Saturday, 30 May 2015

Where I Open Up a Bit

I don't really like talking about the negatives when it comes to Willow's journey. If I do, it will be in jest. You see, the good things far outweigh the bad things. But sometimes, you've just got to be honest haven't you? Get it all out - shift all the negative, for the positive to come back in. Today's one of those days.

Life’s ok – but my heart’s (and my body if I can be truthful) is a bit broken for Willow.

It’s been tough.

It’s hard work living with a dog that is so driven by fear.

For four months, Willow and I were doing so well. We were working on her fear, and then this pesky lump happened. I couldn’t walk her, because for her to wear a harness would cause her pain – and of course, I can’t go out with her unless she’s wearing it - it’s the only thing that stops her running away when she’s spooked (which is often). Then she had the surgery and it took a good 6 weeks to heal. Now, we’re back at square one with her fear outside the house – and it’s almost as if it’s come back two-fold. Life, at the moment, is difficult.

So many people spend so much time giving me such sound advice about what to do, and how to treat her – I take it all on board, and try everything - but Willow is extreme. Her fear is extreme. Her ability to cope disappears the moment she steps outside of the house and it’s all I can do to hold on to her. Unless you’ve met Willow and seen her fear, there’s nothing else to compare with it. Even experienced dog trainers have looked me in the eye and told me up front “This is the worst case I’ve seen.” Few can offer any real helpful advice on how to cope with it and how to build her confidence – and I do, at times, feel quite alone trying to figure out this massive chaotic puzzle.

I have the most amazing friends – all adore Willow (if they didn't, they wouldn't be my mates, eh?), all want to see her happy too – and they help me with her socialisation. They spend hours being patient with her, hours and hours just sitting and letting her come to them when she feels ready. They will walk with me, they will run with Willow, they’ll give extra tasty treats to her (and me) and support my socks off. I’m not alone in that sense. But, of course the hard work is down to me, and when you really don’t know which road to take (sometimes literally) it’s all a bit scary. This is an animal I have committed my entire self to, and I have to make it right.

Honestly? Had I known of the extremeness of fear, I might not have adopted her. That’s not to say that now I regret adopting her. I don’t. Far, far from it. But, to put her through this breaks my heart. I want to be able to leave her in the house where she is comfortable and happy - in her own little Bubble-of-Safe and not have her worry. But, reality is that I can’t. She is young, she is full of energy that she needs to burn and I have to try and help her.

I also have Harvey. He has needs too. He’s of course the epitome of a gentleman. When we’re walking and Willow freaks out and pulls my arm out of its socket and I wince in pain – Harvey will glance up at me with a “You alright Mum?” look. Of course, I always tell him I am and give him all the “good boy”s I can, and he wags his tail to let me know he understands.

I am in fear every single time we go out. Of course, I don’t show her this. I am confident and walk with my head up and my arms loose and reassure her all the way. But inside I’m thinking, will today be the day that I can’t keep hold of her? Will a parent not heed her hi-vis vest asking them to give her space and allow their children to run at her? – or will a cyclist whizz past her so fast that she screams in terror? Will I have to turn in Xena Warrior Princess and drop kick the next know-it-all telling me “Oh, just let her off lead, she’ll work it all out herself?” and how many times am I going to hear “Oh, he’s fine, he’s just bouncy.” about another dog, who’s clearly showing it wants to knock her off her paws?

One of the many wonderful things that Willow has taught me though (and there’s reams of things), is patience. Patience with the stupid people. I mean, let’s face it, if a dog cowers away from you when you approach it, do you really continue the approach and tell her to “stop being silly?” No, you turn away and YOU stop being a prize idiot.

I’m all for telling prize idiots to bugger off. I’m more than happy to do that. And I will educate parents about the dangers of allowing their kids to approach dogs without asking the owner’s permission (for the record, my answer will always be No when it comes to Willow. If it’s Harvey, that’s OK, just be prepared for the snog of your lifetime and the probable ground hugging you’ll be doing when he bowls you over.) I’m not backward in coming forward. But, when I do my absolute best to keep the fear to the very minimum for my dog and someone comes in and bollocks it up. It miffs me. A lot.

I don’t think I could cope with another week of her being missing. Not even a day. I worry all the time that she is going to break free and run when we’re on a walk. The fear in her eyes tells me that if she did break free she would run and not stop. My stomach knots with anxiety, my thoughts race to the time she was missing and how utterly heart-breaking it was. How I would lay awake at night and wonder if I’d get a call to tell me she’d been hit by a car or shot by a farmer – and the sheer panic when I’d open my eyes after I’d finally fallen asleep to realise she was still gone. Was she alive? Was she scared? Has she been hurt? I can’t go through that again. Not now. Not after we’ve been through so much together.

