What is a Senior Dog?
A senior dog is a dog that is old and nearing the end of life expectancy.
Large dogs generally reach their senior years around 5-8. Medium-sized dogs usually reach old age at around 7-10, and giant-sized dogs at about eight years of age. 9-12 years of age for small dogs.
My dog, Mr Rupert, seen below, is a Boxer x Bull Mastiff and is classed as a medium-sized dog; he’s already reached the ripe old age of 7-8 and is defined as a senior.
Health Issues in Senior Dogs.
Unlike most healthy younger and boisterous dogs, senior dogs require a more delicate approach concerning photography because they may have a range of health conditions such as:
- Hip dysplasia
- Skin sensitivities
- Hearing and vision impairment
- Dementia and cognitive dysfunction
- Heart problems
- Gastrointestinal (GI) problems and kidney issues
Seniors are more sensitive to heat and cold, tire more quickly than young dogs, and tend to sleep more.
It’s also important to note that as dogs age, their immune system weakens, and they often become more susceptible to illnesses and diseases; therefore, it’s essential always to take care when photographing your furry friend, handling, providing food and drink, etc.
It’s important you speak with the pet owner before undertaking a pet portrait of a senior dog in a studio setting or at home. Hence, you know beforehand what to expect and measures to take to keep your furry friend comfortable and free from stress and anxiety.
Below, I’ve highlighted several tips to help you minimise discomfort, anxiety and stress during a senior dog pet portrait that may benefit you and your furry subject.
1. Take Your Time & Be Patient.
Most seniors are much slower than younger dogs and dislike being rushed. Rushing a senior dog can induce stress, anxiety and pain.
When a senior dog feels stressed or anxious, they may begin shaking, panting, pacing, etc. Moreover, they may become clingy, restless or lethargic, excessively licking and biting their paws, and could be aggressive towards you.
Like all dogs, seniors need time to adjust and settle to new surroundings, noises, smells, and strangers.
Furthermore, they may not be in the mood to have their portrait taken. Therefore, take your time, get down to their level, don’t loom over them, avert your gaze, speak to them with a higher voice tone to avoid sounding daunting or fearful, don’t force things, and stay positive.
2. Choose What They Love Doing.
Choose a space in the house they enjoy. You may also want to introduce some of their favourite toys, such as a teddy, bone, or squeaky ball.
If you photograph a senior in a studio setting, try to keep things as homely and natural as possible. Ask the pet owner to bring some of their favoutite toys, a bed or blanket etc.
With that said, they may want to rest in the garden or go for a walk. The key here is to keep things as natural as possible and let them be themselves.
When working in a studio setting, ensure the studio is air-conditioned (not too warm or cold) and try to work with natural light. It’s also nice to make them a safe place to hide, such as a den, should they feel shy, intimidated or tired.
A clean bowl of water and some of their favourite home food is also handy should they feel hungry.
3. Try To Avoid Flash, Lights & Setup.
Between 0.5-5-7% of dogs suffer from epilepsy; therefore, never use a camera flash or strobe lighting because this could trigger a seizure.
You may also encounter a senior who’s wholly or partially deaf and blind; therefore, choose what your furry friend loves doing when taking snaps rather than staging them in a studio set up with backdrops, props and lighting.
4. Take Photos Together.
Senior dogs can often be timid and shy away from you or your camera. So, try to take snaps of your furry friend playing or sitting with their owner. Try not to pose the dog, and be as natural as possible.
Encourage the pet owner to give them a cuddle, kiss or pat their furry friend on the back while you take snaps. However, as mentioned, don’t force a senior dog into a pose or overwork them into doing something that could stress them.
5. Don’t Wait.
If you’re on a time limit or your furry subject is nearing their end of life, just snap away because you never know just how long the owner may have left with their pet pooch.
6. Remember Their Limitations.
Please be aware of your subject’s limitations, i.e. playtime, walking, standing for prolonged periods, sitting, etc. Most senior dogs won’t be capable of jumping, running through hoops, or chasing after their favourite ball or stick for hours on end.
In addition to this, avoid coloured powder because it could trigger a skin allergy, be detrimental to their vision, and even lead to permanent loss of eyesight or respiratory problems.
7. Stimulate Their Senses.
Most senior dogs will be partially or wholly deaf; therefore, look into stimulating their senses with tactile vibrating toys or softly tapping on the ground in front or behind them with your foot or hands. Please make use of hand signals to gain their attention, too.
