Friday, April 3, 2015

Fear, Part 4: Choice Is Magic

One of the lessons that has taken me longest to learn in working with fearful dogs is that pushing forward moves things backwards. Seems like a nonsensical statement but when it comes to any animal experiencing generalized fear within an environment, the very best thing to do is to wait and let the animal choose to come to you.
Newly rescued Chima is pretty worried about Troy here but she is learning that he won't reach out to grab at her so she's willing to come closer and check him out. 

This can be maddening when you have a brand new foster dog who is nervously trembling across the room from you and you want to let them know that you will take care of them, but I promise you waiting things out and letting the dog choose to come to you will exponentially speed up how quickly they trust you.

I'm not saying you can't do things to help them along. Set up the environment and positive "consequences" so that choosing to check you out or explore the room pays off. They are scared and terrified and sometimes even leaning forward to sniff the floor in front of them is going to be a brave triumph. Moving forward might be reinforced by the fact that you've previously placed some super delicious bits of meat around their bed and it becomes a reinforcing behavior to move around and explore. As they get braver, you could reinforce them looking towards you by gently tossing a piece of treat across the room and then looking away. As one of my heroes in the behavior analysis field, Dr. Susan Friedman says "control the environment not the animal." That means you need to be putting your energy into setting up your dog's environment so they have the best chance of succeeding.

Dr. Friedman also talks about choice being a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers do not need to be learned - they are just part of what makes animals tick and we react to those reinforcers without needing to understand that "wow, that is a good thing."  Food, water, shelter are all things that we know to seek out and are primary reinforcers. But did you know the ability to act and make choices and have a sense of control over one's life is also one of those things that is naturally reinforcing to us mammals? So empower that timid foster dog. Grabbing them and giving them a hug will teach them that you are someone to be worried about and avoided. Sitting back and watching from afar as they come to a decision to approach you, or even just look over at you, teaches them that you are safe and are going to respect their desire for some space.

Again, I am not saying to do nothing. But what you will be doing is being calm, quiet, and watching carefully for ways you can set up great positive outcomes that make the behavior you want to see (in this case moving around and being willing to approach people) worth performing.

If you hold back your excitement and let the animal make the choice to get to know you, instead of forcing that on the animal by picking them up for a cuddle, I promise you, you will earn a different kind of trust. They will understand that you will let them take things at a pace that feels safe to them and that kind of respect for an animal will only strengthen the trust needed for a strong relationship to grow.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fear, Part 3: Are you listening?

It seems to me that the people who profess to love dogs the most are the ones who are least likely to listen to what the dog is trying to tell them. They are so busy snuggling, petting, and attempting to show the dog how much they love it that they aren't paying attention to what the dog's body language is telling them. And often those dogs are saying they need the humans to give them some space.

Put yourself in the dog's place. You are really stressed out because you've been away from everything and everyone you know for awhile now. A total stranger comes up to you, gives you a giant hug and a sloppy kiss. Now imagine a small breed dog who gets swooped into the air by this person they don't know and held there, confined and trapped by a total stranger. It would be unnerving.

Just because you are pouring your heart out to a dog and you want to show the dog how much you love them does not mean that is what the dog wants. If you truly love dogs, then you will respect them and respecting them means paying attention to their body language and "listening" to it when they say they need the humans to back off a bit. That is the most loving thing you can do for a dog - respect their space and give them the choice to come to you when they feel comfortable.

This isn't just something that foster parents need to do, it's something that everyone should do - transporters, shelter volunteers and staff, vets...  And here's the magic part - often, as soon as the dog realizes that you are responding to their body language and truly listening they will start to trust you and will warm up to you much quicker than if you just forced that love and attention on them.

So what should you be watching for? What does a dog do that let's you know they aren't comfortable?

