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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Take as many photos and videos as you can on your own
- Commission an artist to create a painting or etching from one of your photos
- Build a memory collage or scrapbook with photos, mementoes and written memories
- Have a stone or plaque engraved with your dog’s name, dates and a meaningful message
- Plant a garden in memory of your dog and let the blooms symbolize your enduring love
- Contribute to a charitable cause in your dog’s name
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.
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.