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Why a senior or ill dog should not be a photographer’s model

    senior mutt stands beside a river at sunset in Spokane Valley

    Listen to this post:

    In a lot of ways, humans don’t deserve dogs.

    They are simple creatures who want our company, our guardianship and, well, our food.

    In turn, we dominate them, we abandon them and we abuse them. And I say “we” as a society because I belong to that club who believes we are marked by how we treat our most vulnerable. When enough of us fail, we all fail.

    There are certainly a good many humans who take their guardianship roles seriously and with compassion. By the goddesses, I hope I’m one of them.

    And so, when a dog is coming to the end of his life, he should be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.

    husky looks up while sitting between the legs of his mama and papa
    Deniro

    When senior dogs are used as props

    My friends, this last week or so I’ve been a little bit steamed.

    Hot under the collar.

    Straight-up pissed off in some moments.

    A friend sent me a screenshot of a post she saw in a Facebook group and said, “Is this a good idea?”

    My eyes bulged from the socket out and I said, “NO.”

    The post, in a community group out east, asked for “a senior dog over the age of 12 that may be seeing the rainbow bridge soon.” It was a model call for a workshop to teach other photographers how to photograph dogs at end of life sessions.

    Now you may recall that last year I underwent a series of educational courses to improve my understanding of the grief pet guardians endure as they prepare for the end of their pets’ lives. The anticipatory grief stage can be as overwhelming and confusing as the grief we experience when our pets die. In many ways more so, because our dog still exists right by our side and yet here we are, bracing for a life without her.

    Very little of my education dealt with the impact of these stages on the pet.

    Dogs know when they are ill or injured but we can’t possibly know if they understand that death is near for them. It is in that time that pet guardians must take control and ensure their dogs experience their end with dignity and compassion.

    All this means that no senior dog, no terminally ill dog, no dog who “may be seeing the rainbow bridge soon” should be trotted out in front of a group of people with cameras who have a goal of learning and/or building their portfolio.

    woman and senior dog share a sweet moment
    Lola and Emily

    The inappropriateness of inexperience

    Friends, I have seen groups like this in action. They swarm a dog because “dOgS luRV meEEEE” or they claim to be a “dog whisperer.” They show little respect for the dog’s personal space. They get up in the dog’s face and shoot their cameras with abandon rather than the restraint and concern I expect from myself and my friends who are professional pet photographers.

    I bore witness to one woman bragging about her lack of boundaries at a recent pet photographers event I attended in Las Vegas. She squealed as she exclaimed, “I couldn’t help myself. I missed my Frenchie so badly that I had to get kisses from the first Frenchie I saw.”

    Never mind that she didn’t ask the guardian permission or that she didn’t notice whether the dog was interested in her kisses. She just gave them.

    Aside from the fact that’s how a lot of people get nipped by dogs that are strange to them, it shows no regard for the dog’s space.

    When it comes to senior, ill or dying dogs, we encounter enhanced ethical and compassionate considerations. These dogs are at vulnerable stages in their lives. Subjecting them to the stress, discomfort and potentially invasive photography techniques of individuals who lack experience is inhumane and can cause unnecessary distress.

    We, as professional dog photographers, must place our clients’ well-being and comfort above any educational objectives.

    Stephanie Nilles with her soul dog Bam
    Stephanie and Bam

    Our dogs’ comfort and safety should be our top priorities

    Putting a senior, ill or dying dog in potentially stressful or uncomfortable situations for the sake of training photographers shows no respect for that dog’s inherent worth and their right to live their final days in peace and comfort.

    And, my friends, dogs – unlike human models – cannot give informed consent to participate in such an event. They cannot communicate their willingness, or lack thereof, to be a subject for a horde of training photographers.

    When I am called upon to photograph an end-of-life session for a human who is preparing to say her final goodbye, I take care to select a time and location that ensures the dog’s comfort.

    We go to parks that are more quiet, more secluded. I aim for times of day where those parks are less busy than normal. I became trained in off-camera flash so I could schedule appointments at any time of day. Rather than wait for the best light at the beginning and end of the day, I create light.

