Key to the Hound’s Heart – A Halloween theme photoshoot

Posted on Oct 30, 2023
Key to the Hound’s Heart – A Halloween theme photoshoot

Year 11.

Eleven years of dreaming up an image every Halloween, inspired by and centered around our goodest girl, Willow the Wild.

Unfortunately, and not dissimilar to previous years, the world is heavy with hurt. So much pain, violence, injustice, death and despair. I’m not here to write about that, there are far better voices that need to be heard on that front. But I am not here to deny any of it either, the horrors of today’s world are very real. As I read somewhere recently, “So, in unfathomable times, we go small. We do our tiny things…(sic) We write, and work. Try to be grateful for the mundane things we get to do, because we are lucky to be alive to do them.”

With this in mind, I’m showing up today to release Year 11 of our Halloween photo project. 

We go beyond the mundane, however. Eleven years shared with the greatest dog deserves more than mundane; especially after the year we have had together. This past year had us facing a scary diagnosis of Cushing’s disease caused by a tumor in an adrenal gland, major laparoscopic surgery at UC Davis to remove said tumor, healing while remaining vigilant for metastasis and treating every day that passes as the gift it truly is.

I hold all of this along with the heartbreak of losing beloved dog friends of Willow’s generation, her very best friend, Poppy, among them (she took part in Year 6). Needless to say, this year we really, really needed some joy. 

So we pulled an idea from the “Halloween idea” list because it felt easy, joyful, nostalgic and if we pulled it off, it would hopefully guarantee a good laugh.

You can keep doing that forever, the dog is NEVER going to move.

Our Year 11 image is centered around this quote from Pirates of the Caribbean which is based on lore from the original Disney Parks, musty-scented dark ride. If you’re familiar with the ride, then this line in the movie probably made you cackle like we did.

This theme also gave us the opportunity to have Willow star alongside her three favorite guys: Bill (her proud dog-daddy) and her uncles Chris and Kyle.


rough concept sketch

Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me…

  • Willow with the ability to hold a set of dungeon keys, check!
  • 3 bearded guys in pirate garb, check!
  • Cold, dark dungeon setting… Thanks to The Big Easy in our little town of Petaluma, check!

The scene was lit pretty simply, with two strobes: one to emulate light from a lantern, and the other to light Willow. Of course we were shooting this late at night, because… tradition, ha! But also, working downtown at a bar after closing time would afford us a more “quiet” setting. Even then, our amazing pirates, Chris and Kyle did us a huge favor in “extroverting” with curious onlookers as Bill and I tried to work quickly to set up equipment and light the scene.

Loitering pirates.

Kyle’s “boat shoes” were probably my favorite thing of the night.

Like previous years, this year’s photo would have to be a composite of a handful of frames so we could properly expose for our pirates, the scene, the props and our rockstar girl.

While we were busy lighting the scene, there were plenty of laughs; how could you not laugh when you are testing exposure and you hear Kyle saying “don’t mind me, I’m just here, avast’ing.” 

We got our light dialed in, and we were ready to rock, but not before getting at least one silly behind the scenes photo. 

Because the gate (our would-be cell door) has bars with narrow space in between, we would need to photograph our pirates twice, once with the gate closed (behind bars) and once with the gate open. Bill would do some Photoshop wizardry in post to make the gate work as a prison cell.

Throughout this time, Willow was safely and comfortably resting in her Impact crate in the car. Once we photographed the guys and any props, we would bring her out.

Now, I have done a lot of training with Willow over these wonderful 11 years, and we are no strangers to seeing what magic can unfold when there’s trust at the base of it all. But if you had told me years ago that my timid, fearful, “foster win” shelter puppy would grow up to work a photoshoot, fully off leash in a downtown scene and nail every cue… I would have asked for photo proof.

Like a pro, she came out of her crate, had a quick potty break, joyfully greeted her favorite guys and immediately went into “work mode”.
We tried a couple of approaches, some with her standing and picking up the keys, others with a static hold, and we took c=some general poses for anatomical fill-ins in case we needed them.

Willow nailed her part in 20 minutes.
Once she was done and safely back in her crate, we packed everything up, along with a barrel of laughs to bring home. The rest of the magic would happen at home in our pirate jammies.

Three men and a little lady say “That’s a wrap!”

And so, the key to the Hound’s heart… is kindness.

A massive, huge Thank You to our pirates (and Willow uncles) Chris and Kyle, for staying up late on a school night dressed in silly pantaloons, for being so jolly and game to play a part in this. To The Big Easy for hosting us and graciously trusting your space to us for a few hours. To Bill, for shouldering most of the magic this year and, honestly, being the one who made sure this year’s photo happened. And to our one and only, greatest dog star, our Willow the Wild, for showing us how to live in full presence of the gifts of the day, making the most out of everything and how simply showing up can make a huge difference in someone’s day. 

To you, who read this far. To you, who come back year after year, even during times like these, thank you, because while we do this for Willow and ourselves, we come back every year to do it for you, too.


Happy Halloween, friends! 


Want to see previous years of our Halloween theme photoshoots?
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Year 6
Year 7
Year 8
Year 9
Year 10

This photograph is ©The Labs & Co. All rights reserved. Thank you for sharing our work! But please be kind and give credit.

1 Comment

  1. Mamma Linda
    October 31, 2023

    Avast ye dirty scoundrels… you’ve done it AGAIN! Kudos to your creativity and numerous friends willing to walk the plank with your creativity ♥️♥️