Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com.
Dear Beast Mode,
I have two dogs, both from the same shelter. One is an absolute ham for the camera. She will sit down nicely and wait to hear the click and the ensuing praise. The other is much more fearful when someone points a camera or phone in his general direction. It amazes me that the shelter was even able to get a photo to put on its website for prospective adopters. Any time he notices a camera pointed his way, he walks off with his head and tail down and sits in his crate.
I don’t want him living in fear of something many people have in their pockets or purses. How can I get him used to seeing what’s ultimately a harmless object?
Dear Pensive Puparazzi,
Dogs are ignorant muses. They may not understand the concept of photography, but that can’t stop them from being the medium’s greatest subjects. My dog Ruby doesn’t know the first thing about shutter speed or aperture, yet she still manages to bring some smoldering looks when it’s go time.
Cynics will see my selection of your question as an excuse to post a photo of my own dog, to which I say: Here’s another picture of Ruby.
There is no shame in being camera-shy, and your dog shares this trait with some of America’s finest novelists. After a CNN crew captured footage of Thomas Pynchon in 1997, the author called the network to complain. “Let me be unambiguous: I prefer not to be photographed,” he said. Your dog has the same right, and Pynchon would argue that he is perfectly normal in this regard. “My belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists,” he said, “meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’ ” But, unlike Pynchon, your pooch doesn’t feel crushed by the mechanisms of media and fame. He’s simply scared of the camera, though he doesn’t have to be.
To help with your issue, I contacted Ellen Shershow, an Oakland, California–based photographer who specializes in canine portraiture. “It sounds like a small thing, but having patience is the most important thing you can possibly do,” she tells me. “It’s the best tool in your toolkit.”
Shershow says she always informs her clients that she doesn’t charge by the hour, as the process of luring a shy dog out of its shell can drag on. “I had a little chihuahua in my studio, and she was terrified of the camera,” she recalls. “She hid under my desk for 45 minutes. Finally, I took a very soft dog treat and I mushed it all over my camera, put the camera next to her, and just walked away. She was able to walk out on her own time, sniff the camera, and then lick it down. The camera itself became like a giver of treats. After that, she wasn’t scared anymore. She was practically posing for the camera.”
To photograph something is to act strangely toward it. Your dog reacts to this, and because you have the camera out, you may be exacerbating his sense that something is amiss. Shershow recommends having a friend take the photos while you sit near your dog or have him on your lap. “I’ll keep experimenting until I find out what’s making it easier for them,” she says, noting that some dogs prefer to have their humans in their sightlines during photo shoots.
He may not turn into a cover model instantaneously, but with a little patience, your dog will learn that the camera won’t hurt him. Just don’t go publishing those photos all over the place. Like Pynchon, he has a mystique to maintain.