First let's start with the stuff that often gets missed:

Looking away,yawning, lip licking, and inattention - When a dog is in a new situation with new people or dogs, they will often look away from the person or dog to let them know they are not challenging or confronting them. They may lick their lips or yawn. They may act like they have no interest in the person trying so hard to love them. These gestures are signs that the dog wants to calm a situation down and that they are not feeling very comfortable. They aren't signs they are tired or hungry or bored but are signs the dog may need some space. Watch carefully! These are some pretty subtle things but are often the first clues that you as the human need to take things down a notch.
Look away: This littly guy has quite the studied indifference to the camera. He's not bored though, he's just very nervous and worried.

Yawning: Huckleberry is pretty concerned about all the photos I am snapping and when he gave me this yawn, I knew it was time to put the camera away.

The classic lip lick: Rigby was a bit uncomfortable wearing a coat and after sitting for me patiently, he started to show signs he was ready to be done with both coat and photo shoot. 

Disinterest: Rigby is a little overwhelmed by this stranger leaning over him so he opted to sniff around rather than interact directly with her.

Leaning back or away - If the dog is standing, often their body will lean away from the person/dog that they are a bit overwhelmed by. If the dog is being held, you will feel them trying to pull away and create some distance from you.
Lean away: This little shelter guy is pushing away from the shelter volunteer, trying to create distance (and hopefully escape, probably) from being held.
Lean away: Frodo hates water and here he is at the beach, nervous but curious, with his weight shifted back so he can easily get away if necessary.

Lean away: Huckleberry is showing all kinds of signs to Saul that he wants some space  - leaning away, ears pinned, tight face and his tail is probably tucked as well.

Ears - This is a big one and a much easier thing to notice. Dogs' ears are often a window to their emotional state. Pricked, forward oriented ears and a still head are a sign of a very alert dog and an alert dog is not a relaxed dog. The clearest indication for me that a dog is uncomfortable is they will pin their ears back to their head. It doesn't matter whether the dog has droopy, upright, or even artificially altered ears - all dogs will do this when they are stressed out. It is true that some dogs will pin their ears when they are happy and excited but the difference is that those dogs will have a soft relaxed face whereas a stressed dog's face will be tight and tense.
Ear pin: Poor Inigo is very concerned about these open riser stairs.

Ear pin: Coco is on the last part of a long transport and her ears tell me she was feeling rather stressed by the whole thing.

Tail - A wagging tail can mean a lot of different things so is often misread as happy. But I've never really seen a dog keep a tightly tucked tail when they were relaxed and happy. If the dog's tail or nub is pulled tightly down it's a good sign they need some space and need you to let them make the choice to approach rather than have that approach forced on them.
Tail tuck: Moon's ears tell us she is alert, but her tail tells us it's not a "happy alert."

Panting and tight face - This is one that is regularly mistaken for a look of happiness because with their tight face and mouth open it looks a bit like they have a smile on their face. But panting (in absence of hot weather, or as the result of recent exercise) is a good sign that a dog is feeling stressed.
Panting: Newly out of the shelter, Stu is still a bit stressed out as you can see by his panting and his tight, drawn back lips

Shake off - dogs will shake off to get water out of their coat or right after waking from a nap. But often right after they experience something they find stressful they will do a shake off so it is a behavior you should pay attention to.

There are many other signs that dogs give and if you are interested in learning more I suggest checking out 4Paws University's post on stress signals, which includes some great photos and book references as well.

While I see respect as the most important reason to pay attention to what our dogs are saying to us, there is another reason as well - avoiding bites. It is rare that a dog will immediately jump to a bite as it's first choice of avoiding a person/situation. Often they give all kinds of signals that are ignored before they get to the place where they feel that they have no other option but to use their teeth. And if you've pushed a dog to the place where they feel the need to bite, you quite possibly are putting them at risk of being euthanized if they bite the wrong person. Practice makes perfect and the more often a dog's body language is ignored, the more likely they are going to drop that body language and just bite because they've learned that humans don't listen.

There is a well known book by Turid Rugaas called "On Talking Terms 
With Dogs: Calming Signals" and in it she says to "find the reasons for your dog to be stressed. By looking critically at yourself and your surroundings, you can often find out a lot all by yourself."