    And if any off-leash dog, any child, any other human came bounding toward us to see a dog, I would put myself in the middle to protect both my canine client and my human client, especially if she is feeling all those complicated emotions that come with saying goodbye.

    great Pyrenees that has crossed the rainbow bridge
    Henrietta and Hilary

    Alternative methods

    Now, I’m not one to just complain and bitch about someone else’s actions. I learned in my 13-year marketing and communications career – which featured one year as a manager of people – that no complaint should be offered without a solution.

    Instead of advertising a model call for a dog “who may be seeing the rainbow bridge soon” and subjecting a senior, ill or dying dog to an educational experiment, we could:

    • Approach animal shelters and rescue organizations: Many of these groups are in need of photos that can help a dog find a forever home.
    • Enroll in photography education: I’ve spent thousands on becoming a better photographer. I highly recommend Unleashed Education with my good friends Charlotte Reeves and Craig Turner-Bullock, who facilitate ethical and responsible photography of animals.
    • Ask our friends to borrow their dogs: You don’t need to have a senior, ill or dying dog to learn how to best photograph dogs. In fact, you’ll probably learn the most about dog photography and the respect an animal requires by working with a younger, more rambunctious dog.

    There are unlimited avenues to improve our skills while upholding the welfare and rights of our companion animals.

    Jasper

    Let’s make our dogs our top priority

    And now a section for the pet guardians who may be considering getting a bunch of free images by answering a model call such as this.

    Do better for your dog.

    He has shown you constant love and loyalty for so many years that he deserves these last walks with you to be filled with comfort and compassion.

    Instead, find a photographer who will give you undivided attention for the entirety of a session. She doesn’t have to be a professional photographer (although I prefer you use one, not only for the quality of the images but for the quality of the experience) but I implore you to do your research to find a photographer whom you love and who will create the images and artwork that will bring smiles through the tears in the coming days, months and years as you grieve your best fur friend.

    Find a photographer who will say “no, you shouldn’t have a session done” if you shouldn’t have a session done.

    Find a photographer who will take into consideration:

    • If a session might worsen the condition of an illness or an age-related ailment
    • If your dog starts to exhibit signs of anxiety or fear in the environment
    • If the dog’s health is rapidly deteriorating
    • If the session and artwork are outside your budget

    In some cases, it may be more beneficial for you to focus on providing palliative care for your dog and spending as much quality time with her as you can, rather than introducing new or additional activities like a photography session.

    Instead, you could:

    Each dog and his circumstances are unique, just like each dog has his own personality. It’s essential for us as pet guardians to carefully consider what is in the best interests of the ball of fur that has walked beside us every day for so many years.

    The most important aspect of having these mementoes – whether they be a print from a photography session or a plaque on the wall with your own photo – is ensuring that the way you memorialize your dog is a heartfelt and respectful tribute to the love and companionship your dog gave you throughout their life.

    And I’m just not sure the chaos of a teaching session will produce that.

    a woman kisses her 15-year-old husky before the dog crossed the Rainbow Bridge
    Ice and Marcy

    With love and snuggles

    When it comes to our dogs, they deserve our kindness, empathy and compassion, not just in their final years, but throughout their entire lives.

    They are sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, suffering, joy and love. And they become especially vulnerable in their senior years and at the end of their lives, just as humans do.

    It is our ethical responsibility – as pet guardians and as dog photographers – to minimize their pain and suffering and ensure they are treated with the care that preserves their dignity.

    How we treat them is a reflection of our humanity.

    Author

    Dogs. Adventure. Outdoors. These words set Angela's heart afire. Angela Schneider, an award-winning writer and dog photographer, documents the story of you and your dog and the adventures you take together. Your portraits will be a statement piece in your home, art that will make your friends and family beg to hear its story.

    15 thoughts on “Why a senior or ill dog should not be a photographer’s model”

    1. Angela,

      Absolutely spot on. I cannot add anything else to your full, frank, passionate and poignant reflection.

      Thank you so much, Heather.

    2. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughtful insights. The section addressing end-of-life pet photography for pet guardians is particularly valuable since many may not be aware of the significance of capturing these moments until it’s too late and the impact of doing so in this manner. Often they aren’t even intentionally subjecting their dogs to this type of situations, they simply don’t know better. Thank you for shedding light on the importance of tasteful and compassionate end-of-life pet photography; it’s a topic that deserves more attention and understanding so more people (guardians and photographers alike) can do better for their dogs!

