Friday, December 26, 2014

Boxing Day Sunrise

Andy got up early for work, so I took the opportunity to head out to Hammonasset State Park for one of the latest sunrises the year offers.

The dogs, always good sports, were happy to hop up on a rock and pose for their daily stay.

Ostensibly, I went for the great lighting you get for the first hour after sunrise, but I didn't take all that many pictures. Mostly, I just wandered the beach trails and enjoyed the the moments before and after sunrise.

But I did take some advantage of the light here and there because it really does give everything a warm, dreamy feeling.

And I got the moment the sun crept over the horizon, which never ceases to be magical.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas Portraits

This weekend, Paws 'N Effect was having an event they call "Dogs Just Want to Have Fun," which is about 90 minutes of games for dogs and their owners. It's a blast, and I've helped out and shot photos at DJWHF sessions a few times in the past.

This year, there were two sessions, and we set up a little portrait area so people could get holiday photos with their dogs.

I used Comet and Jax to practice, and this photo turned out so well that I used it for our Christmas card.

I bought a couple of strings of LED bulbs, one white (used in the picture above) and one multicolored, used here. I thought LEDs would be great because they don't warm up.

They are the worst. LEDs—or at least these Christmas LEDs—flicker incredibly quickly, so fast that they look steady to the naked eye. But when you shoot them, your camera catches them lit about 1/3 of the time, off about 1/3 of the time, and partly lit about 1/3 of the time. So you have to throw out 2/3 of your shots!

Dogs don't really pose, aside from the fact that many will stay in place on command, so losing 2/3 of your shots often means losing the one or two with the best expressions because the damn lights aren't on.

Fortunately, I was able to get enough each time that I got at least one good photo of every dog, lights or no.

About half the people opted not to use lights and used a prop or nothing at all. The props often resulted in hilarious expressions, because most dogs don't like to wear hats or headbands, but most will tolerate them for a few minutes if their owners ask nicely.

I got a lovely, noble shot of this dog without the headband, but the "please take this off me" expression in this one makes me smile.

This dog wasn't a huge fan of the Santa hat, but I took a bunch of exposures and got lucky. I have about 30 shots where the dog looks a lot less noble and a lot less happy about the hat.

For those interested in some of the technical things the experience taught me:

First, there is reflective tissue at the back of a dog's eye that causes those green demon eyes you get when you use a flash. Everybody who's ever tried to take a picture of their dog has had a problem with this.

That reflective tissue is called the tapetum lucidum, and the trick is that even though it's highly reflective and terrible for flash photography, it's also relatively flat. That means that it only flashes green light back to the camera when the flash is mounted directly to the camera (i.e., close to the lens, so the light bounces straight out and straight back). Get the flash a few degrees away from the lens, and the effect disappears.

For these photos, we used two Kino light panels aimed in at about 45 degrees from each side. That results in double catchlights in a bunch of the portraits, but the Kino setup let me shoot without a flash.

To work with dogs, even in portraits where they're not moving much, you really need higher shutter speeds (1/250 or faster) or you get blur in most shots. Indoors, that generally means a flash, and while I do have an off-camera Speedite with a diffuser, I still wouldn't have had the flexibility I had with the panels. So I was OK with having two catchlights in some of the photos because it meant I could shoot the photos at 1/250 or more in order to get good expressions and relatively sharp exposures.

And last, but not least, my favorite shot of the weekend. The composition is mostly luck and from a technical standpoint, it has a couple of issues: high ISO at 10K, slightly washed out highlights, etc. Nonetheless, I like it, and I just love the dog's expression and his cocked ear.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


It's sort of a tired thing to reflect on the change of the seasons, I suppose. Still, it's what I find myself doing when I walk through the same spots from one season to the next. This season has seen a long, slow change of the leaves, and even this late on in the game, there are still trees holding their bright colors while others are bare.

Summer is visiting again, so she joined the daily stay.

And since I'm thinking of seasons, I'll call back to this photo in the same woods in September.

I've taken to posing for a remote-shutter selfie in the same spot overlooking what the maps alternatively refer to as "Beattie Pond" and "Lost Lake." "Lost Lake" certainly wins for poetic drama. In mid-September, only the most eager trees have begun to change.

By early November, well, the picture does the talking all on its own, doesn't it?