So next time you lean down and reach for a dog, just for a minute turn off what you want to give to the dog (love and affection) and turn on your attention to what the dog is saying they need from you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fear, Part 2: Let Go Of The Past

In the Fear Part 1 post I talked about how what most people label as abuse is more likely to be underexposure/lack of socialization. In this part I'd like to talk about a few of the different ways that using the label of "abused" does a disservice to rescue dogs and tends to hurt, not help them.

Thwarts Progress: 
I think the most detrimental thing that the label "abused" does is it sets up a picture of a dog who is irreparably damaged; a dog who needs to be accepted as they are and who will never be a relaxed and happy dog. It gives the human an out for doing the needed work and forever attaches the idea of "broken" to a dog who is so much more. I agree you need to accept the reality of the dog you have before you, that by no way means the dog can't grow, learn, and overcome some of the barriers that keep them locked in anxiety.

I think the dog that most paints this picture for me is my personal dog Chima. When she first came to us as a foster dog she would not let people near her and hated being touched. In the beginning I didn't set up any long term goal of creating an easy going dog but instead started with baby steps - first teaching her to allow short touches from a long handled artist's brush and then moving up slowly from there - always moving forward in teeny, tiny increments. In the back of my mind I figured she was never going to enjoy hanging out on the couch with me but I figured we'd just keep working and see where we ended up.
You can barely see Chima behind Troy in this picture with her tail down. She would approach from behind to sniff but wouldn't come close otherwise.

Getting braver and moving in for a shoe sniff. We had to keep her on a long line so that we could help her come inside without feeling like we were crowding or grabbing her. 

It took us about a year and a half, but I can tell you that she has far surpassed any expectations I had. She is a strong, independent terrier who is playful, loving, and sometimes laughingly naughty. And she now actively seeks out touch from me and loves to curl up next to me on the couch. She is happy and active, and willing to try new things - no longer confined by her fear. Had I taken the road where I just gave her love and attention and a place to sleep and eat she would maybe be a bit more relaxed but she certainly wouldn't be willing to go up to perfect strangers and let them pet her or roll on her back next to me on the couch for a belly rub. Her world is so much bigger and happier now! I didn't do anything magic. It was pretty basic training stuff. But I did allow her to move at her own pace and I made sure I didn't let myself fall into thinking she would never be more than the scared dog who arrived here. And I also didn't create a vision of the dog I wanted her to be. We just walked a path together, one baby step at a time and tried to never look further along than the next step.
Chima today: She always wants to be near me if I'm sitting down and if another dog is in my lap she finds a way to squeeze in

Chima during a Nose Work class, letting our instructor Karyn be her handler for the search

As I've said before - in the world of fostering, love is not enough. If you are going to take on a fearful dog as a foster then you owe it to the dog to try to help them start working on their fear issues. If you don't want to put that kind of work in - that's fine. I understand not everyone has the time or the patience for that kind of training. But if you don't want to put the work in, it means you need to choose foster dogs who are easy going and confident.

Attracts the wrong type of adopters:
Overly dramatizing a dog's past is also a good way to drive away the kind of thoughtful adopters that a dog really needs. I have found that the people who are drawn to the dramatic stories tend to be caught up in the moment. They rarely have thought through the reality of the time and training and environmental changes that a fearful dog needs from them. When reality hits they are frustrated and overwhelmed which will further stress out the dog. Or the dog gets returned and has their life turned upside down again. You don't want adopters who have been sucked in by a sob story. You want ones who have thought things through, talked it over with everyone in their family, and in the end decided they are willing to make the changes needed to bring a fearful dog into there lives and hopefully help that dog move past their fear.

Paints the wrong picture of what a "rescue dog" is:
One thing I've noticed too is that so many foster dogs get this label of being mistreated and damaged - even dogs with very minor fears - that saying a dog is a "rescue" has become almost synonymous with saying a dog is irreparably messed up. And that just isn't the case at all! The majority of the dogs that I foster have pretty minor things to work through and most of them are just teenage dogs who have never had someone take the time to teach them the basics of how to live in a house.

