Trying to get photos of animals for holiday cards is not as easy as it might seem. I am always impressed when I see well-posed photos with happy looking animals. I never start preparing for the photo as soon as I should and this year was no different. With some luck from Mother Nature which extended my training period, I squeaked out another.
I started with an idea my head of what I wanted the picture to be. I was struck with this idea watching Wilder wagging his tail. In the winter, I use a sled to drag a bale of hay out to pasture to feed the horses. The dogs come with me and one day Wilder put his front feet up on the sled, looked up at me and wagged his tail rapidly. He is the first Jack Russell I’ve had who has a full tail and it’s such different look that it gets my attention frequently. He reminded me of the Grinch’s dog, Max, when he is riding on the back of the Grinch’s sled as it races down the hill: the happy version of Max.
Back in the house, I googled to see if I could find some antlers that Wilder could wear. Lo and behold, Barkbox was including them in their December subscription box and I ordered it. Googling brought up many photos of dogs wearing antlers and sadly, many of them were not the happy version of Max. I’m sure people thought they were adorable but those of us who work with dogs and have been taught what stress looks like see it a lot more easily than others. I did not want that sad stressed look on his face when I put antlers on him. I knew I would need to do some conditioning so that he’d be able to show a happy face when he wore them.
I felt I needed to have a “Grinch” in the photo as well. I often try to have both dogs and horses represented on my card, as my training business includes both. Who better than Kizzy to be the Grinch? She too, would be the happy version, Grinch with a full grown heart.
When Kizzy came to Bookends Farm, she’d had a nickname which sort of rhymes with Grinch but is worse. Obviously I renamed her (which is another story). She was hard to catch in the early days, and not easy to work with, but over the years she has become such a big hearted pony that she is a great example of a heart which has expanded many times over. She, I decided, would wear a big red heart. I wasn’t too concerned about her comfort level as she’s worn many things on her neck from halters and lead ropes to a bridle and reins, to a winter blanket with a neck attachment.
It was December already and luckily I have a friend who was willing to take pictures for me. I have always taken my own in the past and it is very challenging to set the scene, get the picture, and click and treat the right behaviors! This year, I told myself, I’d remove that photography duty. I set a date for the photoshoot which gave me about 10 days to prepare. I knew it would be tight but also that it would light a fire under me to work on it with dedication.
I started my preparations. First I needed to think about all the component parts, as we call them. What different things would be required for my mental image to become reality? I made a list:
- Wilder wearing antlers
- Wilder standing with front feet on sled
- for duration long enough to photograph
- Wilder and Kizzy comfortable together
- Distraction of some sort of Santa’s sack
- Kizzy wearing hat
- Kizzy wearing heart
Two other components I needed but that I thought were well established already were:
- Kizzy standing on mat
- Kizzy staying on mat long enough to photograph
Three things which came up that I hadn’t foreseen were
- distraction of new person as photographer
- unexpected wobbling of things I asked Wilder to put his feet on. I’m glad this came up as during the actual photo shoot, the sled slid. It hadn’t during any of our practices but because I’d practiced with putting front feet on many things which did wobble or slightly collapse, or moved, this did not bother him for more than a couple seconds.
- Wilder’s concern with Kizzy’s proximity. He has spent a lot of time in the barn and around the horses and until recently showed no concern about them. But one day he was in the wrong place at the wrong time (I take complete responsibility) and although the horses were not chasing him, they were just going where they wanted to go, he happened to be in front and so he thought he was being chased. I was glad he’d had a previous comfort level for me to regain. I would not have tried to get a generally fearful dog through that in 10 days which is all I had.
So, how to do all this?
Antlers- Wilder had “worn” other things on his head and neck. He knew how to poke his
nose into the head hole of his harness or collar. He’d practiced putting his nose in a muzzle. So he already had that behavioral skill. Wearing something that wiggled above his head would be new though, so I’d need to start with less than a second and work my way up.
|munching down a treat while wearing his antlers|
I began by refreshing the behavior of poking his head into anything which I held in front of him: collar, harness, and muzzle. (to see a video, go to my Instagram page) In the same session, I introduced the antlers. The neck piece was nice soft fabric and adjustable with velcro. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would sit or stay in place but I waited a few days before worrying about that. To start with, I just wanted him comfortable poking his head into it. Each day, I wait another second before clicking and removing it so he got used to the feel of it, even if I was still holding onto it.
I needed to prevent him from being frightened by it at any stage (“augh, I’ve got something stuck on my head!”) which could cause him to panic and/or try and possibly succeed in getting it off. Again, I needed to PREVENT that. That meant going very slowly so that he never had reason to worry.
Once he was holding his head still for several seconds as I held on to the antlers (so that I could whip them off quickly if needed), I removed my hands for just a second, clicked and removed them before giving him his treat. He was fine with that and over time, I then could leave them on for longer periods, increasing the time by only seconds each session.
