Bark Pet Photography Blog

A Shy Dog’s Moment by Sarah Sypniewski

This originally appeared on 8/15/11 on Sarah Leaps.  This version has a lot more photos!

One of the things we love most about our private photo sessions (aside from working with sick or elderly pets) is working with shy or fearful animals.  It’s pretty challenging, but it’s so completely worth it.  We had a shoot like that on August 14 with Oliver.

Oliver’s mom took advantage of our 4-0-Fido deal in the Wall Street Journal and booked a session for her beloved rescue pooch.  She warned us that he was “very timid around strangers,” but assured us that since we were females, we’d probably be okay (“all strange men terrify him,” she wrote in her email).

We let her know that we have experience with timid pups and that we specialize in working with them.  It might seem like we overstated it a tad (I mean, at what point can you really declare yourself a “specialist” in something, anyway?), but given that what we really wanted to say was, “oh, poor baby.  Don’t worry.  We know he’s probably been through so much and his heart has been hurt and we will take care of it.  We love him already and we will soothe him without even touching him and we’ll let him sniff my soul from afar,” we think our response was actually quite tempered.

When we arrived, we saw a medium-sized shepherd/hound boy peeking at us through the back gate.  A gate, we would discover, did not even belong to him.  Apparently, Oliver has endeared himself to all of the neighbors and goes on visits regularly.  His mom fetched him from the yard next door and brought him into her courtyard for the session.

The intro was without bark or growl, but he definitely was unsure.  His tail tucked itself up between his quivering haunches.  He ducked right under the patio table and eyed us from the corner. As is our practice with all timid clients, we extended our “getting to know you period” and spent the first fifteen minutes alternating between chatting with his mom and throwing treats to him from afar, enticing him to come closer, a la E.T.  We let him get used to our smells and voices (though we spoke softly and specifically kept conversation directed at him to a minimum).  He loved the treats and it didn’t take too long before he gently (SO gently!) began to take them out of our hands.  But then he’d run back over to his bed or under the patio table to eat them.  And if we made any movements at all, we’d have to start all over again.  During this period, we didn’t make eye contact with him.  We just let him feel secure and unchallenged so he could nibble freely, trusting that we would not hurt him.  I (Sarah) kept my palm open and low for him to access and never reached to pet him.

Stay away from me with that thing

Poor Oliver, just a few minutes into the session

Once we felt like we had built up a solid enough reputation with Oliver, it was time to break out the camera for him to get used to before Kim started photographing.  The movement of getting it out scared him into hiding again, but the camera itself didn’t seem to faze him, as long as I kept dispensing the treats.  I coaxed him out from under the table and by this time, he was able to stand in front us for extended periods of time without running away (I think he was starting to realize it was a much more efficient approach to getting as many treats as possible).  Since he could now hold a stance within inches of us and the camera, it was time to see if he would allow his gaze to follow the treat–no matter where it was.

I gave him a few more treats in my open palm and started using my voice to praise him, which he appeared cool with.  Then I picked a treat up and held it between my thumb and finger for him to take.  He did it without hesitation.  So I took another and raised it up.  He followed it.  I raised it higher.  He stayed with it.  I placed it right next to my eye, and that was the moment we saw each other.  I rewarded his bravery and quick progress with the treat and we did it again. And again.  And after a few more practice “watches,” Kim started clicking.  I could tell he wanted to dart.  That camera was fine when it was just sitting in Kim’s hands, but now that the huge lens was dangling in the air and pointed right at him, it was a different story.  And I saw his hind legs shuffle.  But you know what?  He didn’t move.  He looked at me.  And the treats.  And he was ready to work.

This might be okay...

This might be okay...

And boy, was he ever!  I discovered he knew how to sit and he’d stand and follow that treat with his eyes like it was his job.  He was focused and found his rhythm and didn’t lose it, even during the “costume” changes.  His moment had arrived!

Throughout our hour together–as so many timid (and non-timid) pets do–Oliver found a side of himself he may not known existed and totally immersed himself in it.  Although it happens all the time during our sessions, that moment never stops being magical to me.  It’s like the universe suddenly shifts. Sometimes it takes fifteen seconds and sometimes it takes fifteen minutes, but whenever that moment comes, it’s worth waiting for.  In that moment, the animal make the decision to stop teetering on the fence and commit with all four feet to this fantastic game that involves treats raining down from the sky with every click.  And more than that, they make the decision to connect. And I guess when it comes down to it, that’s what I’m here for.  I’m here to believe that moment will come.  I’m here to usher it in and bear witness to it.  And to celebrate its arrival like the tremendous accomplishment it is.

Oh yeah, I'm getting the hang of this now!

Oh yeah, I'm getting the hang of this now!

On my personal blog, I write about the Early Believers–the people, organizations, contests, and achievements that saw something in us before we did…the people who–because they believed in us–somehow directly had a hand in leading us to where we are now.  I guess, in a way, I try to serve in that role for all of the animals we photograph.  I’m here to try to help them feel safe enough to share the beauty their families (current or future) see so Kim can capture it forever.

His mom adopted Oliver from a rescue called Thumping Tails that had pulled him out of the East Valley Animal Shelter here in Los Angeles about six years ago.  One can only guess at the horrors he’s had to endure in his life, but there he was, standing in front of us, sitting on command, and–I kid you not–striking poses on his Beverly Hills lawn. Despite his trembling backside, he pressed on.  He trusted us–in less than an hour.  No matter how many times I see it, it always, ALWAYS nearly reduces me to tears.  Animals’ capacity for forgiveness, trust, and love is way beyond my human comprehension.

As part of our pre-shoot correspondence, we always ask our clients if they have any sort of vision for specific shots.  Oliver’s mom wrote to us, simply–and powerfully–“I only have 2 photos…both taken by male photographers…in both, he has a terrified look in his eyes.  My only goal for the photo session is to have a photo of him looking relaxed and happy.”  As you can see,  Kim got some photos that just break your heart with joy, don’t they?   Despite whatever old ghosts continue to haunt him (and shame on whoever put them there), Oliver overcame them.  He’s a beautiful, sweet boy whose mom will now have images to match.

We love that we get to spend time with him and all of the others who just need a little time, patience, and belief shared with them…and we love that we can give the humans behind the animals photographs that are REAL.  Oliver’s mom saved him.  And continues to every day.  And we feel so lucky that we can provide her a keepsake that actually looks like her precious boy.  They both deserve it.  And then some.

I'm a model...ya know wut I mean...

I'm a model...ya know wut I mean...