Safety First: Dogs and Kids
Not long ago, I saw something that gave me pause. It was a post on Facebook by another photographer that I follow. She is based in another state, and I follow her work because she is inspiring and talented. But, that's not why I paused at her post.
In it, she cheerfully advertised a charming mini session for young children, featuring her dog, a happy shorthaired lab mix with beautiful ginger coat. She posted a photo of him with a costume mane, the dog looked just like a little lion. Grinning with his eyes squinted, he seemed to be in heaven. I envisioned a child clinging to his happy-go-lucky neck and posing with this "lion".
That's when I felt a chill. At first, this seemed like an adorable idea, but after five years as a professional dog photographer, I have seen too many close calls that could have been avoided entirely because a dog was put in an unfamiliar and stressful situation.
Let me make one thing clear: This idea sounds cute, but is 100% unsafe. Posing a child with an unknown or unfamiliar dog, or any animal for that matter, is dangerous.
Even loyal, well trained dogs should not be used to pose with a child it does not know. Even worse, having mini sessions in which multiple children, one after another, hug and grab at the dog while it is being forced to sit still is a recipe for serious injury or worse. What's worse is that many of the signs of stress are misinterpreted by humans or altogether ignored. That's why I reached out to dog trainer Denise Holmes, owner of Love.Trust.Teach, in Fayetteville, AR.
Are certain breeds more nervous or more likely to be stressed in a portrait session?
I, personally, don't like to attribute things like nervous tendencies (or aggression or anything else) to a specific breed. I feel that it's more about genetics and raising.
What's a great way for dog owners to prepare their dogs for a portrait session with a professional photographer? When should they start?
A well-socialized dog is going to have an advantage over one that isn't- and that's for most things. If your dog is nervous or shy around strangers, then working on something like a 'Say Hi' command, followed by a treat from the person they're saying 'hi' to can help. If your dog isn't well-socialized, then beginning as soon as you know you're having a session won't hurt, but it's not a given.
What are some warning signs that a dog owner might miss that their dog is under too much stress?
The most misinterpreted sign of stress is the yawn. Most owners equate a yawn to being tired or bored but in dogs, it is more often than not, a sign of stress. Another more subtle cue that is frequently missed is lip licking. Head turning (refusing eye contact) and a 'half moon eye' where the white of the eye is prominent are also signs that your dog is unhappy or needs a break.
Is it safe to put a dog in a photo session with a child it does not know? (for example, an aunt brings her dog to the family reunion photo)
I think whether or not it's safe to put a dog in a session with an unknown child depends on several factors including the child, the dog, and the environment/situation. For something such as a family reunion photo, it would be easy enough to keep the dog near his owner and the child near his parent. However, using a dog as a photo prop (like bunnies at Easter) would be a big NO as far as I'm concerned. Additionally, I never recommend leaving young children alone and unsupervised with a dog, and that includes the family pet.
What should parents of children be doing to make sure their child is safe in a session that involves their own dog?
Assuming the dog is a family pet and already familiar with the child, I would hope the parents have already begun teaching their children appropriate interactions. Stick to the rules they've already learned and/or games they already know and routinely play together. A photo session isn't the time to introduce new things or say "Oh hey! Let's try this."
Sometimes a dog will show more obvious signs. Growling, baring teeth, or barking. Other signs are not so obvious. As Denise said, be aware of your dog for signs like yawning and the "half moon eyes". These are the ways a dog will say, "Mom, Dad, I'm really stressed right now. I don't like this situation."
Other signs can be quirky and even mistaken meekness. Some dogs lick their own noses when agitated. Almost all dogs show fear by lowering their heads and tucking back their ears.
The important thing is to recognize the signs of your dog's stress, and react accordingly-- not by punishing them for being stressed, but by taking them OUT of the stressful situation. At least, that's my recommendation.