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Integrating Animal Photography into your Business

Lesson 3 of 31

Animal Behavior: Differences Between Dogs & Cats

Norah Levine

Integrating Animal Photography into your Business

Norah Levine

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Lesson Info

3. Animal Behavior: Differences Between Dogs & Cats

Lesson Info

Animal Behavior: Differences Between Dogs & Cats

So we'll go through kind of a little bit about dogs first. So some important things to note, or maybe review, for some of you. For me, dogs are the most common type of pet that I photograph, so they're most common, most popular for commission portraits. I don't know why, I would love to kind of make a campaign for cat portraits. So maybe that'll be my next step. And I know one of you here does a lot of cat, right, Catherine, you do a lot of cat stuff. Dogs tend to adapt to their environment a little bit more. We know kind of why that is, it's not just a stigma. But they're more used to stranger interaction and they're just a little bit more adaptable in general than cats are. But you don't need to be an expert dog trainer at all. I know I've learned a lot from the experts that I've spent time around from my own observations. You definitely don't have, if you're thinking that you have to know everything about dogs, you don't. Dogs have a tremendously obvious response to their environmen...

t, in many ways, it's obvious, in some ways they have subtle, they also have subtle cues to their environment. They show you how they feel, you know, in environments, they react to things, they react to people, other animals, and just their face in general. So many dogs know basic commands, and some do not. I've photographed dogs that have no clue what a sit and stay is, no care in the world about it. And some know a lot, so I have a range of completely trained dogs to not trained at all. So it really does shift from shoot to shoot. Shelter dogs, I've gone in and had shelter dogs know how to sit better than somebody who hired me to come into their home, so just because dogs are in animal shelters doesn't mean they don't know things or won't respond to your energy. But it's definitely a different environment. Happy dog signals. I put 'em in quotes because we're kind of assigning human emotion to animals. I mean, I do that to my pets all the time. But yeah, so they're happy because we're attributing those emotions to them, but these are signals that can give us information throughout the shoot, and I want to really stress that the context matters very much. So what are we looking for when we're photographing dogs? I mean, in general, we want them to be relaxed, feel comfortable, and that's really what's going to sell and what our clients want. So we want them to have kind of happy, relaxed emotions. They're very similar to people's gestures, so we want soft, relaxed features. We want their eyes to be soft and relaxed. Kind of wandering around like they're not concerned or overly intensely involved in something. We want their ears to be perked up, I mean, ideally I love to have perked ears in the images. That's not always a requirement, but I love having kind of perked up ears or floppy and kind of relaxed. Obviously with dogs with ears that are standing up, they're always gonna be that way, so. Tails, we want a slow, easy wag. Or a faster wag can mean excited, that's the point where we need to consider the context. Faster wags can be kind of a nervous indication, so just keeping an eye on that. So a wagging tail isn't always necessarily a happy tail, but we want the slow kind of swooshy tail. We want soft mouth, soft jaw, relaxed, doesn't have to be an open mouth, but something kind of relaxed, maybe the tongue is out, maybe it's closed, but just the muscles around it are soft. We want to have the body movements and postures considered for the happy ones, you know, the side saddle, I love the side sit approach. It's very relaxed. And maybe they're coming up to you on their own, their body language is kind of, how are they engaging with you? Are they coming up to you? Are they hesitant? Are they sitting and lying down? Are they exposing their belly? That's a big one. Are they picking up a ball, trying to get you to play with them? Just consider those things in context. Their body language, kind of upright and ready, pulled together, kind of just really, kind of at attention can also be a happy indicator, a happy signal. Vocal. I don't know about you, I have like, a talking dog, so. He kind of could sound like he's barking at you, but he's really kind of talking. So if I have a client, and I could just ask about the context, you know, is he a talker? That kind of thing will give me an indication of whether this is kind of a happy reaction or if there's something else going on. So barking can mean different things. Some dogs are just vocal. So what about fearful, stressed, or aggressive dog signals? So the context really matters here. It doesn't have to be an aggressive dog or a fearful dog, there can just be moments throughout your interactions with dogs that they show you that they're having a moment of being unsure, unsteady. Owners should kind of know before you interact with them, you should find out from the owners how they generally react to strangers. So an image, I could take five shots in a row, and one image could look where the dog could look relaxed and maybe frame four is the dog looks kind of fearful, and it may not be an indication of how that dog was throughout the whole session, but that is certainly a signal and a moment that I might want to respond to during the shoot. Let's see, intensity. So, I think, you know, sometimes it can happen when the dog get like crazy highs, you know where they get really intense with food. And that doesn't mean that they're aggressive, there's just like an intensity about them. So that's something to consider. But some are jumpers, some are nippers, so there's just kind of an intensity there. It doesn't necessarily mean they're fearful, it just could be something that indicates they're just really feeling intense, so. Their eyes, I know, so worried. They do look worried, right? It's like, the eyebrow look, and they look off to the side, maybe their whites are showing in their eyes. Their eyes can be also really wide open, so that's an indicator