If we create this picture of rescue dogs always being "damaged" then we will drive away a lot of great adopters who maybe aren't up for a dog with extreme fear issues but are fine with a dog who needs a bit more work on house training, or is super energetic and just needs an active home, or maybe loves to chew so needs someone willing to supervise them. Do we really want to be driving these adopters away to breeders when there are so many great dogs needing homes?

This is a "rescue dog" - happy to be out of the shelter, loves car rides, people and snoozing on the back of a couch. Dobbes is available for adoption through New Rattitude once he completes heartworm treatment.

Why do we do it?
I think we need to question ourselves about why we feel it is important to attach this label to a dog. I personally think it has a lot more to do with how we want others to see us "the person who takes care of poor, abused dogs" than we think it is best for the dog. And please don't take this as me judging because I have done plenty of this labeling in the past. Would we forever want to be introduced as "this is Jane Doe, that lady who was beaten as a child"?  Would we introduce a friend that way? Making a dog forever be that "abused rescue dog" and tying them to a label does the same thing. It is seeing them for a past they had no control over rather than the dog they are today, full of potential and ready to grow.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fear, Part 1: Your Dog Was Not Abused

It is fairly common to hear rescuers and adopters of rescue dogs go on and on about their dog's history of "abuse." In this post and the next I hope to point out two things: 1, it is highly unlikely that your dog's fearful behavior came from abuse, and 2. even if it did you are doing your dog a disservice by hanging onto that label.

The reason I say this is that the highly skittish behavior that many dogs who get labeled as abused will exhibit is very common behavior for dogs who were not exposed to much outside their own home during their very important puppy phase. It is much more likely that someone bought a puppy and never took it outside the home or back yard, than that they were beating the dog mercilessly. Few people put the time into exposing their puppies to all the different environments, people, sounds, textures, etc. that they should be exposed to during those critical weeks of puppyhood when they learn what things are okay in the world. While this can somewhat be done retroactively, it can take years to help a skittish dog move past their fears that could have been managed with  a couple good months of positive exposure as a puppy. So the most common reason for your foster dog's fear and anxiety, actually the most common reason for any behavior issues your foster dog may be having is human laziness/neglect, not abuse.

Former NR foster dog Tim, a dog who hadn't been anywhere further than his back yard, found wearing a cone terrifying and his foster mom took it off soon after this photo was taken. 

If your dog has a fear of a specific thing like people wearing hats, people of a different race than you, trash cans, even the smell of certain foods - it doesn't mean your dog was abused by those people/things. It is much more likely that either the dog just generally wasn't exposed to the world like I have already mentioned, or that something scary happened during puppyhood while the dog was exposed to those things. For example, my dog Frodo is terrified of the garbage cans. I did not beat him with a garbage can. Nor did I leave him in a garbage can as punishment. What happened was that when he was a young puppy I dragged the garbage can into the garage while Frodo was leashed  next to me. He freaked out and to this day he is uneasy around the garbage can and will walk in a wide arc to get around it.

Frodo always tends to be a little concerned about things, even in his own back yard

Another reason that your dog may be fearful is genetics. Some dogs, heck - some mammals - are just more prone to this than others and some breeds even have a higher tendency toward fearful and anxious behavior. Frodo is a skittish dog who I carefully socialized from puppyhood and took through clicker training classes, etc. I promise you he's never been beaten, even though I've felt like it at times. He just has a fairly anxious temperament and managing his anxiety is something we'll always be working on.

