Most animal professionals, including pet photographers and handlers, share a sense of the partnership that must be present between human and pet to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. When you look at a finished photo, it is but a single frame that was captured from a continuous and dynamic ‘conversation’. It is very true to say that the props and poses humans love to incorporate into human images are simply unnatural to dogs. For the dog, let’s be honest, sometimes they can be downright uncomfortable… Think of the last time you tried to dress up your dog for Halloween.
That seemingly effortless ‘sit-stay’ or 'down-stay' that you see in a finished photograph is frequently the result of incomprehensible skill and talent. The final product takes hours to craft. Not to mention the work the dog ‘subject’ must do to effectively reinforce a great expression in front of the camera. All the while, from the dog’s perspective, watching the photographer laying face down behind the camera…
And the smells of mice and birds and wind... And that tree, did you know a cute Spaniel peed over there last week? And oooh was that a squirrel?! I LIKE DUCKS!
If you are a dog owner, you clearly get the picture. The relationship can sometimes be a mystical dance.
The following is a brief description of the partnership between a professional handler and his working dog. Ellis Gugel holds a bachelors degree in Canine Studies with an emphasis in behavior, and is the owner/trainer at Good Dog: Behavioral Consulting. I have worked with Ellis and consider him a friend and professional colleague. More of what I've learned from Ellis can be found at the end of this article.
Enjoy Reading a Story From the Good Dog Trainer Who Believes It Goes Deeper Than Commands
I am walking down the road with my dog Bill, we are happy and sore and tired.
We have thirty feet of lead between us, dragging forgotten on the ground. We are not in "Heal" we are walking together, to our truck after another session, during another day of work.
I open the door and look to him. Bill casually watches a car pass and I move to disconnect his lead. He checks to see that I’m holding the kennel door open. Satisfied, he loads into the truck, he turns to face me to reaffirm our pair bond.
I extend my face towards him, head turned, eyes closed, he presses his nose into my ear, and we feel love for each other.
I reach to close the kennel and he backs away, lying down.
As I close the truck and go see my client to provide closing comments, I am, for a moment, awakened from my assumptions and I am overwhelmed by the power and sheer improbability of our partnership.
I am Homo Sapiens, genus Anthropoidea. Bill is Canis Lupis Familiaris, genus Canidae.
I enjoy sounds, palm to palm contact, kisses, ventral contact like hugs and eye contact.
Bill enjoys smells, sticking his nose in strangers’ rears, fast chases, biting the faces of friends and loved ones, and digging in my lawn.
For all the improbabilities, we are partners.
Sometimes, I struggle to communicate with my wife... And my daughter is a mystery. And Bill, the Mutt that I found in a mud puddle, knows at a glance when I need him to break hard at thirty miles an hour away from a dog.
Bill is a canid and I am not.
It takes hours of careful communication, speaking and listening with focus and humility, to understand a stranger. Bill can smell my hand while running past me with his ears flying and know that I am concerned about our safety.
I can hardly negotiate the isles of a grocery store without my wife’s help. And yet, when I shift the toe of my boot more than fifteen degrees Bill will turn with it. Not a command.
It’s an understanding, a partnership, between the me, the monkey and Bill, the wolf.
In my work, I am incomplete without Bill, I cannot smell feelings across a field and for all my learning I am still a Homo Sapiens and very frequently wrong. Bill corrects me, sometimes he won’t get out of the truck. Sometimes he stands in my way, ears pinned, eyes narrow, face exasperated, “no Ellis, you must stop now, this would start a fight.”
I listen. He is dog and I am not.
Sometimes I stand in his way, chin high and silent, shoulders facing away from the road that he mustn’t cross, taking calming breaths, “no Bill, to cross this road would be dangerous” and I correct him.
He listens. I am human and he is not.
In honesty, sometimes I feel uncomfortable with people who don’t look like me, or talk like me, or think like me. I try hard to connect and I wonder if the trying means there is something wrong with me. When I look down the leash at an animal, who will never be able to show me what the world looks like through his eyes, who cannot read me his poetry or sing me the songs of his people, I laugh at the idea of social masks.
I feel such a depth of connection, of nakedness without shame or fear, and together we dance through the steps of teaching.
I am a human and he is a dog and we have partnership. This is us, we with our silly symbiosis.
Man, and his walking, wagging, nose with a heart and tummy and all the love in the world attached.
When we solve the problem of making the food in the bag become the food in the belly, or we solve the problem of managing a herd of sheep that will feed and clothe us in the winter, we are partners.
When we alert to the threat on the perimeter or find a way to share love and solace when we are feeling alone, that is partnership.
We are partners when we are sniffing for drugs, learning to pee outside and when we struggle to get that picture just right.
We are partners when we compromise and exercise trust at the vet and with our toenails.
We are partners in the car, and the bed, and on our walk.
I first met Ellis Gugel when my journey began with my Medical Alert Service Dog, Cooper. Ellis was our trainer. I was immediately struck by his passion for his work, the dogs, and helping others have a healthy relationship with their dogs. I was moved.
Ellis taught me how to be a better person for my dog.
Yes, I am a better person in all aspects, from training, to communicating, to nurturing and understanding Cooper's needs through his body language, which was a huge part of what made Cooper and I a successful service dog team… It was also about compromise. Truth be told, Ellis trained me! And that training has also helped me when working with my other four dogs.
Having worked with animals from a young age, I am blessed with the ability to read a dog's body language. A handy skill for a professional pet photographer. In every session I have, I learn what an animal is willing and not willing to do, through body language and connection.
We meet in the middle with a compromise and connection.
Through communication and connection I am able to build a partnership. While on a smaller scale, I, in part, rely on the techniques Ellis taught me to get the best expressions from the dogs I photograph and capture their unique spirit.
If you are interested in strengthening the bond with your dog, give Ellis a call. Most importantly, build that 'partnership' with your dog...