The Makings of a Great Dog Model

Posted on Oct 2, 2023
The Makings of a Great Dog Model

Do you have eleven billion photos of your dog on your phone? Welcome, friend. You are in good company here! Bill and I have been photographing dogs (and cats) for brands’ commercial projects for over 12 years now, so you can imagine how full our photo storage is! I mean, c’mon… look how FUN this is to do and be a part of! How could we not snap 1,200 photos in a single weekend?!


All.the.heart.eyes aside, we’ve spent the past 12+ years working with a beautifully wide spectrum of dog (and people) personalities, and we have slowly built a collective of amazing animal + human teams, labeling it our official Model Network. (More details on how to sign up below!) Working with these teams has gifted us first-hand experience in identifying the attributes that make a great dog or cat model, and since every project and every animal is unique, there is room for almost every little wiggle butt in dog modeling.

Whether you want to try something new and fun with your dog, level-up your Instagram game or figure out how to get your dog in campaigns for big pet brands, you have to start somewhere. We suggest you start by reading this, 😀 and if it sounds like something that’s totally up your alley, go with what feels the most natural to you and your dog!

First Thing’s First: It’s Not About “The Looks”

Contrary to what most people think, a dog’s physical appearance doesn’t play a big role (at least in our projects). Sometimes, a brand will request a specific breed of dog, or a specific type of coat or coat color for a myriad of reasons, (such as properly showcasing a collar or harness) but at the Labs & Co, we focus on 3 specific things for our model calls:

  1. Skills and capability to perform specific cues or tricks needed for the project
  2. Disposition and ability to perform in a particular shoot location/environment
  3. Size,weight, coat length and coat color if applicable

The ‘Basics’ are Essential

We’re going to take the term “basic” and slice it into: Basic Skills and Disposition (anything but just basic).

Basic = An essential foundation or starting point; fundamental.
Disposition = An individual’s inherent qualities of mind and character.

Unless we are working with baby animals, where their basic skills might be non-existent, because they are babies and brand new to the world, we tend to start with disposition.

Middle of the page, but it’s a *SIDE NOTE:

For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to dogs specifically. Cats are their own beautiful animal and while most points will also apply, I’ll make note to address specific cat points where necessary.

Disposition Traits in Great Dog Models Include:

Comfort and confidence in new places and situations (sights, sounds, scents)

While we as a team take care to allow plenty of time for dogs to decompress before working and get familiar with our shoot location, we look for dogs who can explore and be curious, and once satisfied, can focus on their person and be ready to work for whatever they love most (food or toys). Dogs that tend toward being overwhelmed and easily stressed in new environments, or tend to shut down, will have a hard time focusing, let alone enjoying the experience and we never, EVER want to see a dog feel stressed or unsafe at any photo shoot.

Sociability, friendliness and enjoyment around people

When we say “friendly”, we do not mean your dog HAS to LOVE and be all over every human they meet. Although, we are here for it!

‘Friendly’ in the Dog Modeling World = The individual is more akin to being neutrally calm, happy, and/or relaxed being around humans and sharing spaces with them.

Meeting new people won’t always mean interacting directly with them, but when you work one of our commercial photo shoots, there will be at least three of us working around you and your dog on the smaller productions and 8 to 9 (or more) on larger productions. So, having a dog that is safe and that they themselves feel safe, around new, revolving humans is a great dispositional trait for dog models.

At all Labs & Co photo shoots we use the “hands off and ask first” rule around our dog models. If there is a styling adjustment needed, like we really need to turn Sammy’s bandana or flip the toy over, our team will always ask if it’s okay to reach in and adjust a prop near you or your dog. We treat all greetings and interactions with your dog the same way; hands off and ask first.

*IMPORTANT NOTE: It is ABSOLUTELY OK to say “No” to something you know your dog doesn’t enjoy or will make him uncomfortable.

Here’s a good way to positively advocate for your dog while simultaneously being respectful of your obligations: Just say, “My dog would be more comfortable if I did that for you, can you tell me what you need to adjust?” Voila – teamwork and a happy, comfy pup!

For dogs with BIG FEELINGS about other animals

If your dog has big feelings or reactions around other animals, it is of utmost importance that you are honest and clear about their capabilities, their thresholds and their triggers.

Big feelings are not a deal breaker--at least in our photo shoots–HOWEVER, our first priority is the safety and comfort of all animals and humans. It may narrow the scope of projects your dog is a good fit for, but we believe there’s opportunity for everyone… IF, and only if, the dog can enjoy the experience of working a shoot free of triggers and can stay under their threshold.

We rarely, if ever, have multiple dogs (that don’t know each other) on set. Most of the time, we’d choose a dog with big feelings to shoot indoors, eliminating any dog-to-dog triggers, but when you’re working in the public, it’s not always possible to avoid locals enjoying a walk with their dogs. Bottomline is, it’s ok to have big feelings, just make sure you are only putting your dog in situations they can handle comfortably and don’t push them over their threshold.

Want more tips on how to help your dog (or cat) FEEL safe at any photo shoot? Leap over here to read our follow up blog: The Makings of a Great Dog Model Parent.

Now that you know a few of the disposition traits that make a great dog model, let’s talk about training. Basic dog obedience and training is not always fun for dogs. It’s…well, basic. But for commercial shoots, basic obedience is more than basic, it is essential.