Former foster dog Moon, showing she is pretty anxious

So examine the story that you tell yourself and others about your dog. Have you created some dark, misty back story of what happened to them in the past due to a behavior you see in the present? It's just not necessary and it's not even really factual. Don't get sucked into a drama of your own creation,

In the next post I'll talk about how holding onto your dog's past - real or imagined - can actually get in the way of your foster dog making progress.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Protect Your Heart

There is no shortage of heartache on the Internet when it comes to abandoned and neglected pets. One sees so many photos and stories of horror, neglect and abuse that it makes most of us sick inside. So this post is about how a foster parent can keep their focus on where it needs to be, without constantly being barraged by the negativity seemingly found everywhere in rescue-land. 

Here's one of those shelter photos that can break your heart - good news, this girl was fostered, treated for heartworm infection, and then adopted by a great family!
I want to empower you to make choices on where you focus your attention. This is not a case of burying your head in the sand. To me this is a case of budgeting energy. I have x amount of energy to devote to rescue and I want to maximize the good I can do with that energy. Spending time letting my emotions be manipulated by sad photos  of dogs I have no way of helping uses up energy without providing any help to dogs. And if you keep using up more energy than you have, eventually you will stop rescuing. 

All the photos of dogs you see in this post are dogs that I personally know have lived amazing lives thanks to foster parents and volunteers who put their energy where it counts. This is Mingus, who started out life as a forgotten dog in a pet store and now spends his time supervising his mom at their coffee shop in Seattle.

See - it's a budget issue - do not spend more than you have. How do you make these choices though? That's the tough one. But over the years I learned to ask myself a question each time I was looking at something that made me feel overwhelmed and helpless. I asked "is there something I can do to change this?" If the answer is no then I save that energy and use it where it can make a difference. 

Some people have whined to me about how it is so overwhelming because there is so much of this rescue heartache in their Facebook feed. Here's the thing - it is in your feed because YOU put it there. You choose who you follow on Facebook. You have the option of unfriending, unfollowing or seeing less of the posts from certain people or organizations. So do not bemoan how overwhelming their posts are. Just choose not to have them in your feed.

Darby was born blind and was terrified when she ended up in a shelter. Thanks to volunteers, she now lives a happy life in NW Washington state.

It may seem harsh or some people would claim it is putting one's head in the sand. But who do you want to be - the person who knows about all the bad there is out there and is overwhelmed and depressed and does nothing, or the person who focuses their energy on where they can make a difference? I choose to be the latter. And because I've made that choice for myself, I continue to be able to make a positive change in the world. 

Lucia had never spent time outside her home and was put on Craigslist when her family had a baby that scared her. After lots of work in foster care, she now leads  a very happy life in the country with her retired mom.

In the group that I volunteer for, I mentor the foster parents in the Pacific Northwest. One of the first suggestions I make to new foster parents is to not look at the "Urgent List" of dogs that our group sends out each week. I know that is going to irritate the powers that be, but I also know that I have had foster parent after foster parent thank me for that advice and tell me how overwhelming they found the list to be. 

The reality is that here in the Seattle area we are not going to be able to help that homeless dog in Alabama or Florida and so looking through the photos of a list of dogs who are on "last call" is not going to do any good for those dogs but will eat away at your spirit. If a foster parent doesn't currently have an open spot for a foster dog there is no reason to use up your energy looking at those poor pathetic faces. 

Instead, use that energy on the foster dog you are currently trying to help. Take better photos of them for their online adoption listings, dedicate yourself to working on an issue that they have like impulse control or resource guarding, take part in an adoption event... That is where your energy is going to do good - not staring at the photos of dogs you can't help.

Huckleberry was tormented by the young kids of his family before being surrendered to rescue. With time and training he is  now doing great and is the center of his new mom and dad's world.

If you do have an opening for a foster dog, check with your state or regional coordinator. They may know of a dog you can help and you will never need to look at the list. It is their job to stay aware of the urgent dogs in your area so let them deal with the sad stories and take care of yourself. 

Rescue work has a very high burn out rate so if you really care about dogs, then take care of yourself because you won't help anyone if you are a burnt out mess. Manage your time. Manage your energy. Know your limits. Work on learning how to say no. Those are skills that will help you save the most dogs because volunteers stay around longer if they are focused on what they can do rather than the hopelessness of what they can't. 