of kind of something being a little bit off for them. And their ears. This poor Chihuahua. You know, the ears are standing up, sometimes it can mean they're listening, or it can be pinned back to the head, it's like, I'm not happy with what's going on here. So typically pinned back to the head of dogs are gonna indicate something that's feeling unsettled for them. Like I said, could be one moment, one frame, or it could be throughout the shoot. The tail. So no movement, it could be an indicator, but it's hard to tell with no movement there. But typically an alert dog has kind of a pointed tail or really quick wags, like I mentioned, could be an indicator of nerves, and that's kind of time to adjust, bring your awareness to the situation and respond accordingly. The mouth and jaw. So I don't know if you noticed, dogs sometimes will yawn a lot when they're nervous. So that can be, it's a common signal for them, so they do that to calm themselves. Licking their lips, heavy panting, and yawning are all indicators of a stress of some sort. I want to kind of disclaim that in photoshoots and interacting with dogs, there's some level of it's not normal for them to be asked to do certain things. You know, if you're putting them on a, they're kind of being asked to perform, and so they're in some level of stress involved for them, it's not all bad and we want to make sure that it's kind of, that we're supporting them and rewarding them. But noticing an excessive amount of this, it's not like, if a dog yawns, I'm gonna stop the session. You know, it's just not realistic. But I want to make sure that I can use that as an indicator to maybe switch things up or give a reward or give them some love, that kind of thing. So, body movements and postures. Kind of that lunging forward is more of an aggressive, that kind of stance of lunging forward is more of an aggressive position. Slouching and cowering, you know, their body language, just like we would, if we were feeling insecure or nervous, we kind of make ourselves a little bit smaller. And barking and backing up, if they back up when you approach them, that's an indicator that they're not okay with what's going on. And that could be your presence, it could be equipment, just the situation. Their fur, so fur standing up, like on the back of their neck, doesn't always mean that they're gonna bite you or anything like that. It's just kind of an indicator of excitement, so. It can be, also, they shed a lot. If they're nervous, a lot of dogs will shed, so that's an indicator of a little bit elevated stress. And just their muscle in general, their musculature, if it's tight, if it's stiff, it's just an indicator that they're a little bit stressed and tense. On a vocal level, lots of barking, whining, it could mean different things. Like I said, some dogs can kind of whine in excitement, and others can whine because they're nervous or scared, so. Yes, ma'am, Kenna. Norah, I just wanted to pause. We have so many questions coming in about dogs, so before we move on to talking about animal behavior and cats, if anybody in here has a question, please grab a mic, but we have a lot coming in from online. So this question is about nervousness with dogs, and do you ever find that they're nervous with a lens pointing at them, so does the camera make the animals, the dogs, nervous? Yes, the camera can make the dogs nervous. And in those situations, definitely want to introduce the camera slowly. If there are beeping signals on my camera, I make sure to turn them off, because sometimes, you know, I have a focus and it'll beep when it locks into focus, and so turning that off is a good way to deal with that. I've put treats in my camera, in my lens hood, as a way to kind of get them interested in it, so that can help, too. So the lens can make some dogs nervous. In my experience, over hundreds and hundreds of dogs, it's a pretty minimal, it's been a minimal number of animals that just will not tolerate the lens. But it does happen, and in those cases, I think we'll talk about that a little bit later as well, we can make adjustments for how to work around that as best we can, so, that's a good question. And great point, we are going to be seeing you in action in the next segment. We don't know how those animals are going to, the dogs or cats are going to react to the studio environment that we have here, so we will see some of this in action as well. But do you have any quick tips on if the animals are fearful and tense, some of those behaviors, do you stop the shoot and let them relax? Or how do you go about handling that? Well, in general, I'll have to, you know, sometimes we tend to want to be, oh! Like our voices elevate and we are very excited around dogs. With a dog like that, I would dial my energy way back, first of all, that's one thing I would do. I would probably, if they were really afraid, I would switch to a long lens and photograph from a further distance. That's happened to me before where, I tried to give it some time, so I'll take a break, for sure, take a few minutes, let them kind of settle, maybe sniff my equipment, sniff my gear, 'cause I've got a lot of smells around my camera bag, I'm sure, from different animals. So let them get accustomed to it, but I've had dogs that I started photographing and they would run away, I mean, they were just so unsure, they would kind of check me out and then run away and kind of, I'll give it some time. If after that doesn't kind of settle them down and me just staying in one place, I'm not running around chasing them trying to get it to work, forcing the issue, I'll switch to a longer lens and see if that works. So I think that's the best way if you really run into a wall with it. Alright, well let's talk about cats. Thank you for that. Sure, sure. So now it's about cats. I love them, just a disclaimer. I love dogs and cats, so I'm not one or the other kind of person, but I do feel like cats need a voice, they get a bad rap, so. There is less of a demand for commissioned portrait, and maybe we'll change that in the coming years, but Catherine will help out with that, too, so. Like I said, they're a little bit less predictable. They're just more finicky around strangers. I have a wonderful cat that's just the sweetest, and as soon as people come in the house, he's just a different guy. So that just happens. They don't