Sunday, October 26, 2014


I split these photos out into their own post because there were so many of them. Usually, I'm extremely picky about my photos, often sorting one or two good ones out of dozens. What happened here, though, is that we ran into a mixed flock of mostly Eastern Bluebirds at the end of our hike. I crept closer and closer over the course of about fifteen minutes, and they were remarkably tolerant of my presence. I took hundreds of photos and cut it down to these ten.

Eventually I had crept close enough that I was actually in the middle of the flock. There were at least a dozen bluebirds, along with one White-breasted Nuthatch, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Myrtle subspecies). The warbler is actually in this shot, if you can find her.

The bluebirds were mostly clustered around the hole in this tree, and I'm not really sure why, unless there was some source of food in there.

There were several plumage variations in the flock, including both bright and dull males and females. I think this is a bright female, since males typically have a slight eyering toward the back of the eye or none at all, and adolescents have spotted backs.

This is the look I associate more with females—the truly drab gray head and white eye ring.

While the birds were pretty cooperative, conditions weren't perfect. It was late in the afternoon, and there was fairly heavy cover, so there wasn't quite as much available light as I would want for the high shutter speeds I needed to freeze their motion.

And while the birds were relatively cooperative in terms of staying in the area, I wasn't able to get as close as I liked. Bluebirds aren't that large, my lens maxes out at "just" 400mm.

Still, I did get some really terrific group shots, and the occasional curious bird got close enough to fill more of the frame.

I think this one is my favorite, since it showcases both sexes and really captures the personality of the bird. I think it has the strongest composition and color elements as well.

Regardless of the photos, it was a pretty magical experience to stand in the middle of a singing, fluttering flock of sapphire birds. I've never seen more than one bluebird at a time, let alone a dozen.

Goldens and Foliage

Just over a year after Summer first arrived, I met my parents for a hike at the East River Preserve in Guilford.

Summer has grown into a fun-loving, wonderful companion and friend, and she has a blast on the trails with just my folks or with the full crowd of us and our dogs.

These pictures are a bit out of order, since we stopped by the river early on and all the dogs got really wet, especially Jax, who will throw himself whole-hog into any body of water we come across. Summer jumped in and out too, but an hour of hiking will dry a Golden right out.

Our daily stay photo has become a tradition on these hikes, and the dogs are always good sports while we pose them and take a few pictures from different angles.

I saved the last photo (below) to blow up a little larger, because Comet, always handsome, chose a particularly pretty spot to look back over his shoulder.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Did the Tree Split the Rock?

My parents and I stumbled across this rather unique tree and rock and posed the dogs in front of it for their daily stay.

I wonder if this tree truly split the rock, or if the rock split for some other reason and the tree was simply the first seedling that took root successfully in the middle. I'm not sure there's any way to tell.

It's October, but the first leaves to turn are mostly yellow and so much is still green that the woods still seem bright and vibrant, even though they're well into their turning.

In warmer weather, I ask Jax to drop the big logs he likes to carry, because I'm afraid he'll overheat. But in the cooler weather, I let him march around with them because he seems so proud and happy with them.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Puppy Palooza

I have great fun shooting dog photos at Paws 'N Effect during special events there, and this morning, we had a "Puppy Palooza." There were different sessions for different ages and sizes, with agility equipment, kiddie pools, a sandbox with bones buried in it, and a big fenced-in area outdoors for zoomies.

The puppies had a blast, as you might imagine. I spent a lot of time lying on my stomach, both with my 24-105 and my 100-400 lens. Periodically, I got bum-rushed by puppies, which was ridiculously fun.

We set up all kinds of pictures while we were playing games. We released puppies on one side of this chute while I shot from the other.

All the equipment wasn't just for fun. It was for socialization too. Socialization is all about giving puppies safe, positive experiences with new situations. This kind of socialization teaches a pup that the world is a safe place and that his people are kind, generous, and a source of safety and comfort.

More on socialization here.

I've shot lots of portraits of dogs at this point, and I feel like I'm really getting the hang of it. I have lots of failed attempts where I misjudge the settings and get a blurry or underexposed photo, but I'm also getting some really nice ones that capture a dog's personality.

Speaking of personality, the Golden, Hudson, and the Corgi, Barley, were the only two in their session of older pups, but they hit it off as the fastest of friends. They chased tennis balls, playfought, and generally had a blast.

They even seemed to be posing for the camera at one point...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dock Dogs

This week is our annual vacation trip up to Silver Lake, and while the weather wasn't so spectacular today, I spent a few minutes shoulder-deep in the water while Andy threw a tennis ball for the dogs.

