Useful tricks and commands for dog photography – Part 1: Basics

Going out to explore nature and taking pictures is something Baerbel and I do together and something we both enjoy. As soon as I grab the camera, Baerbel comes running to me, tail wagging, with her happy Berner grin on her face. She likes it because she gets my undivided attention, she learns something new almost every time and, yes, because she gets lots of treats, too, of course. I like it because I get to spend quality time with my dog and I can express my creativity and be outdoors – two things I like very much.  It also is a true bonding experience for both of us because it is something we really do together

That being said, I want to point out that Baerbel only does what feels comfortable for her. And that I only teach her by using positive reinforcements and shaping techniques. I’d never punish her if she does something “wrong” or force her to do anything. This true for her whole education and for everything related to dog photography.  Please be gentle with your pups and have patience. Every dog will learn these tricks differently and in his or her own pace. Maybe some dogs will never learn a trick. For instance, I tried to teach Baerbel to shake on command. Pretty much unsuccessfully, though. Baerbel learns tricks fastest if I can somehow trigger the desired action or shape her into the position by using treats (we’ll come to that later). This proved impossible concerning shaking. I tried to trickle water on her neck but her fur was so dense she didn’t even notic. I tried to tickle her ears or paws but she just drew them away but didn’t shake. So I started to shout “Shake” every time she did it on her own account, for example when shaking the water out of her fur after bathing and rewarded her with a treat afterwards. That works in so far that she now shakes on command but ONLY if she is soaking wet. That had the positive side effect that I can tell her to shake now right at the river’s edge instead of her running back to our, or worse other peoples, towels but other than that she doesn’t even wiggle an ear for me when she’s dry and doesn’t see the need to shake. And that’s totally okay with me. Is she really doesn’t want to learn trick she doesn’t have to.

So please respect if this is the case with your dog. I understand that dogs have to learn certain commands to be safe in public but lots of the tricks here are just for fun and optional for harmonious human-dog relationships.



Since Baerbel and I have taken up dog photography we have found some tricks to be exceptionally useful for taking nice dog pictures. Some she had already learned and we discovered that they look great in pictures and some I taught her specifically for our shoots because I had an idea in my mind that I wanted to realize.  Since we have so much fun learning them as well as using them in our pictures I decided to share them with you in this little Blog series.  

Before we begin some basic thoughts about dog training and how I do it.


1.     Don’t make the training sessions too long. Training id hard work for your dog’s brain and he can’t stay focused for long, even more so if you train a puppy. Better train a few times a day for 5 to 15 minutes than an hour once a day.


2.     Only go on to the next step if step one is a hundred percent foolproof! If something is not working out (setbacks can occur and are completely normal) go a step back.


3.     Praise, praise, praise. Remember you can’t praise your dog too much if he has done something right.


4.     Find something your dog is really motivated by. For Baerbel it has always been treats but for your dog it might be something completely different such as praise, toys, cuddles…


5.     Timing is crucial and one of the most important things in dog training. Have your treat ready and reward the exact behavior you’re aiming for (for example “sit” is exactly when the dog’s bum touches the ground, not before and not when the bum already starts to raise again).



6.     Use a release command. I like to use release commands because I think it confuses my dog if she doesn’t know when a command is finished and she is free to go to do something else. And also because it is important for photography commands because your dog doesn’t know when you have finished taking your pictures.  So I always release Baerbel with the word “okay” when a command is finished. 


Yeah, I know this is boring but let’s start right at the beginning. Believe me, some basics really make taking pictures of your dog a lot easier.


Sometimes I photograph dogs who don’t know any commands, for example dogs who are new in a shelter and haven’t been trained yet or very young puppies.  You can get very nice pictures of those dogs, too, of course, just by observing them and finding the right moment or by motivating them with play and food but teaching them these commands helps both of you in everyday life as well as photography.


Letting your dog sit is very useful for taking picture. You can place him in front of or on landscape or architectional landmarks and sit is also the first choice for portraits of your dogs face.

This basic command tells your dog to sit down. Easy as that. To sit was one of the first commands I taught Baerbel as a puppy. I did it as follows.


Step 1:


Take a treat (or a toy if your dog isn’t food-motivated at all) and hold it in your closed hand. Hold it in front of the dog’s nose and let him sniff your hand. Let him think for himself trying to figure out how to get to the yummy treat in your hand. Eventually he will sit and that is the moment your hand opens and releases the treat. Praise him. He won’t get the connection the first, second or third time but he will get there. To aid the process you can slowly lift your hand up and towards your dog’s face. He will have to sit to keep your hand with the treat in focus and then you release the treat as described above.


Step 2:


This is actually not a real step but a helpful addition, especially regarding tricks for photography. I always add a gesture to every command so that I can tell Baerbel what to do without using my voice which is very helpful when you’re lying on the ground with a camera 50 feet away from your dog.


My gesture for sit is a raised index finger pointing skywards. So, to teach her that I extend my index finger while still holding the treat in rest of my closed hand and repeat step 1.


Step 3:


Very important (this is true for all commands and tricks and all steps I will describe in this series): Only go on to the next step if step one is a hundred percent foolproof. Meaning, your dog sits every time you hold the treat in front of his nose. When he does, you can start to bring in a vocal command. You do the same as in step one but right at the moment your dog’s bum touches the ground you add the word “sit” (or whatever word you choose to use). If you think your dog made the connection stop holding the treat up and just say sit. If he sits he gets the treat.



