It might have found a cool, dark spot to curl up in; maybe under the porch. It might be laying in its bed; it knows when it goes to its bed it’s a very Good Boy, or very Good Girl. The dog might be laying in its master’s bed, waiting for them to come home or it might, if it’s very lucky, laying beside its favorite person right now.
But the dog *is* dying, and it’s a sad sight. The house with a fragile dog is quiet. We walk softly so as not to disturb its sleep. We talk in whispers about the right thing, the right time, and we remember when the dog was strong and able to run to us whenever we called.
But there’s medicine to give, there are pillows to be fluffed, favorite blankies and toys to find. The house is quiet but for us, filling the time and the space with our awkward, humanness. If we cry, the dog tries to soothe us and that feels so selfish, so we try not to. But we fail.
Somewhere, a dog is dying, and if we’re very lucky, it’s not our dog, not this time. But we’re reminded that it will be, eventually. It will soon enough be our dog.
Somewhere, a dog is dying, and with it, a little piece of someone, some helpless, sad, person, is dying too.
Yeah, it’s the holidays. Everyone (including me) is shopping for gifts. I’ve got sales going and a show tonight and there are things I need to do, but fuck all that. Today I want to talk about photographing shelter dogs.
I have friends who take amazing and beautiful photos of cats and dogs who need homes. Those are great, really. If every homeless animal could have a portrait session like that, there would no doubt be a lot more adoptions. I photograph dogs every other week at the Kalamazoo County Animal Services shelter, as as the volunteer coordinator told me when I signed up for the job, the sessions are “down and dirty.” The dogs come in, I take their photo, and they go out. They’re not beautiful photos, even though the volunteers buy backdrops and try so, so hard to get the animals not just to smile but to keep from peeing themselves because they’re so scared.
Some shelters don’t have a professional (or even hobbyist) photographer, so they post photos they’ve taken with their phone, or with a compact camera. You know, a little blurry, laser eyes, and often while the animal is tied up and looking, frankly, scared to death.
I read all these blog posts about do’s and don’ts for shelter photos, and I can see where they’re coming from. I really can, and I support anyone who helps out with this kind of thing.
And now I’m talking to you as a potential adopter: Why the fuck does that dog need a glamour photo for you to get off your ass and go visit it?
This isn’t Match.com. It’s not e-Harmony. We’re not talking about people who want to maybe meet up for a glass of wine; we’re talking about literal life and death. (And if you’re the kind of person who will meet, or not, someone entirely based on their photo, well then fuck you.) Pretty adoption photos are great. But hey, you know what’s better? Not giving a shit that the dog’s hair is blowing in the wind or that it’s wear a red ribbon around its neck because that dog needs a fucking home and people shouldn’t have to convince you that it’s beautiful or gorgeous or will go with your furniture or (and this is my favorite) that it’s “happy.” Of course it’s not fucking happy; it’s in the damned shelter!
Can you even imagine for a second how terrifying the shelter is for animals who end up there? It’s loud, it’s smells of fear. All the dogs are barking and it’s cold and you don’t know what the fuck you did to the person who just dumped you there, because you tried really, really hard to be a good boy and now you’re here and you just don’t understand why.
There’s something that really bothers me about the pretty shelter photos (and again, I’m totally not knocking anyone who does these, or who works with their shelter to get them done), and it’s taken me awhile to figure out exactly what it is. Those gorgeous photos that show happy dogs make you think the shelter is maybe not such a bad place as people say. Hey, there are dog sweaters and hats and all the dogs are smiling and it’s really not that bad if you don’t go adopt that dog, is it? Because it looks happy, and it’s gorgeous and you know someone else will surely go adopt that dog.
Let’s talk about shelter works and volunteers, because bless all these people, really; they show up everyday for a job that most of us couldn’t do for the weekend. As hard as they try to make the shelter a comfortable place (they give out treats, blankets, take the dogs for walks and cuddle the cats), the shelter is not a comfortable place. It’s shit, ok? It’s utter shit to be left in a place that isn’t your home and not know what’s going to happen to you. And you’re that dog, and now they’re taking your picture and you’d better fucking sit still and smile and you’d better not look afraid because some asshole sitting at home looking at his iPad isn’t going to choose you because you “look angry.”
I know, truly, that some people have to be convinced to look twice at a shelter animal, and some people (whether they know it or not) have to be enticed to consider getting in the car to go visit one. Thank Christ that there are people who understand this and work to produce images that do just that. Because honestly, it pisses the fuck out of me.
