Who doesn’t love to have cute photos of their pets? Holiday photos … birthday photos … no occasion whatsoever photos.
Unfortunately, some dogs just don’t understand (or cooperate with) the affinity that their owners have for picture taking. They get worried about their owner ‘hiding’ behind the camera or pointing a smartphone at them, and frightened of the clicking and the flashing that it emits. For those dogs, “but mommy/daddy just wants to take a cute picture of you” means it is time to run and hide.
In the animal rescue industry (which I am also a part of) it’s really important that we get photos of the animals to advertise them for adoption. They can’t be just any photos either. They must be those endearing photos of a sweet, happy-go-lucky pup that says “I am FULL of personality and you know you can’t live without me.” Photos with droopy ears and dogs looking forlorn may get the sympathy vote, but not necessarily the “I’ve GOT to have that pup” response that we’re hoping for. So one day I decided to take off my rescue hat for the day and put on my dog training hat instead. It was time to teach the camera-shy dogs in our rescue program to LOVE having their picture taken. Yes. You CAN teach a dog to like something he otherwise doesn’t care for, or, is even afraid of. It just takes a little time and patience and a process called counter-conditioning. You’ll read often about counter-conditioning here as it has SO many applications for helping dogs to feel better about things in their world.
Finding That ‘Happy Place’
Counter-conditioning uses Pavlov’s classical conditioning (remember the bell, the meat and the dogs’ salivating?) to change how a dog perceives something and therefore his physiological and emotional response as well. During counter-conditioning you pair the “thing” the dog doesn’t like or is afraid of (i.e. the camera) with something the dog LOVES (typically what we call a “high value” food or treat item) and the result is that the dog begins to feel better – even happy – about the “thing”. When this process is done consistently, and broken down into steps the dog can handle (see “desensitization” below), the dog’s worry/fear about the object will be replaced with happy anticipation and enjoyment. It basically looks like this: the camera equals worry/fear; the high value treat equals happiness; the camera, THEN followed by the high value food/treat, equals happiness; therefore the camera starts to equal happiness.
Take Small Steps So You Don’t Trip
A key factor for counter-conditioning to work, however, is breaking the process down into small steps so the dog doesn’t feel worried/fearful during the process. This is called “desensitization” and it goes hand in hand with counter-conditioning, just like an old married couple. Not breaking the counter-conditioning process down into small, tolerable steps is the number one mistake that people make, and then they claim that counter-conditioning doesn’t work! I’m here to tell you … It DOES.
I’ll illustrate. Let’s say for example, you’re afraid of snakes and (for some reason) you want to work on that. The snake is the “thing” that causes you fear. Then, let’s also say that you LOVE money because you love to shop. Money and shopping are the things that make you feel happy. To change how you feel about snakes, we’re going to pair money with a snake. (Yes. I know. Just humor me for a moment.) This is the counter-conditioning part of the process.
If I just walk up to you and lay a snake around your neck then hand you a $100 bill, your fear of the snake hanging around your neck will likely overshadow any good feelings you have about that money. If that happens, counter-conditioning won’t work. We MUST break the process down into small, easy steps where you won’t feel frightened or worried about the snake. So, what if we break it down into the following: Step 1 – You look at a picture of a snake and I give you $100. We do that a few times until you are EAGER to look at the picture again and again. Step 2 – You look at a live snake that is in an aquarium 30 feet away and I give you $100. Again, we do that a few times until you are EAGER to view that snake in his aquarium from afar. Step 3 – We start to decrease the distance by a foot and for each repetition I hand you $100. We could continue this process, step by step, until you accomplish whatever the goal is you have in mind. As long as you feel SAFE (because we have broken the process down into steps you can handle) then the happiness you get from the money will be primary and will override any fear you would otherwise have. If counter-conditioning is done properly, you’ll become willing, maybe even EAGER, to be in the presence of the snake. You might even work up to touching the snake (though having it around your neck might just be too lofty a goal).
Camera-shy Dogs Turned “Camera Hogs”?
Getting back to our pets and the camera … In the case of our group’s rescue dogs, counter-conditioning worked – almost too well. They all LOVE to have their pictures taken so much now that they crowd around me and it’s nearly impossible to get a photo of just one dog!
8 Steps to Creating Your Own ‘Camera Hog’:
- Hold the camera up in front of you for 1 second (away from your face at first) to show it to your dog – praise happily and feed a REALLY tasty treat. Repeat about 5 times or until your dog gets excited to see you hold the camera up. (Put it behind your back in between repetitions.)
- Hold the camera up to your face for 1 second – praise happily and feed a REALLY tasty treat. Repeat 5 or so times or until your dog gets excited to see you do this.
- Hold the camera up to your face for longer periods of time, adding only a few seconds at a time – praise happily and feed a REALLY tasty treat. Repeat 5 or so times or until your dog gets excited to see you do this.
- Start over with holding the camera out away from your body and click the shutter or camera button (better if you can do this at first without the flash and later add the flash) – praise happily and feed a REALLY tasty treat. Repeat 5 or so times or until your dog gets excited to see you do this.
- Hold the camera up to your face for a second and click the shutter/camera button. (You are NOT trying to take a good picture at this point. Just get the dog used to this process.) – praise happily and feed a REALLY tasty treat. Repeat 5 or so times or until your dog gets excited to see you do this.
- Hold the camera up for longer periods of time before clicking the shutter/camera button – praise happily and feed a REALLY tasty treat. Repeat 5 or so times or until your dog gets excited to see you do this.
- If you were able to do steps 4, 5, and 6 without the flash on, then repeat them WITH the flash on.
- Once you’ve done these steps – AND you’ve seen eagerness from your dog that he is enjoying this process – then you can start concentrating on getting ‘good’ photos of your dog.
If at any point your dog does not appear eager and happy during the process then you need to back up and work the ‘easier’ steps with him some more, OR even find a way to break the steps down even smaller. Increasing the value of your treats is a’ trick’ that may help too. Instead of store bought treats, use bits of cheese, hotdog, or whatever else floats your dog’s boat! Just keep in mind that we may have to take a lot of photos to get the ones that we truly like and it is important that whether you get a good photo or not, keep pairing EACH shot you take with a treat to keep your dog engaged in the process.
Hopefully your dog will find this to be a great ‘game’ just as the rescue dogs did. I really did create “camera hogs” out of camera-shy dogs. The power of counter-conditioning … who knew? Give it a try with your camera-shy pup and let us know how it goes! Happy Clicking!