With regards to partially or wholly blind and deaf dogs, tapping also works. Moreover, clickers with LED flashing lights are also helpful, though be aware flashing lights could trigger an epileptic fit in a seizure dog.
Falconry bells are also an excellent tool of the trade to attract a blind dog’s attention. Furthermore, scents such as flavoured extracts, scented oil, cologne or a dab of perfume on a piece of clean fabric help to gain the attention of a blind dog, too. However, always exercise caution when using scented oils, colognes, etc, because it could lead to an allergic reaction
Deaf and blind dogs are often clingy with their owners, so encouraging the owner to play naturally with their furry friend while you snap away is also an advantage.
8. Medical Conditions.
Please be mindful of any known or unknown skin allergies. As dogs age, their immune system weakens, and as a result, they’re more prone to allergic reactions.
My senior dog has umpteen allergies to hand and body creams, cologne, perfume, etc.. He recently recovered from a severe allergic reaction that almost killed him, leaving me with a whopping vet bill.
Ask the pet owner to bring their own toys, bedding, blankets, etc, to the studio and try to avoid supplying your own. Specific dog bed stuffing and fabrics can cause an allergic reaction in dogs, which isn’t pleasant for them or the pet owner.
While you may think your toys and bedding are appropriate for all dogs because they’re labelled vegan or pet-friendly, often they’re not.
Wool and synthetic fabrics cause a wide range of dog allergies; latex memory foam, latex gloves, vinyl coating and products made from vinyl, i.e. vinyl backdrops, polyester, cotton, hemp and plastic, should be avoided.
Moreover, abrasive floor cleaners, detergents, hand sanitiser, indoor plants, smoke, powder, etc, can trigger an allergy, leading to shortness of breath, watery eyes, sneezing or difficulty breathing, and, in worst cases, death.
Sometimes, you will encounter a senior dog with an incontinence problem, so please ensure any floor lights, transformers, and electrical equipment are safely tucked away.
Some senior dogs may also suffer from illnesses like colitis; therefore, keep some pet-friendly cleaning detergents and wipes at hand.
Many senior dogs also suffer from dementia and cognitive problems. Try to stay patient at all times, shower them with love and affection and remember that the experience of dementia can be confusing and frustrating for them. Still, your love and care go a long way to helping them cope with the changes they’re experiencing.
Special care should also be taken with seizure dogs. Always remain calm, as this will reduce the stress that can trigger a seizure. Don’t over-stimulate a seizure dog; avoid bright and flashing lights and loud noises.
It’s also essential to keep your studio or the home environment you’re working in clutter-free when photographing a seizure dog; therefore, should your furry friend have a seizure, they won’t hurt themselves on objects or furniture around them.
If your subject suffers a seizure, step back, turn your camera off and give the owner space to care for their dog; remove anything around the dog that could harm them too.
Furthermore, be prepared because some dogs sadly don’t make it. My mother’s dog had idiopathic epilepsy, and while she did her best to bring him out of his seizures, unfortunately, he suffered a catastrophic fit and died at her hands.
Senior dogs are fun to photograph and be around; however, caution must always be exercised because they can be a little cranky, tired, shy, intimated, or nearing their end of life.
As a senior dog owner, the best tip I can offer is to just be yourself, ask lots of questions before and during the shoot, always take notes down, and keep the shoot as natural as possible.
Avoid flashing lights, staging, coloured powder and forcing, and try not to overstimulate a senior.
The best senior dog pictures are the ones with the dog interacting with the owner. Encourage the owner to pat, cuddle, and kiss their dog while you snap away.
Don’t be impatient. Get down to their level and speak with a higher-pitched voice to not sound daunting or fearful.
Avoid the studio or home environment if the weather is nice outside, and take pictures of your furry friend and their owner doing natural things in the garden or during a walk.
Be patient; don’t wait for the right time; take lots of pictures, stimulate your subject’s senses, and choose what they love doing.
Sometimes, you will be asked to take pictures of a senior nearing their end of life or about to pass the Rainbow Bridge. This can be very distressing for you, the owner and the dog however I will write an article about this soon.
My next article will discuss the Rainbow Bridge, sensory dog photography and Scrapbooking for dogs nearing their end of life; thank you for reading.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.