Alright, we’ve all seen the holiday dog photos that make us cringe a bit. The dog might be wearing a Santa hat or one of those costumes that turns them into an elf, with those extra arms...the cute factor and hilarity factor are high, right? But although some of the photos bring smiles and honest joy...some? Some, not so much. And I am not talking about the lighting, although inside pictures are so tricky. And I am not talking about the framing (although why are Uncle Josh’s red longjohns hanging on the Christmas tree in the background? Please tell me there is not a ginch who stole Christmas theme going on here [oh my god I am so sorry I just wrote that I obviously need to ease up on the nog]). I’m talking about the dog.
The costume is pure cute and hilarious perfection.
The dog looks miserable.
You know what I’m talking about, right? The ears are down or back, or both. The mouth is closed, or open in that long-lipped way dogs use when they’re worried. Sometimes the tongue is visible, licking the nose in way ethologists call a “tongue flick” which can mean the dog is worried. The eyes (or the whole head) are staring away, glancing, awkward, or the dog may even be showing the whites of their eyes. The head may be a bit down, the body curved or hunkered, it’s all a bit—or a lot—hang-dog. This dog isn’t feeling particularly festive. The sense of “get it off me get it off me get it off me” is palpable.
So what happened? What happened to make this photo session so awkward and (from the dog’s perspective), so unpleasant? Generally, we’re looking at dogs who are uncomfortable with having stuff put on their bodies. Many dogs do indeed wear collars, harnesses, and even coats without issue. And some dogs wear costumes with absolute glee and enjoyment. But for some dogs, costumes—stuff on their heads, costumes with weird extensions, or even just anything on them other than their collar—causes discomfort or distress. And you don’t need to wait for the photos to develop to tell if your dog is in this category. When the costume comes out, do they put their ears back and head down? Do they back away? Do they paw the costume off frantically? There’s your answer.
Imagine if your roommate put something you didn’t like on your head. Maybe it smelled bad, maybe it pinched uncomfortably, or maybe you just weren’t in the mood. Then imagine they insisted you stand in their room in front of their gaming station and took a bunch of pictures. How happy would you look?
So taking terrible holiday photos is pretty easy. The real question is…how can we take those great holiday photos? The ones where your dog looks delighted? If your dog does love dressing up, then simply have at it. You can tell by their perky eyes and ears, loose and waggy bodies, and open-mouth glee. The wagging tails and the resulting tail blur in the photos...pure Christmassy joy.
n.b.: not every picture where the dog looks hang-dog means the dog was feeling unhappy. Photos can catch even joyful dogs looking alarmed or alarming. So take a bunch of pictures and delete the ones that didn’t capture the real mood.
If your dog is one of the types who just doesn’t like having stuff put on them, don’t worry. There’s help. Your holiday photos are not a lost cause. Here are some easy ideas. For each of these scenarios, if you want your dog to look happy and engaged, make sure the photography session includes things they love, like food treats, ball games, or belly rubs.
Give your dog a holiday-themed toy. Then snap to your heart’s desire as they play. You can play tug with them for a while (some hilarious “giant nose” shots can come from tug games).
Make a holiday themed spot and have your dog lay, ever-so-charmingly, in it. (Don’t know how to get your dog to lay in a spot? Try this course, which will get you there in very short order). Tartan throws, wrapped presents, a tree, Rudolph and the seven dwarves, a little red sled, let your imagination run wild.
Bake some holiday-themed dog cookies, then snap some pictures of your dog doing a lovely “leave-it” (this is also quick to train!). Imagine the possibilities - the dog gazing hopefully upon the entire tray of cookies! Then the empty tray, your dog laying dozing and reposing and very pleased with himself beside it. Add in some crumbs for effect.
Use an app to add a Santa hat and as many other seasonal accoutrements as you see fit. You can pick the best picture on your phone and simply dress it up.
If they’re comfy in a coat but not in headgear, well, it may just be time to shop for some lovely holiday-themed clothing items. Or add a nice bow to their collar!
You wear the costume. Dress up like an elf, or Santa, or...I mean, don’t let me constrain you. Then hang out with your dog! Ask a helper to take the pictures, and give them some dog treats or a dog toy to attract your dog’s attention towards them and the camera.
If your dog isn’t miserable but simply neutral, try treats. Lots of them. Pull out the costume and show it to your dog, then load them up with treats. Wait an hour. Then do it again. Tomorrow, try putting it on, and then giving your dog treats or even a short ball game. If this mini-protocol changes their mind, then presto! You have happy dog photos. Keep up with the treats throughout the session to keep them feeling the love—it will shine through the photos, I promise.
Thanks for photos: Jodi Beedell, Jackie Johnston, Emily Heitzmann, and Jean Donaldson.