    3. I cannot applaud you enough for this article. End of life photography for pets require special skills, but trotting out a dying dog in front of a bunch of photographers to teach those skills is not the way to do it.
      You gave some great suggestions as alternatives to using a pet who will be passing away soon.
      Thank you.

    4. I was dumbfounded to hear of the call for a dog model that may be nearing the end of his life! I totally agree that end-of-life-pet-photography must first and foremost take into account the well being of the dog, and under certain circumstances the pet guardian may be better off not subjecting an ill dog to a photo session at all. But when they do decide on an end-of-life session for their terminally ill or senior pet, they need to be totally at ease with the experience offered by their photographer who will handle the session with compassion and understanding of what this means to both the dog and his/her guardian.

    5. Great read! It’s unfortunate how some photographers treat end-of-life pet photography. It’s definitely a topic that should bring more attention to. Thank you for writing this and helping other pet photographers when it comes to end-of-life pet photography.

    6. Senior dogs deserve so much for what they bring into our lives. Asking to put a senior ill dog in a situation with a group of photographers staring at them at their most vulnerable moment is terrible. Thank you for writing this.

    7. Thank you so much for bringing this to light, and for offering wonderful alternative solutions! It’s so important that we treat our end of life pet photography clients (both furry and human) with respect and tenderness during what is such a difficult time in their lives.

    8. Thank you for writing this! I cringed and just about threw up when I saw the post in a local “dog friendly” group and was horrified that “professional” photographers were doing this right in my backyard. No compassion. No empathy. Selfish on their part.

      Our dog deserve the BEST! They deserve a beautiful experience out of love for them. Memories to cherish.

      I love the alternative solutions that you list to offer. Thank you so much for putting all my feelings that were swarming around in my head into words. This post gives me some peace and I know that there are other professionals that completely agree with this and the importance of why we do what we do.

    9. As some one who not only photographs rainbow sessions but has adopted end of life seniors and hospice dogs I know how sacred that time is and I am completely horrified some one would ever suggest a model call for an end of life session. Especially as a workshop for many photographers! It makes me sick thinking about it.

      I love your list of alternatives too. Very thoughtful and appropriate when an end of life session isn’t an option.

    10. Very thoughtful read on the ethics around end of life pet photography. While I can understand a photographer wanting to teach some of the different aspects you need to consider around end of life photography- having a model call to demonstrate is out of line. Sadly, this photographer probably had many applicants- just because they want images of their dogs and not thinking about what impact it could have for the dog …and themselves.

    11. So very very accurate, Angela. End of life pet photography is a very hard time for not only the pet parents, but also the photographer…at least it is for me. Making sure that each dog is comfortable is very high on the priority list. I could not agree more with what you have written here.

    12. Love that you wrote this and I saw that post and was just wowed by the ick factor. It says a lot about the artist, I cannot even imagine thinking this was ok.

      Eloquent article (slow clap) going to hug on my pups now

    13. Thank you Angela for shining a light on this horrific situation from all points of view. The viewpoint that resonated most with me is the intersection of the dog and human. We human owners and photographers bear the utmost responsibility for the compassionate care of dogs.

    14. Oh lord, I didn’t see the offending post and I’m glad I didn’t. End of life pet photography should never be the reason for a model call. Model calls can be tough on a healthy dog if they’re not handled properly!

    15. I did a google search for dog model calls and came across this.

      How about instead of an old dog that is ready to tap out for a model call, what if the quest was for grey faced, happy older dogs with ample life left to visit a fun location and entertain the lenses of dog photographers?

      And how do we teach people about dog language, the way to approach and swoon over them and have the dogs be comfortable?

      Same Vegas conference and the afghan hound. Fellow dog photographer wanted a selfie with the dog and the dog was VERY uncomfortable having a strange person so close to them. The dog was giving off clear signals that they would like to opt out instead.

      How are we as dog photographers not in tune with this body language?

      And my how I’ve grown with Blue. He is mega handsome, but doesn’t like to be greeted in the traditional “omg a doggo – squeeee!” approach – he’ll freeze, bark and give all indications that you better f*ck off or there will be trouble. He’s been this way since a puppy.

      What I’ve learned from this – meeting new people is scary. But also to slow my approach with new dogs, letting them come to me to meet me, to remain calm and to adapt my energy and approach to every dog, not dogs as a whole.

      Thank you for writing this!

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