Camera Shy to Camera Guy

Helping an anxious dog to overcome their fears

Every person has felt the unpleasant, sickly edge of fear at some point in their lives - and no one wants their dog to feel that way.  Unfortunately, a dog who is feeling mildly scared or anxious can look pretty innocuous.  He might pant even though it is not overly warm, flick his tongue or lick his nose, hunch over, or glance (or even move) away.  Have you seen your dog do this?  If so, read on.  You can help. 

Note: If your dog is really scared of something - hides, stops moving altogether, or acts aggressively - please contact a good, positive trainer, as the procedure described below is quite technical. In the case of moderate or serious fears, mistakes can make your dog's fear even worse. 

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa is a sled dog who recently became scared of having his picture taken.  This could be a really easy fix, you might be saying.  Just put the camera away when he's around. Presto chango.  And you'd be right - locking away my camera forevermore would have kept him feeling safe.  But he is (like everyone's dog, I would argue) a perfect-looking creature who deserves to be the subject of numerous poorly-executed photographical attempts.  In sum: I really wanted to take his picture.  So I trained him to love the camera using the power of Pavlovian conditioning. 

How did you change a scared dog's mind?

You might remember Pavlov from any introduction to psychology in school. He was the scientist who found out that you could train a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell by consistently following the bell with food.  We're co-opting Pavlov's approach, but instead of the bell we'll aim to make Mischa salivate - in other words, anticipate hopefully - when he sees the camera.

First, I separated the camera into its constituent parts: lens cap, lens, and body. (Later, I would even separate out the sound of the shutter release).  I put the lens cap into my pocket along with a baggie of really good dog treats.  Then, I went into stealth mode. When Mischa was least expecting it, I showed him the lens cap, let him sniff for two or three seconds, and then rained down ten or twenty treats, one at a time. 

  • Important Part One: Mischa did not know it was coming.
  • Important Part Two: Mischa saw the camera lens first, for 2-3 seconds. I stood as still as a statue during this part.
  • Important Part Three: After he'd seen the camera lens, I then gave him food. Lots of food. Lots.
  • Important Part Four: He never saw the camera without then getting food.  No pictures, period.

To make sure I got Important Part One right (Mischa did not know it was coming), I also showed him random non-camera items in the same way - approaching, putting my hand in my pocket, and pulling it out.  I showed him a small metal owl statue.  I showed him a tape measure.  I showed him a spoon.  None of those resulted in treats.  I wanted it to be really clear in his mind:  the lens cap?  THAT meant treats.  Everything else, like me walking up to him with my hand in my pocket?  That was meaningless.

I think I can do this.  When do I move to the next step?

Once it was perfectly, patently obvious that Mischa loved the lens cap (he saw it and jumped up, wagging, drooling, searching for his food, eyes jumping from my face to my pocket), I moved on to the lens.  He caught on, and came to love the lens.  Then I tried the fully assembled camera itself.  This took much longer than I had expected - weeks of few-times-per-week training.  You can almost certainly guess why. Mischa had seen a camera before, and it worried him.  So we carried on slowly, and I was careful to never raise the camera to my eye or take a picture, not yet.  I just showed him the camera, let him sniff and investigate, then fed him.

How much do I feed him when I show him the item?

Lots.  Or as they say in Manitoba: Really Lots.

Note: Trying to move quickly when dealing with a fearful dog is never productive - two brash steps forward, five fearful steps back.  Going at the dog's pace, however tortoiselike, is paradoxically faster. A couple of times I tried to rabbit ahead, and Mischa told me so by turning tail and leaving.  I knew to drop back immediately to an easier step.

OK.  He loves the camera. What next?

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Next came the sound of the shutter release.  When he was least expecting it, I pressed the shutter release on the camera, hidden artfully away from his sight.  I waited the requisite two seconds, and then poured out the food. I did this when I was working away at my desk, or chopping onions, or reading a book. The element of surprise is vital here.  Mischa needed to know the sound of the camera, and nothing else, predicted that food was coming. 

The sound of the shutter release? Why?

When we are helping dogs to overcome fears, it's wise to separate the scary thing into chunks the dog can handle - think lens cap, lens, camera body.  It's even better if the chunks can tickle only one sense at a time: the smell of a stranger.  The sight of a hot-air balloon.  The sound of a shutter release. Since I had found Mischa to be more fearful than I had originally guessed, I also separated out, and trained him to love, me crouching into the photographer's pose by following it with a snack.  I also pretended to take a picture, with no camera present. This predicted snacks, too.

Final step: Do the math

Once I had him loving everything separately, I started doing some math.  Add the camera pose to the camera.  Add the camera to the sound of the shutter release.  We stayed on each step until Mischa was obviously in love: looking from my face to my pockets, drooling with anticipation. Each step took days or weeks. 

Finally, I was able to start taking photographs - at first, just one every couple of days, then more often.  I continued, and continue to this day, to give him a treat every time. Cost: a small treat. Benefit: inoculation against the fear cropping up again.

I'm now free to snap as many pictures as I want. And with a face like that, well, that's Really Lots.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.