generally respond to commands, although I have trained two of my cats to sit. But they don't generally respond to commands, so they're a little bit different to work with in that way. They might know them, but they don't typically respond to them, they might know how to do lots of stuff and in their mind are holding back on us. So posing's a little bit more challenging. Their shyness can make it a little bit harder to photograph, but I just think they're beautiful, so they're interesting, they're elegant, they have a lot of personality and they offer companionship to a lot of people, so tons of people have cats in their homes. So their happy signals, happy cats. Their eyes, you can see it in their eyes if they're kind of relaxed, I mean, they sleep like 18 hours a day, right? A sleepy cat's a happy cat. They have a little bit more subtle shifts than dogs do, I think. Their ears facing forward, most of the time, that's indicating a cat that's okay with the situation. They're perked up. I don't know a lot of floppy eared cats, but I know they do exist. But their ears aren't as much of an indicator of their temperament as with dogs. Their tail, usually stillness is a good sign, in my opinion. A slow swoosh is usually okay, can mean an indicator of maybe they're about to play, but just kind of an easygoing tail movement. Head-butting, nuzzling, sleeping, playing, stretching, all of those things, that body movement and posture when you see cats doing those things, it's usually a good sign, that they're feeling pretty good. I know they head-butt to kind of mark you and put their scent on you, but I just think it's 'cause they want to love on me, really. Vocal. Purring, meowing, some cats can be talkers, too, just letting you know. They either want food or they want attention, so that kind of vocal element is an indicator of happiness. Fearful or aggressive cat signals. Obviously biting, scratching, running away, hiding, and swatting, all those kinds of things are indicators that either something needs to shift or that they're not too keen on what's going on. Their eyes, if they're really wide open, that can be an indicator of fear, or if they're really narrow, can be like this guy's giving me the stink eye for sure. Can be an indicator that they're really stressed out. If their ears are pinned back, that's usually a signal that they're also stressed out. If they're arching their back, if they're standing on their side to make themselves look bigger, running sideways, that kind of thing, or hiding and running away is an indicator that they need some time. Their fur and their hair, they will definitely shed a lot. I don't know if you've taken your cat to the vet, they will lose a ton of hair, so that's an indicator of stress as well as their fur standing up and getting puffy tail, which can be also just excitement when they get their tail puffed up as well. So a twitching tail usually can be kind of a little bit of a mischievous indicator, that they're getting excited, so probably not the time to pet their belly. But these quick wags can be an indicator that sometimes it can be a little bit of a warning. And vocally, if they're growling or hissing is an indicator that they're not too happy. And purring, too, is kind of a similar, something that I learned, I don't know, it took me a while to kind of understand this, but that purring is also a calming signal for cats. So because they're purring doesn't necessarily mean they're really happy, it just could mean that they're trying to get themselves to calm down, so. Yes. Alright, we wanted to break and take some questions about cats as well. So if we have any in here about animal behavior in cats, feel free to grab a mic, but let me start with the folks at home first, and then we'll go to you, Catherine. So, can you talk a little bit about, a question had come in, do you use a flash when photographing, whether it's cats or dogs, and in terms of the behavior, does that affect the animals, and so what do you do to perhaps mitigate that? Sure, that's a good question. I bring everything with me to every shoot. So I come prepared with flash, sometimes I'll bring strobe equipment. I come prepared for different lighting scenarios. And my goal is to probably shoot natural light most of the time, and we can talk a little bit more about why that is, but really it'll give me the opportunity to work quickly and give my clients the most variety as I can in a short period of time. But sometimes dogs and cats, animals can get affected by your equipment just being in the room, and so a flash is very foreign, they're not necessarily used to flashes. Especially now with people taking phone pictures all the time, they're not usually using the flash, so it can definitely affect them. And in those cases, I'll try things a couple of times and if there really is a dramatic impact on them, then I will back away and make it work without it, 'cause their behavior and their mannerisms is more important to me than getting a better quality of light. I have to kind of pick my battles there, and in that case, I would leave the flash in my bag. Cool, thank you. Catherine? I was gonna say something to the cat behavior, just because that's nearly all that I do do, and I've learnt a lot through working with rescue cats. I see a huge range. The thing that I can really speak to with cats is that it's a lot more quick changing than dog behavior, even in the home, not just with rescue cats. I did a home session last week, I mentioned this to Kenna and Cathy over the weekend, and the couple wanted to do a family shot on the couch with their two cats, they were holding their cats and normally these cats get along. And they were sitting there quite happily with the cats, and then suddenly, one of the cats just... Was gone. No, smacked the other one, like right in the head, and it was just, you know, and of course they had envisioned this lovely, you know, and I had said to them, this really might not go okay. The thing that I just always know about cats is that it's just... It can switch quickly. It switches so fast. Yeah, and it doesn't need to be a scary thing that that happens. No. But just be ready for it, yeah, and aware of it. And also, the lady got scratched when this happened, too. A good nail trimming is advised before. It just happened so fast. Yeah, thank you for that, that's a good point.