Gramercy spent a long time in a no kill shelter after being pulled from a shelter. Because of an injury as a young pup, he had spinal pain and some deformities in his legs. In foster care he got the surgery he needed and now lives with his doting moms in NW Washington. 

The reality is there is just as much out there that can make you hopeful and energized as there is that can steal that hope. Make the choice of where you want your focus to be. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

How to Increase Your Dog's Adoption Chances in One Easy Step

"A picture is worth a thousand words" the saying goes. So we need to make sure that is the case with our foster dogs' adoption site pictures. As much as we want to say that people are focusing on a dog's personality and temperament, it is the picture that first makes them stop and want to learn more. The more you can make those pictures reach out and grab people's attention, the better your foster dog's chances are for finding a new home.

I can't stress this enough. It makes me so sad when I see great dogs getting overlooked because the photos of them are mediocre shots taken quickly just to have something to get the dog listed on the Web. I think part of the problem these days is it is so easy just to pull out our phone and snap some quick photos. But no matter how fancy your phone is, they just don't seem to be able to take the more detailed, personable photos that really grab attention.

I'm not saying that you have to be Annie Leibovitz. We are not talking art here. I personally don't have a big fancy camera - just a Panasonic point and shoot. But I'm able to coax some great photos out of it. I still fall back on my phone, but when it comes to getting the photos that count - those adoption site photos - I always take the time to get my regular camera out.

What I'm saying (which will be a theme in this blog) is don't choose to do what is easiest. Instead do what is best for your dog. And in this case, an excellent photo is definitely best for helping your dog find a home.

Here are some visual examples of things to be thinking about when choosing photos of your foster dog for Petfinder. I talk about "Petfinder photos" but I am talking about any photos that are used on an online adoption site - whether that be a big one like Petfinder or Adoptapet or your rescue group's own Website.

Thumbs Down:  Now I actually LOVE this photo. This picture is of my sweet little dog, Tilly. But if this turd eating, fur shedding, goofball were actually a foster dog, I wouldn't use this photo on Petfinder. It showcases her really messed up mouth which makes her look pretty rodent-like. She's also stressed in this photo. Her ears are back, her face is really tense and her eyes are big. I don't want photos of scared dogs in my dog's Petfinder bio if I can help it. Other things to be careful of - if you have an obese foster dog, a dog with a deformity, etc., make sure that when you see the picture that isn't the first thing you notice. This is about noticing the pet for themselves, not the things that they struggle with.

Thumbs Up:  Here you see a much softer, sweeter faced Tilly. Although her ears are still back a bit, she's definitely a more relaxed girl.

Worried Torii
Relaxed Torii
Here's another set of photos showing what a difference it makes to use a photo where the dog is relaxed and calm. The first photo is actually not that bad, as shelter photos go, but her tight face, ears to the side and huge, round eyes let you know she's not a happy girl. The second photo of this girl are when she is in foster care. In the home setting you can see how she has relaxed and you are getting a look at her true self.

Thumbs Down: Your dog should fill most of the frame in the pictures used for Petfinder bios. People aren't going to click on a photo of a dog they can barely see, no matter how cute your foster dog is.

Thumbs Up: Here the focus is clearly the dog.  Sure, it's not a professional quality photo but it does the job. Doesn't he look like a playful, fun dog? His photo is telling a story about him.

Thumbs Down: Take the time to get a photograph that is in focus. I know sometimes that can be tough, especially with young dogs who never stop moving. The nice thing about digital cameras is you can keep clicking away until you get a clear shot.

Thumbs Up: Here's the same boy, in focus. Much better. Sure, this foster parent could have gone with the first photo - the dog can be clearly seen and he fills most the frame. However, look at the result a clear shot with a pretty backdrop can make!

Thumbs Down: I really recommend avoiding shelter photos. They are depressing, the dogs are usually stressed and the surroundings are dull and often dirty. Petfinder pictures should not elicit negative emotions. Take the time to get your camera out and do your sweet dog justice. They deserve some glamour shots.

