Today I write to the photographers out there who have taken a shine to pet photography. Photographers play a critical role in increasing awareness about dog related issues. As we all know a good picture can say many things. However badly taken pictures can do more damage than one ever intends to. So it’s important for photographers to know what it is they are saying with their pictures.
What is your dog telling you? There was a recent study done by Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher who examined photographs of people with their pets. He noted that in more than 80% of the photographs, dogs were giving out “Calming Signals“. Calming signals are signals that dogs give either to calm themselves down or to calm others around them down. It is usually an indicator of a stressor or a potential stressor around them. Typical calming signals that are frequently caught on camera include licking lips, slow blinking, turning of the head, yawning and whale eyes (where the whites of the eye are prominently showing). Why were so many dogs giving out these signals in the photos? What was the stressor in them?
The study of course focused on people hugging their dog. The theory is that dogs don’t like hugs and hence were caught giving out calming signals in these photos. However there are others who question if the dogs were giving the signals to the photographer, indicating stress at being photographed. In other case, we know the dogs are uncomfortable.
Experienced behaviourists will tell you that dogs are typically stressed by someone hugging them, someone staring them down, someone making hard eye contact or someone hovering over them. Unfortunately photography often includes all of these. We pick up what looks like a massive big eye and point it right in the dogs faces. If there are humans in the frame, they are often hugging the dog. The photographer often leans down to get a better picture of the dog, stressing the dog further. All of these combined is creating a high stress situation for the dog and that is showing in such studies.
I urge photographers to consider more polite practices when photographing dogs. Educate the subjects of your composition not to hug or sandwich the dog, but to lure the dog into the composition and keep him engaged there with treats or funny sounds. Opt for more natural poses where the dog and humans are not squished together, but are in a more organic formation that does not restrict the dog. Candids might be a much better option in this case. Try not to point the camera straight at the dog and instead opt for more profile pictures that is far more comfortable for a dog. And watch your own body language. Try not to lean towards a dog or make intense eye contact.
The most important tip of all is to look up Calming signals on the internet and learn to identify it in your photographs. Once you are sensitized to reading a dogs calming signals it is easy to work out your body language so that the dog does not see the need to signal to you.
I recently saw the above lovely picture shot by a friend. In the frame is a child and two dogs. The three of them are sitting comfortably on a blanket in a park. All three in the image are facing slightly away from each other, but are still engaged. It’s just lovely to see such a healthy respect for space that the child and dogs were having for each other. Lovely pictures like this play a crucial role in educating people on understanding the personal space of a dog. So I am hopeful that you will be producing some wonderful images that communicate the right message.
Here are some more pictures the wonderful people at Bombat Dawgz contributed towards my good photography project. Enjoy 🙂