Class Description

Pets play a large part of every household, be it the best friend or first “child.”  Yet capturing their personalities is often more difficult than just a click of the shutter.  Instructor Norah Levine’s photographs are often defined by her clean compositions and authentic moments shared by people and their pets.  Now you can join Norah as she shows you the basics of pet behavior and how to get animals comfortable with the camera.  After this class, you’ll be able to capture great images of pets AND learn how to incorporate them into your family photography.   

In this class you’ll learn:

  • How to incorporate pets into your family photography.

  • Gain an understanding of animal behavior and key body language cues.

  • Build a business model that allows you to appeal to commercial, private and nonprofit markets.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Norah Levine Book Coupon Code

Norah Levine Resource Guide

Pet Packing List

Pre Shoot Questionnaire

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes



Norah is really great and I learned a lot watching her. Even non-pet related things, like how she's continually trying to better herself were really inspiring to me. Since watching this, I've learned to take every shoot as a learning opportunity by evaluating what went right and what didn't, and thinking of what I can do next time to do better. I liked the way she showed interacting with animals in a way that doesn't stress them (well, depending on the animal there may be some level of stress anyway I guess...) too. Great class.

Chelsea Beauchamp

So inspiring! Great information on both family pet photography as a craft as well as the business side. Norah obviously knows what she's doing and has tons of experience, so it's a good chance to hear/see what it's really like to take this on as a specialty whether it's the focus of your work or one of many parts of your work. She focuses not just on the mechanics, but on the personal side of working with people and animals. You can tell she's passionate about what she does, too. It's only been one day of class and I already feel totally inspired!