*Puppy parents don’t fret, there is a place for puppies in dog modeling who don’t know the basics yet! 

Basic Skills (dog training) in Great Dog Models include:

Stay, sit, down, recall and leash manners

While we won’t always make use of every dog training skill for final images, these basic cues are essential for creating them. For example, if we want to capture your dog trotting across the room to come to you; we’ll ask you to put them in a sit-stay, walk across the room and call them to you. By “leash manners” we mean the ability to walk your dog on a leash without them dragging or pulling you constantly. Unless we are photographing a scene or gear where the dog needs to pull, loose leash walking is great, or a “heel” cue is amazing.

Always shoot for the stars, but in dog modeling, most definitely shoot for a solid recall.

Ability to work at a distance from you (the handler) and add duration

Your dog has an impeccable set of basic skills, but can they perform and keep them at a distance from you? Can you increase the duration of how long you ask them to hold the cue and then walk away? This uplevels the game for dog models. Most dogs want to be near you and their primary reinforcer. So, it is no surprise when their training falls apart on shoot day. They weren’t expecting you to give your cues from 10 feet away behind a chair. 🙄

Practice all the things your dog knows how to do, and then practice doing them at a distance, too.

A note on release cues and breaks

During commercial photo shoots, your dog will be performing whatever task is necessary within his skillset, and we as the photographers, will communicate when it’s ok to release your dog. For the most part, we’ll say “ok! Take a break” or “ok, you can release her”. That being said, you, as the advocate for your dog are the one who knows them best. You know how long they can hold a position or do a trick before they need to be reinforced for it, so it’s important that you feel comfortable speaking up and advocating for your dog.

Generally, most photographers will say “please go in and reward him or her whenever you need to” but as far as Bill and I are concerned, we always have an extra eye out for our dog models and will cue you to go in and reward them frequently. Remember, this should be fun for everyone, especially the dogs, so we advocate for proper reinforcement with food or toys throughout your photo shoot experience.

Get a sneak peak of how it works in the behind-the-scenes videos here.

Beyond the Basics: From Good to Phenomenal 

Really knowing your dog and nourishing his or her strengths, capabilities and interests results in a dog model who can cater to a wider range of opportunities. Training for dog sports, learning tricks for fun, specialized task-training or training in canine fitness are all incredible skills that elevate your dog model game. A huge percentage of our Dog Model Network has particular training in one dog sport or another. Some do it just for fun, others compete professionally; it doesn’t matter why. What matters most is that the dog takes great joy in these activities, so when they’re asked to perform them in front of a camera, they are ready to GO HAVE FUN AT WORK!

Some of those dog sports and activities include:

  • Trick training
  • Agility
  • Tracking
  • Scent detection
  • Fitness and conditioning
  • Freestyle
  • Obedience
  • Acting
  • Task-training/assistance training

Simple, everyday enjoyable activities such as swimming, fetch and toy play are all considered great “dog model assets” in our book, but there are some specifics skillsets that most brands look for. Hop over here to see the top 10 most requested skills our brand clients ask for.

You are your dog’s advocate, and I will be yours

By “I”, I mean me, Nat. (I’m this one 👇👇)

This Dog Model Network is my puppy and I am so very proud of it. I say that I will be your advocate, because Bill and I have the joy of being a great team that plays to each other’s strengths.

He is awesome at taking care of our clients and brands and will go above and beyond to get the winning shot for them. I want all of those things too, and we both believe the only way to truly excel at that is by casting the right models for the project and making sure those models are having a blast during our shoot.

Your ‘advocate’ in dog modeling = If we’ve previously worked together, I’ve taken note of you and your dog’s talents and strengths. If there’s a specific task requested by a brand that’s needed and we haven’t done it together before, I’ll often ask you if it’s possible to teach it or learn it ahead of time. Even if your dog doesn’t fit the “physical description” of what the brand may be looking for, but I KNOW you guys can do the job, I will advocate for you to land that job.

Similarly, I will also be the one who’s honest about whether or not your dog (with his or her specific skill set) may be the best fit for said job… simply because I understand both sides of the project: the needs and asks of the brand, and the needs and capabilities of the dog.

While we ask you to always, always be your dog’s advocate and communicate clearly and kindly with the team about your dog’s needs and capabilities, you can trust that I will be there to advocate for both of you, because I trust Bill to take care of the client and brand’s needs, and he trusts me to take care of yours.

So, are you ready to join our Model Network rockstars? Here are our top takeaways and tips to get going:

  • Practice, practice, practice–but keep it fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it!
  • Seek new discoveries! Get to know your dog, their strengths and superpowers, and share that knowledge with the photographer. The more we know about your dogs, the better we can match you to the perfect project.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Dog models bring our work to life. We are 100% here for you and your dogs.
  • Get help from the pros and have fun with it. There are so many great trainers and classes out there, and if you need a recommendation, just ask! We have so many we love within our Model Network itself.
  • Do you have a puppy? You don’t need to wait until they are grown up and expertly trained! Puppies are always welcome to our shoots, provided they feel comfortable in that situation and we will take EXTRA care to make sure it is a positive and enriching experience for them.

See? Puppy + Fun + Positive Professionals = The Makings of a Great Dog Model

Ready to rock? Sign up for our Model Network. When you join, you will receive an email with any open casting calls. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s full of secret perks and we can’t wait to meet you and work together!

Ohh, one last thing…

Receipt that we DO love photographing cats, too!