For the first time, we have two dogs who are grown up and confident at jumping off the high dock, so I got a few captures of synchronized jumps.
Since the dogs alternate between looking back at the thrower and out over the water, not every jump is really synchronized. That gave me plenty of opportunities to get just Jax, as Comet had a tendency to jump a little more preemptively.
...which gave me one more good one of Jax suspended in midair.

For the last jump, I moved out even deeper to try to get both dogs in action. I think I did pretty well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

High Summer in the Meadow

This was a rather busy summer, work-wise. My consulting job kept me as busy as I was willing to be, so my days consisted of waking up, drinking coffee, working, and finding an escape around lunchtime before heading back to work for the rest of the afternoon.

One of my favorite summer spots is the meadow at the East River Preserve in Guilford; at this time of year, it's full of wildflowers, butterflies, and swallows.

It's also full of Comet, Jax, and me for an hour or two while we traipse through the meadow and the woods to clear our heads before turning back to work again.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Brief Kayak Sojourn

The date and time of this post reflect when I took these pictures, but I'm actually writing and posting in November. I've had some laptop trouble and a ton of work, and that's resulted in a huge backlog of photos and entries.

However, I do have some good stuff, like these Osprey photos from one of my only kayak outings this summer.

During July, there are a lot of Ospreys jockeying for fish and territory, and in the heat of midday, many rest on the low ground.  I caught this one just as he finished his rest and took back to the air.

My route up the river also takes me past several nest platforms, and at this time of year, you see large families of first-year fledged birds and their parents sharing food and space.

I wish I had had a chance to get out more in the kayak this summer, but knowing how way leads on to way...

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Car Safety for Dogs

The topic of dog safety in the car has been a hot one among my trainer colleagues, and with good reason. Most of us grew up in the era in which our family dogs simply rode loose in the car, sometimes behind a barrier in the back, sometimes just back with the kids. People had enough common sense to make sure the dog didn’t interfere with the driver, but that was pretty much it.

However, I’ve recently been persuaded that having dogs loose in the car is a hazard not just to the dog, but to the driver. Training the dogs to stay in their area has worked for us for years, but that’s only because we’ve been lucky enough not to be in an accident with the dogs in the car. So I’m certainly not writing this article as a way of judging anybody, since I’m a little late to the car safety game myself.

It has become increasingly clear to me that it's not responsible to have the dogs
loose in the back of the car, even though they're trained to settle calmly.
But here’s what persuaded me: a loose dog is a major safety problem in at least four ways.

  • A loose dog can distract the driver. While this issue can be essentially solved with training, not everybody trains their dog consistently enough to really keep the dog from coming up into the front area of the car.
  • A loose dog can be hurt or killed by the forces of an accident or even by evasive driving. In the event of an accident or an emergency stop, a loose dog can be thrown with incredible force into the back of the passenger seats. With a little bad luck, the dog could even make it into the front dashboard or through the windshield.
  • A loose dog can escape once an accident is over. If a window is broken or if a good samaritan or rescuer opens the door of the car, a panicked dog can escape and run off. This scenario is more common than you would think.
  • A loose dog is a danger to the passengers in the car. Even a small dog can cause injuries to other passengers as he is flung through the cabin by the forces of an accident. 

Having been persuaded that I can no longer, in good conscience, drive with my dogs unrestrained, I’m thrown into the rather confusing world of potential solutions.

Let me preface my discussion of these things by saying that I don’t see an obvious winner, but there’s an amazing organization called the Center for Pet Safety that is currently studying these issues. CPS is a non-profit that is not affiliated with any major manufacturer of crates, pet barriers, or harnesses, and I’ve read all their published research and found it to be pretty tight all around. But, even though CPS exists and is doing great work, they simply haven’t had the time or the resources to compare all the different solutions out there to each other in order to arrive at a definitive answer. So for now, I fully respect several different ways people try to solve this problem.

The only common solutions I would advise against in all situations are putting a dog in the bed of a pickup and tethering a dog by his collar. The downsides of a pickup bed should be pretty obvious, and it's illegal around here. And as far as a collar goes, in the event of a hard stop or a front collision, a dog tied by his collar and leash will simply be killed when he is brought up short. So if you tied your dog by his collar in order to keep him from coming into the front, you need a new solution pronto.

The Crate

The most common solution for restraining a dog in the car is probably the crate. The crate certainly works to keep the dog from distracting the driver, and it would definitely lower the possibility that the dog will become a projectile in an accident or escape during a rescue.

