my soul dog
If you've been following along on my Soul Dog Journey, you already know that Omega, my four-year-old hot mess Dutch Shepherd, is my soul dog. Despite his anxiety and reactivity, we connect on a level that's unlike anything I've ever felt with another dog. And because of his anxiety and reactivity, I've become incredibly aware of the lack of education and awareness around reactivity in dogs and a need for better support systems and resources for pet parents working through the struggles that come with loving a reactive dog. I've learned that I am my reactive dog's advocate, and I have to speak up on his behalf so that he can get the support to live his best life. Most of the reactive pet parents I know didn't go into this knowing the struggles they (and, more importantly, their pup) would face, but they've continued to love and advocate for their pups the best they can.
defining reactivity in dogs
As with many things in life, you could ask ten different people what defines a "reactive" dog and you would get ten different answers. In fact, I recently heard that 75% of dog owners believe their dog is in some way reactive. When I talk about reactivity in dogs I want to make sure there isn't any confusion about what I mean.
Reactivity is not aggression (though reactivity that isn't addressed can commonly lead to aggression). Reactive dogs will overreact to certain stimuli and/or situations that are stressful to them. Some common examples include sudden loud noises, barriers (like being kept on a leash or behind a window or door), children, people on bicycles, strangers, etc. They respond to these stimuli by barking excessively, lunging, snapping, and performing other exaggerated behaviors.
If you've ever witnessed this reactive behavior, you'll understand that it can take a fair bit of training and practice to condition yourself to respond appropriately. The first time our reactive dog went in for a bite, my first instinct (despite knowing better from years of working with dogs) was to insert myself into the middle of the situation. Now I've had enough training and experience to 1) know what triggers my dog and try to avoid those situations when possible 2) watch for signs that my dog is becoming stressed and remove him from the situation before it escalates, and 3) know how to appropriately divert my dog and remove him from the situation in the off-chance it does escalate.
I've learned over the years of working with Omega that a huge part of living with a reactive dog is managing that reactivity and creating an environment where the pup feels safe and secure.
Specializing in reactive dogs
As a dog photographer, your pup's safety and comfort are my main priorities at a session. Do I want to capture the most incredible images possible? Of course. But not at the expense of your dog. With reactive dogs, this is even more important. I do my absolute best to make sure I don't put your dog in a situation that makes him feel unsafe or that will trigger his anxieties. So how do I do this? By following a checklist I've set for myself whenever I'm working with reactive dogs.
- Schedule a consultation (or more than one if necessary). It's important that your pup feels comfortable with me, especially if they're reactive to strangers. I'll come to your home (or we can meet in a park or other public place depending on your level of comfort) and we can begin slow introductions with your pup. If you have specific stranger protocol with your dog I'll make sure I'm versed beforehand. This will be a low-key interaction, and we'll do everything on your dog's terms.
- Learn the dog's triggers. I want to make sure I can create a low-stress experience for your dog so I'll ask you to document your pup's triggers so I know what to try and avoid.
- Select a low-stress location. I'll help you choose a location that will provide the fewest numbers of triggers for your pup. Whether that's a quiet outdoor location or your own home, I want your pup to feel comfortable and be able to focus on enjoying the session.
- Use a long lens. If your pup is reactive to strangers or uncomfortable with my camera, I can bring a longer lens to the session in order to give them a little more space.
- Bring high-value treats. Many dogs will refuse food when they're stressed so I always bring along a variety of high-value rewards to encourage them - anything from hot dogs to peanut butter to squeaky balls. If your dog has a specific food or toy they love, let me know.
- Be patient. Dogs sense our energy, especially more sensitive reactive dogs, and it's important to remain calm and use soft voices and movements. Working with reactive dogs can sometimes take a little longer, but I promise it will all be worth it once you see the final images of your dog.
- Stop if the dog is uncomfortable. If at any point during the session your pup is letting me know they're no longer okay with what we're doing, I'll stop right then and there. If it's just a specific area we're in or a pose or expression we're trying to get from your dog, we'll move on to something else. If it's the entire session, we can talk about rescheduling for another time (and maybe even another location) when your pup will be more comfortable. I'll know if your pup becomes uncomfortable by watching for specific signs of stress.
Do you have a reactive dog that you'd love to capture some incredible images of? Book your complimentary Discovery Call now to start planning your Pet Portrait Session.
ALL AROUND THE CIRCLE
This week in the blog circle is all about niches! Keep following the circle to read about how other pet photographers are working within the pet niche or creating their own. Up next is Angela Schneider of Big White Dog Photography in Spokane, WA, living the dream life as an adventure dog photographer.