By: Vicki DeGruy  Date: 01/7/2000 Category: | Canine Issues | Rescue |

The internet is the most powerful advertising tool that rescue's ever had! It's cheap and reaches millions of people in just a few clicks. Thousands of rescues and shelters have websites now. Pets and adopters are coming together faster and easier than ever before.

But most of us use this tool very poorly. Pick a shelter site at random, browse through photos of the animals, and what do you see? Dogs behind wire, dogs cowering in corners, dark lumpy blobs that are supposed to be dogs, and dogs with scared or angry faces that say "stay away from me!" In other words, really bad pictures that turn adopters off a lot more often than they encourage them.

Pictures can make the difference between getting a home or getting ignored. People need to make an immediate emotional connection with a dog in order to inspire them to call. A great photo makes that connection. You don't need expensive equipment or professional skill and talent to snap appealing photos of rescued dogs. The dog doesn't even to be cute! All it takes is patience, some practice, and a little bit of know-how that anyone can learn.

Required Components

  1. Digital camera: This modern miracle has eliminated the cost of film and the fear of mistakes. With digital, you can make mistakes for free and keep shooting 'til you get it right. Don't have one? If you can't get somebody to donate one, go to E-bay for great deals on used or discontinued models. You don't need the best, the latest, the most features, or the most megapixels. Almost any kind will do as long as it works. It will quickly pay for itself.
  2. Photo editing program for the computer: This is software to get the photo out of your camera and make it ready for the web. Every Windows or Mac system has a basic one built in. Your camera or printer might come with one. Microsoft Picture It, Adobe Photo Elements, and PaintShop Pro are examples of inexpensive programs you can buy. You can find older versions on E-bay for really cheap.
  3. A Location: Outdoors with a cloudy, overcast sky is best, outdoors in light shade second best. If you have to stay inside, choose the room with the brightest lights.
  4. Dog on leash.
  5. Patience.


Optional Components

  1. Patient helper(s)
  2. Small squeaky toys or any little noisemaker like car keys or a box of breathmints
  3. Clothes you can get dirty; you might be kneeling on the ground.


The Photo Session

Before getting the dog, find your location. Almost any uncluttered outdoor area will work. Since very little background will actually appear in your photos, you don't need a panoramic vista - you just don't want them to look like they were taken at the city dump. If you're working without a helper, you'll need something solid upon which to attach the leash of the dog.

Gather your equipment and fetch the dog. Before trying to shoot, let him relieve himself and run off a little steam. He'll be much more cooperative for photos. If you're working alone, tie him to something. The leash should be short, the dog shouldn't be allowed to move more than two feet in any direction. If using a helper, have him hold the leash and instruct him to keep dog within an imaginary box that's two to three feet square.

Important: Understand right off that the dog will misbehave and move a lot, especially just as you press the shutter. That's why patience is a required component! The more frustrated you become, the worse the dog will get. Expect to take some time and a lot of pictures. Your patience will be rewarded - at least one of the pictures will be good!

Crouch or kneel so the camera is at the same level as the dog. Move in or zoom in close, fill the whole frame with the dog's face and head. That's what you most want people to see: a cute doggy face with a personality inside it. Unless his body is exceptionally attractive, don't worry about the rest of him. You don't have to groom most shelter dogs before a shoot because you're shooting their faces, not their coats.

With the frame full of dog face, check the background that's visible around it, making sure a trashcan hasn't suddenly appeared or a telephone pole has grown out of his head. If it has, move yourself a little this way or that until it disappears. If you can't make it go away, move to a better location.

You're almost ready to go. Put the center of the frame directly on the dog's nose. If the dog isn't looking at you, make a little noise so he turns in your direction. Wait for the camera to focus on him. If his nose is blurry, you're too close. Move back a little and let the camera focus again. Everything sharp? Good. Get ready to rock!

Well, maybe not just yet. The dog has moved someplace else by now. Call him back or have your helper bring him back. The helper's job is to keep the dog within your field of focus. If the dog will sit, sit him. If he won't, just move the camera with him, staying parallel to him at the same distance where you first found your focus. Fill the frame with his pretty face and push the shutter button halfway down. Halfway, not all the way. This allows the camera to refocus and adjust itself properly to the light.

With the button halfway down, make a little noise, call his name, squeak the toy, or jingle the keys, anything to get him to look at you. When you like what you see in the frame, push the button down all the way - NOW!

He moved, didn't he? Oh well, take a deep breath and try again. And again. And again if you have to. It's okay, the film is free. And it's good for your character; you're developing patience. It's the nature of dogs to move when we least want but if you're patient, the good shots will come. With practice, you'll be quicker to catch them.

Just when you're getting the hang of it, the dog will get bored and stop responding to your attention-getting noises. So you'll have to try a variety of them. Chirp, meow, bark, yip, whistle, peep. Monkey sounds are always good. Hit the right sound and you'll get that endearingly tipped head that nobody can resist!