Thumbs Up: If you must use a shelter photo, only use one that someone took the time to frame the shot so they highlight the dog and not the misery of their surroundings. This one really shows the cute curiosity of the dog, and the dog is standing up and engaged with the photographer.

Thumbs Down: I talked about making sure your dog is filling up most of the frame, but that doesn't mean the background doesn't matter. Your background should either add to the story that you are telling about your dog or it should just fade away and barely be noticeable. In this photo the busy look of the dining room table/chairs and the shelving units tends to pull your eye away from the dog. Other examples to avoid would be piles of laundry in the background, dirty carpet, dirty dishes, poop and pee (you'd be amazed how much of this makes it way onto Petfinder), dog crates, piles of work in an office... Keep the focus on the dog and not your housekeeping or decorating skills.

Thumbs Up: Here is another example of a busy background, but this one works. It is telling a story of an active fun dog who loves the outdoors. It makes you want to leash him up and head out on a hike.

Thumbs Down: No costumes or elaborate outfits in the Petfinder photos. Especially since most dogs wearing costumes or clothing look miserable. This poor girl looks terrified! Round eyes, tail tucked, tight face...  People want to see the dog - their physique, their posture, etc. They aren't adopting a costume. An exception might be a simple scarf or plain tutu because it doesn't draw attention away from the dog.

Thumbs Down: Ack! Avoid all the stickers and frames and text on Petfinder photos. All that bling draws the eye away from what matters - the dog. Also avoid adding your foster dog's name to the photo. We are looking at the dog - what they are called doesn't matter. We just want them to be intrigued enough to click on the picture.

Thumbs Down: While it is good in other photo albums to show the foster dog hanging out and playing with other dogs, in the Petfinder photos the dog up for adoption needs to either be the only dog in the shot, or at least taking up most of the frame if other dogs are in the photos. This was actually a Petfinder photo for the dog on the right.

Thumbs Down: You don't have to go out and buy a professional lighting set up but you do need to make sure that you aren't using a dark photo. The easiest way to solve this problem is to take your important "showcase" photos in natural light. In the cloudy Pacific Northwest where I am located, getting some nice, direct sunlight can be a challenge. This is a decent enough photo, but is too dark to and the dog tends to blend into the background.

Thumbs up: Same dog but in natural light. Still not my favorite photo of this cute guy, but it shows how natural light can really clean up a photo.

And now I'll leave you with some photos that I think are great examples of Petfinder photos.

This photo just shouts "I am a happy guy!", don't you think?

Everyday items (dog bed, blanket, dresser) when framed correctly can provide a nice simple backdrop and bring a little color into the photo without overpowering it.

Natural settings always seem to make the best backdrops to showcase a dog. Doesn't she look regal?

This girl was busy, busy, busy so an action shot was perfect for her Petfinder bio.

Gahhh - those ears! Impossible not be stopped in your tracks by a cute close up

Relaxed dog, not too much going on in the background, and a nice "sit" pose

So many times I've heard adopters say about one of my foster dogs, "their eyes just reached out and grabbed me!" A relaxed dog, looking right at the camera makes people feel like the dog is reaching out to them. I mean, how do you say no to that face?

Here's another photo that shows how a very simple back drop - in this case a white wall and carpet in natural light - can really allow the dog to "pop" out of the photos

Another great nature shot. It's always good to have at least one of your Petfinder photos be a side shot with the dog standing. That way people can get an idea of their proportions.

Here the wood decking makes for a nice natural backdrop for this pretty red terrier mix

Here's an exercise for you. Take the time to do a search on Petfinder of a breed of dog that you know well. Glance through like you are an adopter. Which photos make you pause a bit or stop your eye? What is the first thing about them that made you want to see more? Take the time to really understand this. You don't have to have a ton of great photos - even just 3 really good ones that showcase your dog's features and personality can get them the attention they need to find a home.