Once he was comfortable with that, I tried backing away from him, as he’d need to remain still while wearing them, again, not trying to get them off. At this point, he was on the Klimb platform as we practiced this and he has history staying on it when I walk away so that’s how I introduced that piece. I would not ask him to stand with his front feet up while wearing the antlers until we had worked on that component separately.
|anticipating his treat for "toes up" on a stool|
“Toes up”- that became my eventual verbal cue to ask him to put his front feet up on something. I started with a rolled up yoga mat. I thought this would be easy for him to grip with his toes so no worry about slipping. I didn’t have it rolled tight though and so it gave a little under his weight which he found initially worrying. Of course he had no idea what I wanted at first. I used hand targeting to encourage him to put his feet on the roll. Initially he did everything BUT put his front feet up. He jumped straight up, went around it, and stepped over it. But all that got clicked and treated. Why? Because I asked for a hand target and he touched my hand each of those times. Over time he realized it was easier to touch down on the mat for a moment, which led to resting there longer, which resulted in a rapid succession of clicks and treats, and then we had what I was after.
After this, I asked him to do the same on several different things. Things which he could get onto were most difficult because he wanted to jump on them completely. I thought this was an important phase for him to learn that it was distinctly different for him to put his front feet onto an object, rather than all of him. Pretty soon he was offering to put his feet on things I approached so I knew he had the behavior solidly. At this point, I started working on duration (the amount of time he remained there before the click) and distractions (I needed to be able to walk away from him to get out of the picture. This was distracting to him as he wanted to follow me as I stepped away). We made steady progress in both these steps, by only asking him for tiny approximations toward our goal, and repeating the easy steps frequently to keep him confident.
|Adding a little distance between us|
|Eloise in the background for moral support.|
In order to have Wilder be comfortable with Kizzy, I started by spending time with them both together. Kizzy gets hot mashes three times a day which she loves and which take time for her to eat. This was a good opportunity for me to take Wilder in the stall with her. She was busy eating so paid no attention to him and he could get used to being near her without being approached. Since Kizzy was eating, I needed to make sure she wasn’t at all threatened by Wilder’s approach. Dogs do like to eat grain and if he had started to clean up any spilled grain near her tub, she could have wanted to resource guard it. To avoid this, I made sure that Kizzy got extra treats dropped in her tub as Wilder and I were in there. This taught her that having us around while she ate was even better than eating alone.
Once Wilder’s body language told me he was relaxed in her presence, I asked him for some simple behaviors in her presence to see if he could focus and respond to me. He could and did: sits, downs, and hand touches. He was so focused on me that I began to put some distance between us until he and Kizzy were closer to each other than either one was to me. Kizzy was still busily eating and every time I returned to treat Wilder, Kizzy got treats in her tub too. This would eventually allow us to have them in the frame without me.
Now it was time to start working with them together. Here I made a mistake in when I chose to work with them. First thing in the morning, I turn everyone out except for Kizzy. She stays in to get her first hot mash of the day and is perfectly happy being left in the barn for this. I assumed (always a mistake) that she’d also be happy to stay in for a very brief training session when she was through eating. It worked conveniently into my schedule as I was cleaning stalls so as soon as she was done, I could let her into the aisle and work with them together. I should have spent a couple sessions with just Kizzy to get her into that routine. She was pretty convinced that after eating, it was time to go OUT. If I’d been training her alone, I think the rate of reinforcement and general rate of training would have been high enough to keep her happy. Instead, I assumed she would stand on her mat for short durations since she had a long history of doing that. Instead, she showed me that she'd rather go to the door and when she stepped off the mat making mistakes, Wilder immediately left too.
|working together was a blur!|
By this time, we were within a day or two of the photo shoot date and I caught a break when the weather turned very cold so that my friend said her camera wouldn’t even work (down around zero). So we delayed one day at a time until the weather warmed up and I got an extra two and a half days training which I needed! During that time I also found a hat for Kizzy to wear and so had a couple days to be sure she wasn't upset by that.
It was only on the day my friend was due to arrive that I thought about how excited Wilder gets when people visit and how he loves to leap and solicit attention. I did not know how I was going to address that if he wanted to spend all this time checking her out. Luckily, having had an opportunity to wrestle with her for a few minutes when she arrived, he was able to focus on the task at hand.
Because of the cold and scheduling, the final thing which I should have done but hadn’t, was to practice in the spot I actually wanted the photo. All our practice had been inside the barn where it was warmer! So the distractions of being out in the open added to the challenge and my friend got a LOT of pictures of me feeding and just a couple without me in the picture. Luckily, one of those was good enough to choose for the card.
Next year I'll start earlier.