on an object, or 'hide your eyes' can really up the "adorable" factor of your photos.
Give Them a Choice!
Never force a dog into a situation. Don't nag a dog to convince them to be part of a group shot. It's not worth your time, and it is actually a setback in your training. You don't want them to practise blowing you off. More often than not, when they see all the other dogs sitting in front of you together getting treats and being enthusiastically praised, they will feel left out and want to join in too. Forcing a dog into a situation will also make them less likely to want to do it in the future. That doesn't work for me, because I want all my clients to be as into photo taking as I am, and want to put in as little effort as possible on my part! So by letting them choose on their own when they are ready to get in on the fun, they are more likely to offer it without being asked.
Patience, Young Grasshopper.
As much as we refer to them as our "babies", or the ever so awkward "fur babies", our dogs are animals. They live in the moment, they are opportunistic, and their behaviour is always motivated by what they find fun and exciting. Chasing squirrels, wrestling, and eating dirt are all much more exciting than sitting still for photos. So don't lose your temper if they get distracted and leave. Just take a deep breath, and either make it worth their while to stick around, or just try again later. I always say, you've got their whole lives to achieve what you want to do with your dog. In training and in photography, there is always tomorrow! Don't put any extra stress on your dog or yourself when it is totally unnecessary.
The amazing pictures I see people come up with never ceases to amaze me. Use your environment and different props to add another element to your photo.
The Most Important Thing Is ...
Have fun! The best pictures are always the ones where someone is being goofy. At the end of the day, pictures are to capture the personality and joy in your subjects, and to reflect the love and joy of the person behind the camera.