However, CPS did at least one test of a dog in a wire crate, and the resulting video, despite the fact that it uses a dummy, is still a bit disturbing if your imagination inserts your beloved pet in place of the dummy, as my imagination did. The crate in question isn’t tethered, which is part of the problem, but the basic problem with crates is that they don’t prevent the dog from building a speed differential relative to the side of the crate.

What do I mean by speed differential? I mean that when you come to a sudden stop, the tires stop the car, but anything loose in the car will continue at whatever speed you were going until it hits something. In a controlled deceleration, the friction of whatever you or the dog is sitting on is enough to keep you from sliding forwards. However, in a sudden deceleration, like an accident or simply full braking from a high speed, we need seat belts to keep us from flying forward.

So in a crate, a dog has chance to build a pretty significant speed differential before hitting the side of the crate, as you can see in the preceding video. While the crate almost certainly keeps the dog safer than being loose, this issue means that the crate may not be the safest option out there. An airline-style crate might be better than a wire one in terms of sustaining impacts more safely, but there simply isn’t clear data available on the crashworthiness of different styles and brands of crates. Either way, be sure to tether it to strong attachment points in the car with non-elastic straps.

The Barrier

You can also purchase barriers that keep your dog in the cargo area of your car. This option, like a crate, does keep the dog from distracting the driver, and it also keeps the dog contained if the door is opened by a rescuer. However, it leaves us with the same speed differential issue as the crate does.

The Harness

At first glance, harnesses might seem a good all-around solution, but in 2011, CPS actually crash tested a number of car harness brands. Every single one failed. Again, the videos can be a bit disturbing if your imagination vividly puts your dog in place of the dummy. And remember that these are harnesses designed and sold as car safety harnesses, so any typical dog walking harness would presumably not hold up to the stress of an accident and would be little better than tethering a dog by his collar.

In 2013, CPS again independently tested a number of harness brands, and this time they released the names and detailed results. The only brand that performed acceptably was the Sleepypod Clickit. Some brands failed pretesting because they came apart when stress similar to a dog in an accident was applied, and those didn't even make it to the crash test!

Then, most of the brands that passed the pretest failed outright during the crash test by coming apart under the forces of the crash. Only the Sleepypod, the Klein Metall, and the Ruff Rider harnesses held together properly during the crash test, and only the Sleepypod harness actually kept the dog in the seat.

As far as I can tell, the biggest problem with the Klein Metall and Ruff Rider was that their tethers were too long, so the dog slid out of the seat and gained a lot of momentum before being brought up short by the harness.  So the Klein Metall might be fine if you shortened the tether portion to 6”, since it offers an adjustable tether, but the Ruff Rider's tether does not adjust.

CPS also noted that the Sleepypod controlled the rotation of the test dog better than the Klein Metall, so that seems to be an advantage too. The last vote in Sleepypod's favor is that the company actually improved the design of the harness after examining CPS's crash test data. You can see a crash test video of the improved harness at the bottom of the 2013 harness study results page.

Page ten of the 2013 CPS report (PDF) has a great chart comparing the performance of all the harnesses that made it past the pretest.

The Takeaway

While it’s pretty clear that I’ve personally settled on harnesses as the safest option for our dogs' safety in the car, I want to stress that I think the jury is still out. There simply hasn’t been enough testing done, and with the huge ranges of sizes and personalities in dogs, different solutions may work better for different families. Even though the early data suggests to me that a harness in general and the Sleepypod harness in particular are the best choice, that data doesn’t account for all of the real-world issues that may arise.

For example, the Sleepypod performed best on a dummy. In reality, it might be cumbersome or uncomfortable. It might sit nicely on a dummy, but still allow a real dog to pull out a leg or otherwise squirm in such a way that it's ineffective in a real accident. It may be so inconvenient to put on or to attach to the seat that it's impractical. It's hard to say without testing it on your own dog.

So if you do decide to use a harness with your dog, consider getting it from someplace with easy returns, or even from a place that allows you to try it on your dog before purchase. And don't forget to acclimate your dog to it before using it. If you spend a few minutes teaching your dog it's fun to get in and out of the harness, he'll have a far better experience when you expect him to wear it for a journey.

Lastly, remember that tether length played a key role in the crash tests. The harness does you little good if the tether is long enough for the dog to gain a lot of momentum or even to hit the seat backs in front of him.