When we’re in ‘her’ fields (with no one around and just the sounds of nature), she’s the happiest, most carefree animal you ever did see. It fills me with absolute joy to see her run and play and be a dog. A normal dog, doing normal dog things. It hurts to see her coiled up with anxiety when we’re not in those fields. But sometimes, that’s unavoidable. I simply cannot keep her away from civilisation. From time-to-time, we have to go where she’s not comfortable – at least for the shortest time until I can get her to the safe ‘happy’ place.

Maybe, you might think, leave her home. Don’t make her walk anywhere. I’ve tried that. If that’s what makes her happy, then absolutely. But she’s not happy with that. She gets wound up like a tightly coiled spring and needs to run, properly run, and play and sniff and do all she should be doing. Her behaviour becomes erratic and her anxiety escalates if I don’t walk her.

Willow is the reason I'm overcoming my own irrational fears, and learning how to drive. Once I pass that test, she'll never have to walk somewhere she doesn't want to again. For the meantime, we have to get from A to B, and we have to do that by walking.

I was told that she’d never experienced hurt or pain. And I want to believe that. But when she flinches at a caress. When she runs screaming (literally) from children. When she cowers in terror when she hears a man’s voice that isn’t her Dad’s – I find it very hard to believe. This isn’t just a case of no-socialisation from being a pup. Something/someone has terrorised her at some point. That’s not just me who says it – those with decades of experience of working with fearful dogs feel this too.

Willow and I have a bond I’ve never experienced before with any other dog. My first dog was my soul dog, the very thought of him brings me such an array of emotion, I find it hard to think of him sometimes, because I’ve never gotten over him dying, even though he was very old. He was my everything. Harvey, he’s my baby. The light of my life. My right hand man. Willow, well…there’s a deep connection that I can’t explain. She gives me all of her, she looks at me with such entire trust, and I know, when we’re together, in the house, she’s the happiest she’s ever been. I so want that for her when we’re out. I can’t live my life indoors, of course, I’ve tried, for her sake – but it makes me so miserable too. I am an outdoors person. I have to be out there, and I have to help her believe that she’ll never ever be in danger when she’s outside with me. She’ll never be hurt – I just won’t let that happen.

So, we take it step-by-step. We start from the beginning again, and we move forward. And we will get there, I know we will. The day I bought her home, she laid on the sofa and didn’t move for three days, so scared, she peed where she laid and wouldn’t let me close to her. Now, she follows me everywhere. If she can be wrapped around my legs, even better. She’ll commando crawl to get to me on the bed, always with a paw on me to know where I am (I’m not going anywhere without you darling) and snuggle into my armpit sighing a huge breath of relief. She’s safe.

You can bet your life on that.

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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

10 tips for photographing your cat

As a pet photographer, the top three animals I photograph are dogs, cats and horses. All three are very different to photograph. I thought today I’d speak more about photographing cats.

If you’re interested in some basic tips about photographing dogs, take a look here.

Every month I go to my local Cats Protection Adoption Centre and take pictures of their new arrivals for their website. 

Cats are, by far, the trickiest animal I’ve ever photographed! Over the past couple of years I must have photographed nearly three hundred cats (both rescue and private commissions) – you’d think it would get easier…it doesn’t! Cats are free spirits, there’s no asking them to sit and stay, there’s no getting them to lay down or roll over if they don’t want to (although I’d never ask a dog to do want they don’t want to do either! There’s no point having a picture of an unhappy dog is there!)

So, here's some tips.

1. Introduce yourself/the camera

After photographing so many cats, I can kind of tell straight away those who will be open to having their pictures taken and those that will be a bit shy. 

What I always do is spend a few minutes with each cat before taking pictures. Sometimes this is limited if there are a lot to photograph in a shelter situation - but if it was a private commission I’d spend a good 5-10 minutes with each cat stroking it, and showing it the camera,  letting them hear the noises it makes and speaking gently to them.

Don’t go straight for taking the picture. Put yourself in the cats shoes (paws) if someone came straight up to you and shoved a camera in your face, you’re not going to be happy about it – nor’s the cat. Respect and kindness at all times – a winning combination!

2. Light

As with all animal photography, I don’t use flash at all. It can spook them and the very last thing I want is the cat to have a memory of me that is frightening. I want them to feel comfortable and happy to have me around. So, if you haven’t got good light, you’re scuppered. 

Find an area with good natural light – a bright room, the garden, etc. You don’t want full on sunshine. Harsh sunshine can cause awful shadows and contrast within an image – and, whilst these can look amazing in black and white images as seen below, on the whole, you’re looking for good, shaded light that will allow the camera to pick up all the desirable details and miss out all the others! 