Like I said, our sessions are down and dirty, but they do the job and people come in and animals are adopted. Whatever works works. Whenever I’m shooting at my local shelter, I always use a zoom lens because I need as good a close up of that dog as I can get, but I always take a wide, because context is kind. Context reminds us that that animal may look like it’s “smiling,” but it’s probably scared shitless that it’s going to get left behind.
Let’s remember that we’re talking about living beings who experience sadness, happiness, fright, and joy. Petfinder isn’t a damned dating service, it’s there to remind you that there are literally tens of thousands of animals who need help. Like, now.
When you view the photos in this gallery, please note the human hands. Always there. Touching, caressing, reassuring, and loving.
Last night was my 3rd night photographing shelter dogs. I was a bit nervous about committing myself to a shoot every other week. When I look back at that now it’s ridiculous. I could do it almost every day. (I say almost because it’s easy to visit with them and photograph them and hug them, but it’s so, so hard to leave them.)
All the dogs are pretty nuts when they come in for a shoot. They’re excited, they’re nervous (none so far have been afraid of the light), and they’re happy, all at once. I always get kisses. I often get a dog in my lap and I occasionally get pee’d on. It’s all great, sitting on the floor, hugging them and talking with them. But I have to make it quick because they don’t know what’s going on.
I start each night, on the night of the shoot, visiting with all the dogs and cats at the shelter. I used to think the cats were much more stoic about their fate in the shelter, but more than a few of them have broken my heart in the past 6 weeks.
But before we do the head shots for the rescue (Save Our Strays), I try to get a wide shot of everyone. I like to show the context of what they’re going through, what their current circumstances are. I know people want to see pretty pictures of dogs smiling. I know that those photos are the ones that help dogs get rescued. But I think it’s important for us to be really sober about what we’re doing to animals. They’re there not through any fault of their own; not through any fault of shelter staff. They’re there because of us. Our fault. Our negligence, our lack of empathy and love, our irresponsibility.
Our problem. Ours to fix.
To rephrase a very popular sentiment, This IS my circus. These ARE my monkeys.
Love your beasties (and if you can make room any more, these darlings are at the Kalamazoo Shelter.
This is Fiona. She’s a very young and shy pittie at the Kalamazoo Shelter. She trembled so, and tucked her tail, when it was time for her to get her photo taken. But the volunteer soothed her and we talked with her and ultimately, she looked right at me.
Most of the dogs I’ve shot so far have been terribly frightened, but (and I’ve said this before about dogs) they almost always show up. (Meaning they do what we want them to do.)
Their entire existence relies on doing what we want them do, and that breaks my heart. I try to let my dogs know that they can do what they like and won’t be punished or abandoned. Yes, they’re trained, but there are few rules in our house short of eating off my face.
I don’t know what Fiona knows or doesn’t know, but her eyes. Her gaze seems to indicate that she knows the dogs like her are doing exactly what we want them to do.
I wish that all dogs felt so free to be themselves; to not be under a constant pressure to act right, to do this, not do that, and worry that they might be struck, kicked out of the house, or abandoned. <3
Fiona is up for adoption; she’s a little underweight and could use someone to come scoop her up and give her a load of food and treats. And, of course, love.
I took the summer off to be with my dogs. It was so hot here in Long Beach; we just chilled in the bedroom watching TV, playing with squeaky babies, and occasionally dipping in the poolito. It was a good summer. (By the way, it’s still in the mid to high 70s here and it’s December.)
Then, 52 days ago, I lost one of my best ever friends: Jack.
You guys know Jack, Brover of T, of the Jack/T Bromance. The dark soul with the most forgiving heart I’ve ever known. In all my years of living with dogs, Jack was … well, you’ve heard it before. Just don’t have the oomph in me right now to tell that hard luck (but happy ending) tale tonight.
In retrospect, I can see that Jack was ill for almost two years. Probably ready to go for a few months before he finally did. Anyway, I didn’t really want to talk about it, and actually still don’t feel like it much now. But it’s been four months, and (more news) we’ll be moving from SoCal to Kalamazoo in a month or so, so I thought I should check in.
So, recap: Hot summer. Dog not feeling well. Dog died. Moving to Michigan.
I know, this is the weirdest blog post I’ve eve written.
I started my Chalk Dogs Art about a year ago; we shot the first one with antlers on August 30. I’ve been so bad at showing these and explaining what they’re about. As I’m cutting back the number of sessions that I’m taking on and spending more time on personal work, I realize that the Chalk Dogs Art is a really important part of what I do, and I need to respect that and talk about it.