Large-sized Sleepypods are backordered right now, but look for some high fashion photos of Golden Retrievers in car harnesses in the coming weeks!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What Your Dog's Gums Can Tell You

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

Let me preface this article by making it clear that I am not a veterinarian. As with all my dog care articles, I'm sharing what I've learned over many years of caring for dogs and researching the best practices of having them live long, healthy lives as the boon companions they can be.

The fact is, though, that none of our vets over the years has talked to us about our dogs' gums, which frankly surprises me, since you can use a dog's gums to read some of the early warning signs of very serious health conditions. Dogs can't talk to us and tell us where it hurts. They can't tell us that they feel dehydrated or dizzy, that they feel weak or more tired than normal, or that they're experiencing any of a million little signs of illness that a human doctor can use to try to pinpoint a diagnosis.

It's pretty clear in this picture that there's nothing wrong with Jax, but when
something does go wrong with a dog's health, it can be really hard to figure out.
Often, we only see these symptoms in dogs when they become extreme. You can't tell that your dog is dehydrated until you see him desperately sucking up water once he finally has access to it. You can't tell he's lightheaded until he's so dizzy that he's staggering. You can't tell he's feeling weak until he's practically incapacitated.

Or can you?

There are lots of ways we can learn to read subtle changes in our dogs' health, and one of the simplest is to look at your dog's gums.

But before you grab your dog by the mouth, make sure you've built up plenty of trust so you can handle his mouth safely. Jamming your hands in the mouth of a dog who isn't comfortable and ready is a recipe for a bad bite. Spend some time acclimating your dog to the idea that you're going to gently handle his mouth on a regular basis. Use plenty of rewards and go slowly. Whether you need to train your dog to be comfortable with being handled, or whether you're already there with him, work regularly on making your dog comfortable with having you gently hold his muzzle and pull up his lip. The more consistently you check the gums, the more easily you'll see the subtle changes that can signal the onset of a health problem.

Plus, by handling your dog gently and rewarding him for letting you check his mouth, you're training your dog for when the vet needs to take a look, which means that your dog is more likely to have a positive experience at the vet's office and your vet is more likely to get a good look with a minimum of fuss.

Gums should be pink and slick to the touch, and you can use them to do a capillary refill test, which helps you know how well the circulatory system is working. Push down on the gum gently but firmly, and when you remove your finger, see how long it takes for the white spot to turn pink again as the little blood vessels refill. This test gives you a way to roughly measure your dog's blood pressure. In a normal, healthy dog, the refill takes 1-2 seconds. If it takes longer, it means your dog's blood pressure is low, which happens in conditions like heatstroke or shock. Do this test periodically when your dog is healthy to get a sense of the normal refill time. You can do a similar test on yourself, by the way, by pushing firmly down on your own fingernail.

Jax has a little bit of black pigment here and there on his gums, so checking them
while he's healthy lets me know that it's normal and shouldn't be confused with the
graying that might signal a health problem.
The color of the gums is also really helpful, which is another reason why you should check them regularly in order to establish what's normal for your dog. Pink is normal, but individual dogs do vary, so the more familiar you are with your own dog's norm, the more sensitive you'll be to changes. Checking the mouth regularly also helps you figure out if your dog is having problems with tartar, cavities, or abscessed teeth.

Paler than normal can mean dehydration, low blood pressure, or trouble breathing.

Brick red gums can mean heat stroke or the early stages of bloat.

Grayish or bluish gums can mean the dog isn't getting enough oxygen.

White or flat grey gums are an emergency either with blood flow or oxygen, like in the later stages of bloat.

Dry, sticky gums can mean dehydration.

If your dog has black gums, these tips aren't quite as helpful. You can still test dehydration by feel, but the color changes will be much more subtle. I do know someone whose dog has black gums, and she told me that they do turn darker and lighter. If you have a black-gummed dog, you can also gently pull down the corner of the dog's lower eyelid to expose the pink third eyelid, which should show similar color changes for similar conditions.

I really believe that if more owners regularly checked their dogs' gums to get a baseline and took a peek when they suspected something might be wrong, those dogs would get appropriate or even life-saving care faster. If your dog seems a little off, you may not know if it's serious enough to go to the vet, but if he seems off and his gums have turned from pink to gray, you know far earlier that it's time to rush to the vet. So make it part of your weekly—or even daily—grooming and hands-on exam so you're even more in tune with your dog's health.