Step 4:


Establish a release command.  When your dog has mastered the steps above it is time to tell him when the command is finished. At first he doesn’t know what you want from him so just say “sit”, if he does, he gets the treat and immediately after that you say “okay” (or whatever release command you wanna use, e.g. run, ready…) and he is free to do what he likes again. Now you gradually make the time longer he has to sit before he gets the treat and you release him. If this works well try making the time between the treat and the release command longer to avoid that your dog jumps up as soon as he got the treat. If this is hard for your dog, let him sit again after he got the treat and then release with the word again.

Lay down

Telling your dog to lay down also looks great in pictures.

This command tells your dog to lay down on his belly. I use a similar method to teach that.


Step one:


Take a treat (or a toy if your dog isn’t food-motivated at all) and hold it with your thump in the palm of your hand. Slowly lower your hand in front of your dog’s face until it lies flat on the ground with the treat tucked away between the floor and your palm. Your dog will likely follow your hand with his gaze or if you’re lucky already with his head. Just as you did when teaching sit again let him think for himself trying to figure out how to get to the yummy treat under your hand. Because your flat hand on the ground is lower than the dogs head he will eventually find out that it is easier trying to get to the treat by lying down so that his head is level with your hand. This is the moment where you release the treat from under your hand and praise him.


Step two:


Very important (this is true for all commands and tricks and all steps I will describe in this series): Only go on to the next step if step one is a hundred percent foolproof. Meaning, your dog lies down every time you put your hand to the ground. When he does, you can start to bring in a vocal command. You do the same as in step one but right at the moment your dog’s belly touches the ground you add the word “down” (or whatever word you choose to use). If you think your dog made the connection stop using the treat and just say down. If he sits he lies down he gets the treat and praise.


Step 3:


You want a gesture but you don’t want to put your hand straight to the ground every time you want your dog to lie down. My gesture still is an outstreched hand with the palm facing down. So here’s how I did it. I kept using the hand to the ground only without a treat under it. Every time you dog lies down when you put your hand to the ground you raise your hand a few inches and try again. You repeat this process as long as it takes until you can do this standing up. This will probably take a while and don’t do it in one session but one step at a time.


Step 4: Establish a release command exactly as described above in the “sit”-section only, of course, with your dog lying down instead of sitting.


Step 1:


I trained stand actually after stay. If I just told Baerbel to stay without letting her sit or lie down before, she just kept standing on the spot.  Later I realized that it can be also useful to have a stay-command if you want to bring your dog from a sitting or lying position back into a standing one.  I just did this by luring her up from sit or lie down with a treat in front of her nose.  My gesture for this is consequently my hand with the palm facing upwards.


Step 2:


Add a verbal command as soon as your dog stands up like described in the sit command.


Step 3:



Establish a release command like described in the sit command. 


One of the most important if not the most important commands in dog photography. Nothing is more frustrating than having put your dog in position for your picture and as soon as you raise the camera he jumps up again.


The clue to successfully training “stay” is taking baby steps in my experience.


Step 1:


Stand in front of your dog with a treat in your hand. Extend your palm towards him and say “stay” (or whatever word you want to use). Take a tiny step away from your dog (really, I’m talking inches here). If he stayed (if he did not, you stepped back to far), give him the treat and praise him and release him with your release command. Gradually step back further and further but only as soon as the former distance worked well.

Very important: If your dog didn’t stay because the new distance was too difficult for him take him back to exactly the same spot you told him to stay and try again with less distance so he succeeds.


Also very important: At this stage do not call your dog to you after you have released him from the “stay”. He will only learn to be on tenterhooks waiting to be called by you and won’t learn to stay in a relaxed position. Always go back to your dog, reward him and then release him with your release word like “okay”.


Common mistake: I often see dog owner’s telling their dogs to stay and while slowly backing away with their outstreched hand they repeat “stay, staaay, staaaaay…” all over again. As soon as they stop saying “stay” the dog breaks the command. In this case the dog also doesn’t learn to stay in a relaxed position until he gets the release command but you are only building up tension and excitement in your dog who only waits to finally jump up and come running to you. So just say stay once and back away only as far as your dog manages to stay.


Step 2:


There’s actually no real step two here but from now on everything is about making the challenge to stay harder for your dog.

Try to step away from your dog a little bit sideways instead of backing up in a straight line. If it works step further away.


Turn your back to your dog when stepping away. This is really hard for most dogs so start with very little steps again.


Try stepping away behind your dog. This is even harder and most dogs will turn on the spot to keep an eye on their pawrent. For me it is okay if Baerbel does that as long as she doesn’t leave the spot. But you have to decide for yourself what is “right” for you and your dog.


When your dog has mastered all of the above, you can also try going around a corner or leaving the room.



Step 3:


Foolproof the behavior. To teach your dog to stay in every situation you have to create a diversion. Try jumping up and down in front of him for example. Very carefully and very low at first without arms, then higher with waving arms and so on. You can also try to run away or around your dog or throw a toy and let him stay before he is allowed to retrieve it. Be creative but always remember to start slowly again every time you try something new.

Pfotenspuren Fotografie  -  linda@pfotenspuren-fotografie.de

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