I do the chalk art with my dogs to talk about the shelter dog (and cat) situation and how abysmal it is. (If you haven’t seen what I’ve done so far, they’re on Instagram under my account @tasteslikechalk.) I haven’t yet created a gallery on this site to show all of them off (something I’m working on), but we have a special day coming up in September.
National Pet Memorial Day is September 13. That’s the day we honor our animals, both present and gone (and lord knows I have a lot who are gone, so I’ll be crying a lot that day). Aside from giving your beasties extra love that day, or lighting a candle or visiting a burial spot for beasties gone, why don’t you donate a little bit to the people who are working day in and day out to give every animal a loving home and a place to retain their dignity till they die?
I give a little bit every month to Hope for Paws. Many of you are familiar with Eldad’s and his volunteer’s work. They’ll sit on a curb the whole day to get one animal saved and off the streets for good. Or give to your local shelter. If you don’t like your local shelter (and I hear this a lot from people; they don’t want to support kill shelters); think of it this way, they are probably kill shelters because we keep throwing out our animals. I think there are precious few shelter employees who enjoy putting animals to sleep, so if you’re looking for blame, don’t look their way. /slight rant over
There’s also START. They rescue animals from high capacity and high kill shelter out of the area, to where they’re more likely to find a home. By the way, you can also buy a Winged Dog tee at START, doubling your donating efforts with some money going to START itself and some to Hope for Paws.
Soon I’ll be selling postcards of my Chalk Dogs series, with a big portion of sales going to rescue and the people who do the work that most of us can’t. Here’s the first chalk art I did with T, nearly a year ago. It didn’t have a shelter dog message at the time, but you can believe it will get one when the gallery comes up. (soon!)
I started this chalkboard series with my dog, T, about 2 months ago. It’s been a lot of fun drawing, but also shooting with T. We work closely, and he’s gotten so so good at knowing where his mark is at and how to stay there. He’ll also stay put on his mark while I move around him and, using a treat or my voice, get him to turn his head and look left or right, up or down. Chalk days are good days around here.
One sad thing about Chalk days is Jack. I’ve talked about his modeling/light testing skills before, and how he can’t really sit up for a long time, like I need him to do for the Chalkboard series. I made a special board for him, Old Dog, and that was just for him. It made him super happy to be the center of attention that day (one other thing about Chalk day is the dog who is posing really is the star). I noticed that Jack would be a little down on those days he couldn’t pose. Even though everyone got treats, I was reminded that posing was originally Jack’s job.
So I started shooting with Jack again, at least letting him sit, or usually lay, in front of the board while I took a few photos. They were, for the most part, unusable because he wasn’t on mark, but he loved doing it, and beside the reward of the treat, he just loves working with me and pleasing me. I don’t know how in the world I could have forgotten, even for just a shoot or two, how much that meant to him.
So. Yesterday’s Chalk Day was “When you adopt a shelter dog, you take him from Zero to Hero in 60 seconds.” Clearly, this was a board that needed everyone. T first, so I could positing and get my focus. Jack and Mouse waiting by the front door while T did his job, and they were super happy to get their treats. But when I said, “Jack’s turn!” he flipped! He jumped up and got near the door and pushed it up and he RAN to the apple boxes. Awww, my baby boy. He missed doing his job for me.
He didn’t have to lay down yesterday; not only did he sit, but he stood! For a long time! He stood there until I said, “Good job!” (his signal for “we’re done”) and he *jumped* off the apple boxes and ran to me. It was the best. In fact, it was so great I brought Mouse out.
Mouse isn’t a fan of the camera. This is huge progress, as she started from “hating the camera.” She’s connected posting with treats, and also, she’s a people pleaser as well. But aren’t all dogs people pleasers? I think so, maybe some just haven’t found the right people yet.
Mouse was great. A little skittish, but a good little poser. And she gave me a great smile.
All three of these dogs, my dogs, felt like zeros when I adopted them. Now, they all feel like Heroes. Over time, they’ve built confidence, and they’ve learned that I love them and they’ve eagerly accepted that love, and they’ve returned it! T has a VIJ (Very important job) in the house; Jack has a job, and even Mouse does. They all feel needed, wanted, and loved. They all have warm beds, snuggles, treats, 2 squares a day, and as many toys as we can fit into the every growing toy box.
Most importantly, they have me to please, which they do every day. They truly are Heroes. All the unwanted dogs you see out there, the ones who are labeled “biters” or “aggressive” or “lost causes.” They all need a job, a person to please. That’s what adopting does for them. It gives them a purpose, a job, and love, and that’s what makes them Heroes.
It’s true. When you adopt a shelter dog, he (or she) goes from Zero to Hero in 60 seconds. And you’ve got a spare minute, don’t you?