Remember, harsh sunlight will often show unwanted aspects to fur, like dust particles, stray moulted hair, etc – not pretty in the final shot and a lot of work in post-production (if you’re going to edit the images).

Harsh sunlight can give beautiful images

3. Space

Unless you want to be following your cat from room to room to take its picture – the best thing to do is choose one room (the light one) and close the door! With rescue cats at shelters, their pens/cages are perfect spaces as they ‘contain’ the cat, so they can’t dart off as cats oft do.

4. Be aware of the cat’s body language

Make sure though that the cat isn’t intimidated and is happy at all times. Don’t force it with them – if you do the images will come out with a miserable looking cat, and that’s not good (for the cat or the image). You’re looking for perky ears and relaxed body language. If the cat is looking on edge, it’s best to walk away, and then try again a bit later.

This cat is a little nervous and not at all happy with the camera in front of him. Walk away and come back.

General signs your cat is happy
  • Pricked ears, forward and alert
  • Bright eyes (but not staring with huge round pupils!)
  • Pricked and/or relaxed tail
  • Open to being touched and stroked/willingness to walk towards you
  • Sitting with tail curled around them
  • Rolling/rubbing
  • Purring
General signs your cat is unhappy
  • Ears back or flattened to the head
  • Stooped body language (ready to run away)
  • Tail twitching with a stare that would freeze the Sahara
  • Half-moon eyes (or Lady Di eyes as I call them)
Although this cat is happy enough to be photographed, it's not entirely sure and is very aware of things around him.

5   5. Preparing the cat

Clean the sleepy dust from their eyes – manky eyes make notteth the shot of the year!

Give the cat a rub over with your hands to smoothe away moulted fur – to the naked eye, it’s nothing much, but to the camera, it can sometimes be so blindingly obvious it can ruin an otherwise really good shot.

6. Props

I very very rarely use props in any of my photography and their use really depends on the kind of image you want. Fluffy knitted throws for the cat to lie on, or cushions work well. You can also use baskets for them to curl up in, fancy boxes, large bowls, etc. Whatever takes your fancy (or more importantly, your cat’s fancy).

7. Camera

For the technically prone people:

If you’ve got a DSLR you’ll want to make sure your shutter speed is fast – I try to keep the camera at 1/800 or faster, and keep your lens as wide open as possible. I use a 50mm F1.4 for all my cat photography and set ISO as needed.

If you have a point and shoot:

Select sports mode. Many point and shoots these days have ISO settings (refer to your camera’s manual regarding this – as it’s a bit long winded to explain all the technicals at this point –  maybe I’ll cover that in a later post)

8. Get down low.

Generally, this is the key to all animal photographs. Taking pictures of animals on their level as opposed to yours is far more effective. There are of course exceptions to that rule, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

9. Get the cat’s interest

Use tasty treats. Here in the UK we have ‘Dreamies’ – these I’ve found are irresistible to cats! I show the treat to the cat, so they can smell it, and then move it up to the lens of the camera. Often the cat’s gaze will follow the treat for a perfect straight on shot.

Cat Nip is good – but try and use this nearing the end of your session – as no doubt you’ll get a very chilled, rolly-abouty cat, who might dribble and look generally mental! Using catnip is great to get some ‘different’ shots and angles of cats – but shouldn’t be used at the start of the session!

Toys. Sometimes the Dreamies just don’t cut the mustard and you need to find something else. Feathers are always a safe option! String, something that jangles (keys). All good things to grab attention.

Noises – I use all kinds of noises, from smacking lips, to screeching! They sound entirely bonkers, but work to get attention! Don’t make a bellowing sound though, you want their attention, not for them to run away!

10.  Different angles

Whilst getting down to your cat’s level is a really good idea and I would even go as far to say that 90% of my images are taken with me laying/kneeling on the floor with them. Sometimes other angles are good:

Like the cat looking up at you. This is the sight we generally see when they’re looking for food or attention and is quite endearing.

Don’t forget other angles too. Profile pictures, paws, tails, etc. These images are great if you’re wanting to build a collection of images to display on the wall.

And most of all?

Have fun! Spend time with your cat, make it a special experience for them. Give treats, strokes, and lots of love, and you’ll have a cracking set of images to show for it!

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Saturday, 9 May 2015

ODIN THE THERAPY DOG – Helping people one paw at a time

I first met Odin in August 2013 when I photographed him for his Mum Kara. I knew then that he was super special.

Here Kara tells Odins story, how he came to be with her, and the beginning of his journey as a Therapy Dog.

