Let sleeping dogs lie

Ever thumb through a catalog, see a great photo, and wonder, How did they get that shot? We did — especially when it comes to photographing animals, so we decided to pose the question to Doctors Foster & Smith. This is the first in an occasional series.

W.C. Fields once cautioned against working with animals or children, and Jeff Koser knows why. The lead photographer/studio manager at Rhinelander, WI-based pet supplies cataloger Doctors Foster & Smith, Koser has for eight years been charged with photographing more than 3,000 puppies, kittens, horses, and other animals — or “talent,” as Koser calls them.

So how did Koser land this cover shot (right) of a sleeping puppy modeling a holiday collar and paw muffs? First, Koser’s assistant Candi Besaw, who typically wrangles the talent for the company, selected a 10-week-old golden retriever named Tori to be the cover dog. Most of the talent, including Tori, come from northern Wisconsin; cats and kittens are from the local Rhinelander adoption center.

With Tori, the cataloger had to put play before work, as the puppy needed to be tired out so that she would sleep. “We just wore her out,” Koser says, by letting Tori play with chew toys and pull toys. “Puppies, like babies, they go-go-go in spurts, and then they just crash,” he says.

Most of the time involved in a Doctors Foster & Smith photo shoot is spent creating the set, and not unlike fashion modeling, the talent comes on and off the set as quickly as possible. After all, you have an animal’s cooperation for only a limited amount of time.

The animals’ owners are rarely in the studio, because they tend to distract the pets. For the same reason, “I completely remove myself from any contact from the dog,” Koser says. “As the photographer, I don’t want to play or get involved with the talent until that shutter is clicked.”

In this instance, Tori sacked out so deeply that Koser could get the shots he needed without disturbing her. In fact, once the 20-minute session ended, Tori continued to sleep in the studio for another hour. Koser shot 60 frames, then selected about eight shots. With input from co-founders Dr. Marty Smith and Dr. Race Foster, along with the catalog and the merchandise team, the holiday cover shot was chosen.

Getting the right shot takes timing, planning, and a little luck, Koser says. But most of all, “you have to make sure that the talent you select is capable of doing what you need them to,” he notes. “Not just any dog is going to deal with wearing a costume.”

You might expect a company founded by veterinarians to consider sedating some of its subjects. But Koser says it has never attempted to soothe its talent with calming substances. “We do get a fair amount of phone calls in our call center from nervous pet owners wanting to know if any nefarious activity was taking place,” he says.

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