Dressing up Fido

Beagles are that rare breed that can sprout antlers for holiday photos rather than resort to fake ones. Photo illustration by Carolyn Rozycki.

Prepping your pet for the holiday portrait

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I’m starting to plan the holiday photo shoot. We’ve added several pets to the family pack since last year, so I see great potential. Several of my suggestions – all of us gathered around the dog sled wearing fake antlers and dressing up as shepherds and sheep – have been met with skepticism from the two-legged pack members. My practical husband likes the traditional in-front-of-the-tree portrait, and my son thinks we should drape ourselves with multi-colored flashing lights. But my daughter and me? We’re pet dressers to the core.

The key to a successful photo shoot is planning. Before the shutter starts to click, I will condition the newbies to sit still for short periods of time. Young and inexperienced, they’re not as used to costuming as my older guys and may fuss at first. But to be a part of this pack, you need to be able to wear a costume, pose for photos and march in the annual Halloween parade. Lured with treats and encouraged with praise, they will come to enjoy these occasions.

Our most recent rescue, a cat named Tim Tim Jeremy, is not sharing the love with our German Shepherd. I’m working to ease my dog’s predatory urges and my cat’s deep suspicion of him. I’m making progress but don’t look for a warm, fuzzy cat-riding-the-dog photo from my family this year.

All of this preparation begs the question: Why? Why do we dress our pets and try to include them in the family photo every year? Is it really necessary?

No, of course not. But we do it anyway. And while it’s probably not as much fun for the pets as it is for the people, it doesn’t have to be an arduous and unpleasant experience for either.

Go to any pet store between October and December, and you’ll see all sorts of costumes and accessories to dress your pet. You can arrange for photo shoots with Santa and sign up for Halloween parades. We humans are quick to spend money on silly things that make us smile and bring people together. But what about the pets forced to wear these adornments? If they had voices, what would they say?

I can only speak from personal experience. As a trainer who has sat in on her fair share of holiday photo shoots for both clients and friends, I have been witness to the best shoots and some of the worst. It all comes down to positive conditioning.

What pets want during the holidays – and year-round, for that matter – is attention. They’ll settle for (but not thrive on) negative attention – the screaming, chase-me-around-the-table, hold-still, come-back-here type. But like kids, your pets will shine and cooperate more with positive attention. Whether the goal is to condition your dog to tolerate a yearly photo shoot, participate in your daughter’s American Girl Doll tea party, or to make a cameo as Barney at your toddler’s birthday party, there are some very cool and fun ways to do this.

First, find something your dog relishes. Dice up some bits of liver or crumble a favorite dog treat. The goal here is a little tongue-melting reinforcement that can be handed out again and again to condition your pet’s cooperation. If you can get your hand on a clicker, use it for this purpose. With a clicker, you click first, treat second. Click treat, click treat until your pet associates the reinforcement.
Second, introduce the adornment or costume. Let your pet scent and handle it first. Yes, a puppy may mouth the reindeer antlers and a kitten my grab and claw them. But if you scream and jerk him away, he’ll develop a negative association with it. Pups and other pets have sensory capacities beyond our understanding that do not include sight. Most animals must smell and touch things to recognize them. If your puppy mouths the object, lure him off with a treat, and spray the item with a bitter tasting liquid found at pet stores.

Initially reward and praise your dog until he thrills to the sight of the item as indicating fun time with you. If you have an extra person on hand, ask him to reward your dog as you dress her. If you’re doing this solo, use a Lickety Stick or a spreadable treat like peanut butter to reward your dog as you’re handling her.

Sit in a chair or kneel down and gently guide your pet so you’re facing her spine, not her face. After you’ve positioned yourself next to or behind your pet, calmly place the adornment over her back or head. (Standing and staring face-to-face with an animal looks confrontational and often elicits fear, not cooperation.)

Many pets will itch, mouth at or claw their adornments initially. This is normal. Your frustration will be attributed to the adornment so stay positive and calm. Make your pet jolly with rewards or social interactions to get her focus on you. Dress your pet several times before camera time. Once your dog is showing pleasure, use a command like “Picture day” or “Who’s my pretty girl?”

When the day comes, organize and position the shoot before placing the costume on your pet. Have extra treats on hand to lure and reward your dog between takes and during the photo shoot itself. While there are many ways of handling your pet, rewards, play and fun guarantee a shot in which everybody is smiling.

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