Your photo doesn't have to be technically perfect to be great. Even the homeliest dog can be made appealing when you get the right expression. What you're trying to capture is personality: you want to show a cheerful, happy looking dog that says "I'm really neat so come and check me out!"

Photo Tips

Black dogs need special treatment or they'll look like black blobs. The sun is the enemy of black dogs, so shoot them on cloudy days or in light shade. Find a medium toned background for black dog photos, avoid dark or light extremes like snow. Fill the frame with the dog as completely as you can so the camera will see only the dog and adjust itself correctly to the darkness. Use flash even if you're outdoors, it gives extra illumination to that black face. (read your camera's manual to learn how to make the flash fire when you want it to.)

Flash is also helpful on sunny days when shadows fall on the dog's face. The flash helps to lighten the shadows. Take photos both with and without flash and see which you like best.

Flash has a drawback, though: it reflects 'redeye,' that awful glare in a dog's eyes that makes him look like he's possessed by a demon. Some cameras have a 'redeye reduction' feature, but it doesn't work as well with dogs as with people because their eyes are different. Sometimes adjusting your position or turning the dog's face one direction or another will improve it. Redeye is why dog photos are best taken outdoors where you don't need flash as much.

If you must take pictures indoors, find the brightest spot in the place. Open the curtains and turn on all the lights. Many digital cameras take decent pictures indoors without flash. Try it and see if you like the result. A slightly dim photo can often be improved by lightening it with the photo editing software.

More photo tips

  1. Always shoot dogs at their level, never aim down on them from above. Put small dogs and medium sized dogs up on a table or counter.
  2. Never shoot dog that's behind a fence or in a crate. Frankly, it's a real waste of time. The camera will focus on the wire, leaving the dog all blurry, and you can't get any real expression. Take the dog out of the enclosure to take the picture.
  3. Don't use a bad picture! It's worse than no picture at all. People don't want sullen or frightened dogs, they want happy ones with a twinkle in the eye. Shoot until you get that expression or give it another try tomorrow.
  4. When shooting photos to be sent to a rescue group, for breed identification, or for permanent records, include shots of the dog's body, standing, from the front and side. Expression and cuteness isn't as important here as accuracy.

Written descriptions

Your great picture will inspire people to read the description to see if this adorable dog might really be for them. Be wise in your choice of words because they can have a much different effect than you intend!

Some of the most common pitfalls, and adoption killers, in descriptions are:

  • Excessive superlatives. When every dog on the site is "absolutely wonderful" and "perfect for your family," people get suspicious and think: "if he's so darn wonderful, why is he still there?"
  • Overly emotional appeals. "On death row!" "This dog will die in three days!" "This is a KILL shelter!" Many people already avoid so-called 'kill' shelters because they don't want to feel responsible for the death of an animal if they don't choose it as their pet. You want your website to inspire people to adopt, not make them feel guilty.
  • The brutal history. "terribly neglected," "horriby abused," "needs to learn to trust again." People assume that an unhappy history means a troubled future, fearing the dog will never forget its previous life. Although these words tug at the heart, the majority of adopters think "uh-oh, this one has baggage!" and move on to dogs with a less tragic past.
  • The unvarnished truth. "escape artist," "hates to be groomed," "doesn't like men," "he's a great dog except....." People appreciate honesty and we should be honest but when the truth is put too bluntly or too soon, adopters run far far away.

Writing a good description is a lot like writing a personal ad for yourself - you want to emphasize the positives, downplay the negatives, weed out the obviously unsuitables, and intrigue good prospects enough to make them want to meet you to learn more. You wouldn't lay out your whole tortured history or all your dislikes and hangups right up front!

The description should start with everything good that you know about the dog. The dog's past isn't necessary at this point unless it provides a plus like "raised with children." Negatives should be worded in a positive or at least neutral manner: instead of "doesn't like children," say "best suited for a home without children." For the escape artist, say "secure fenced yard required."

Here are a couple well written descriptions lifted from the website of Delaware Valley Siberian Husky Rescue, Inc. (http://www.petfinder.org/shelters/PA26.html) :

"Say hello to this striking one year old male named Canyon. One look into his big brown eyes and you know he is something special. Canyon is crate, house and leash trained. This little boy has a very hig 'self-esteem' level along with an a ton of energy. When Canyon wants to play, he will let you know it. We prefer he be in a house with a fence and children 12 or older. This is just because of his energy. He is very affectionate and loves to talk. He gets along with dogs that will let him play hard. Siberian experienced families only for a little Canyon."

"Kenai is a red and white handsome male with one blue eye, one brown. Kenai has a gentle disposition but he has never lived with small children so we don't know if he would be good with them. He loves to play fetch with his squeaky; just throw it up in the air, let it bounce and he'll jump with all four feet off the ground and catch it in mid-air. He might even invent a game to keep himself amused. Tummy rubs are also a favorite. He is well behaved in the car."

Combined with good photos that show off a dog's personality, descriptions like these are priceless in their ability to intrigue adopters!

About The Author

Vicki DeGruy's photo
Vicki DeGruy -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Vicki DeGruy |
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