The Canine Client: Photographing Rescue Dogs

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of great commercial clients, but few of them are willing to roll onto their backs after the shoot so I can rub their bellies. When your client is covered in fur, however, anything goes.

The ASPCA states that approximately 3.3 millions dogs a year enter shelters in need of new homes, but only about 1.6 million ever find a family willing to adopt them. That means 1.7 million dogs a year never find the happiness they seek nor the love they deserve.

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I hope we could all change that statistic. One of the many factors affecting adoption rates is the quality of the photos. And while studies have shown that good images can increase adoption rates, most shelters lack the knowledge and the experience necessary for such photos. Thus, I wanted to do my small part to help these dogs find their forever homes.

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Rescue dogs, as you might guess, are not the most natural of portrait subjects. They are often stressed, frightened, in pain, or some combination of all three when I point the camera at them. Making successful images is an exercise in patience. And while the dog’s comfort always comes first, it’s important that they get photographed even if they don’t like it—a few minutes of discomfort is worth a lifetime of happiness with a successful adoption.

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The rescue organization with which I volunteer is dedicated primarily (if not exclusively) to saving at-risk Doberman Pinschers. Any Doberman owner will tell you that despite their fearsome reputation, they are the sweetest, most loyal of dogs, equally as ready to protect you as to crawl into your lap and lick your face. And having grown up with Dobies, I’ve always felt a connection with these big lovable goofballs.

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When the dogs are first brought in, many of them are shaking uncontrollably. To be fair, it’s not always the camera that frightens them—it’s often just meeting new people, as many of the dogs suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their owners and have thus come in with neurological disorders, hair loss due to stress, heart worms, mange and worse (I even saw a dog who had been shot in the shoulder before her owner was arrested). The rescue staff takes great pains to give the animals the TLC they deserve, to medicate them, and to offer them a safe place to recover.

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But triage only fixes the body. These animals often have broken hearts—some were thrown out the windows of moving cars. Others were chained up and abandoned. As a result, when we bring them into the studio, the dogs will often shake in fear, sometimes even urinating or defecating on themselves. These are generally extreme cases, but I’ve seen it happen more than once. And most often the dogs are afraid of men because it was a man who beat them. It’s difficult to understand why a human being would treat an animal this way.

Sounder, seen below, is a typical example. He was almost completely shut down when he entered the shelter and has healed very slowly from both the visible and invisible scars.

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This next big boy, Tango, was found by the police chained to a tree in the backyard of a drug house. He had been so neglected that the chain had grown tight around his neck and had threatened to suffocate him.

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I can’t claim that every session with each dog is amazing. But overall, we capture representative images and try to document the animals in as much detail as possible. And, sometimes when we’re lucky, the dog will show us a bit of its natural resilience as the fear is replaced with trust and, in a few cases, true happiness. I’ve made a lot of canine friends along the way, and yes—some of them even let me rub their bellies. That makes the whole endeavor worthwhile.

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To date, I’ve photographed more than two hundred rescue dogs, almost all of whom have since found new families that have promised to love them. That feels good. Not as good as doggy kisses, mind you, but it’s a close second.

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Not every dog can express the love it feels, but every dog deserves love. Please consider supporting a rescue organization near you.