My passion is dog rescue and being a rescue photographer enables me to showcase these wonderful rescued pups...to show the dogs they can be...the dogs that I see. I'm often asked how rescue photography differs from pet photography...it seems the same...photos of dogs...but its very different. Don't get me wrong. Pet photography is a style of photography all its own with its own challenges, but most pets know at least a few commands. Most are comfortable with humans and their environments. Most are not afraid. Once I give that explanation, I'm asked how I can stand to do rescue photography without being sad all the time.
I photograph for the National Mill Dog Rescue. Our dogs are puppy mill survivors. Dogs who have lived their entire lives in horrible conditions, eating poor quality food in minimal amounts, living in small cages or filthy pens. They have likely never had medical care or any form of grooming and if they did have contact with humans, it was harsh and mean. Many lived in near darkness most of the time. Some have lost eyes, feet, legs...some arrive with tumors and rotted teeth. We see 5 year old dogs who are missing all their teeth...sometimes their lower jaws...and are blind or nearly so. These are the parents of the cute puppies in pet stores and internet puppy sales. These are the forgotten money makers...the worn out souls who no longer earn their keep...be it ever so horrid. The National Mill Dog Rescue takes them all. The young and old, well and sick, sighted and blind, four, three and two legged. We feed them good food, give them their first warm beds, provide the much needed medical care and most of all, we love them.
I get to take what are likely their first 'glamour' shots. The first photos after our awesome grooming team cleans away the dirt, trims away the matted, tangled hair, soaks away the stains on their feet from years living on a rusty, wire floor. They make them beautiful for the photos that will help them find a forever home.
When you photograph a puppy mill survivor, you learn extreme patience. You learn to speak very softly. You learn to wait for the right moment. You learn that a few minutes of quiet time with a friendly dog may make a world of difference, so I bring my girl, Dakota, to help calm these lost souls. She shows them there is nothing to fear here. It requires dedicated assistants, who learn to calm and comfort a terrified pup. They know how to pose them just right and be near enough to make them feel safe, but far enough to be out of the light. They gently carry these survivors to and from their new temporary homes...all the while whispering reassuring words to them. They do not understand the words, but they understand the tone.
All dogs are different and that holds true for puppy mill survivors. Some are very curious about the camera lens, others fear it worse than anything else in the room...shift to the 70-200mm and sit back far. Some will perk up and look toward a new sound, others will startle and run to the human they just avoided for comfort. Some will stand nicely, others only lay, others are only comfortable snuggled in a pillow. Some will tilt their heads all cute. Others will barely look toward the camera and you better be fast on the shutter to capture that fleeting moment. For some, we are lucky to get a good head shot and others will have a whole gallery of beautiful photos, including being dressed up in cute outfits.
What is the difference? Worlds...lifetimes...the best and worst of humanity. How can I do it? How can I not? I've cried while photographing a blind dog finding her way around a new world, and I've laughed at a friendly Pomeranian in little pink shoes. I'm devastated at the loss of a sweet girl two days after I took her photos, who only knew 5 days of freedom, and I'm on top of the world when it's one of my photos who finds a sweet Iggy a new home halfway across the country...and he goes on to become a spokesdog against puppy mills.
Photographing puppy mill survivors is the best 'job' in the world, and I get paid in hundreds of puppy kisses, which are worth way more than gold!!