My daughter was diagnosed with Bi-Polar & Psychosis when she was 15yrs old, but had been self harming for a while before then. After she was diagnosed, she couldn’t accept that she had a mental illness and tried to end her life - which resulted in her being sectioned in a children’s psychiatric unit on the mainland.

She was there for 6 weeks while she was assessed and prescribed medication. When she came home she was very depressed and wouldn't leave the house by herself because she couldn't trust the voices that she heard. This went on for nearly a year.

Myself and my husband were very concerned that she wasn't going out and socialising with her friends, especially as she couldn't go back to school because she wasn't well enough. We also both worked full time, so we decided to get a dog to help build her confidence up again.

There is so much to think about and decide when getting a dog. What breed? What sex? etc. My husband wanted a German Shepherd as he had shepherds growing up. I wasn't too sure as my only experience with shepherds were Police and security dogs; working dogs not pets. Then there was the male/female debate. I grew up with female dogs, and my husband had male dogs. In the end I decided on a German Shepherd, but I stipulated that he/she had to be either black or white.

We went on the internet and looked at breeders. We saw one in Oxford who had a 12 week old white girl. The only problem was when choosing names we could only think of boys names and we had agreed on one name in particular - no girls names came to us; but we phoned the breeder to ask about her girl anyway.

Unfortunately, she had been sold. But as fate would have it, they were waiting for another litter to be born from the same father (white German Shepherd) but different mother (dark red sable). We asked when we could see them, and the breeder agreed that we could at just one week old.

We travelled to Oxford a week after they were born and were introduced first to the Mother and Father. They were both lovely dogs, very friendly and they both stayed close to us while we saw their babies. The mother had 9 pups, 8 were dark red sable and one was white…a little boy! This was fate, it was meant to be - and so the little white pup we saw with his eyes closed became Odin. The breeder called him by his name whilst he was with her so he was used to it by the time we picked him up on Good Friday 2012.

Odin did what he was supposed to do, he got my daughter out and about and she began socialising with her friends again. He is loved by all of us, and he loves us too.

One day I was watching Crufts on TV and saw a stand for Pets As Therapy. I looked them up on the internet to see what they were all about, and realised that people with pets registered their dogs or cats with this charity and visited people in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, prisons to make people feel better. This would of course mean the people would have regular visitors if they didn't already, and have someone to talk to.

Every time I walked Odin I had people stopping me to stroke him, and everyone would tell me that he was special and he had kind eyes - so I thought why not? He had already helped my daughter, and would help other people just by being him!

I contacted Pets As Therapy online and they emailed me an application pack with details of my local co-ordinator. I then arranged a meeting with her at my local park for Odin to be assessed.
The assessment consists of behaviour and walking on a lead. Odin was put through a series of tests:

Grooming, how he would react to having his collar grabbed? (because older people might grab it and Odin had to be fine with that), loud and sudden noises, and controlled walking.  The test also consisted of feeding of treats to Odin (he is not allowed to put his teeth on skin when accepting treats, and he is not allowed to lick or paw excessively.)

Needless to say Odin passed all tests with flying colours! The fact that we had been taking him to obedience training helped a lot, and Odin seemed to know what was being asked of him, so the tests were very easy. I sent the completed application form to the head office along with the local co-ordinators part and he was accepted as a Therapy Dog a few weeks later.

Now, getting a placement somewhere was very difficult. There are about 20 PAT dogs on the Isle of Wight where we live, and the Island isn't a big place! Two dogs already visit the hospital and others visit nursing homes – but, I wanted to work within mental health.

I asked my local co-ordinator to contact the hospital to see if I could start visiting a mental health facility called Seven Acres. To begin with she wasn’t very hopeful as there were already 2 dogs at the hospital, but I reminded her that even though Seven Acres is part of the hospital, the actual unit is separate, and Odin would make a big difference to people with mental illness. It is proven that stroking a dog reduces blood pressure, anxiety and brings about mental well-being by releasing the ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain, and, happily, the same happens to the dog being stroked and hugged.

Wheels were set in motion in the July of 2014. I didn’t hear anything for months, then suddenly a few weeks before Christmas I was invited to go to Seven Acres for a trial visit. This was to happen during their coffee morning with the patients and staff, to see how everyone would feel about having a dog come to visit, especially one as big as Odin. It was a huge success! I explained why I particularly wanted to visit the unit and discussed the benefits a visiting dog would bring.

Some of the patients came to stroke him - one patient hugged him and told me how much she missed her dog. Other patients were a little nervous, so didn’t stroke him bit they did stay to look at him. The hospital arranged my CRB check and my breakaway training and we started visiting Seven Acres officially in March of this year.

We visited the open ward first,  and have got to know the patients and the staff, everyone loves Odin. One patient doesn't communicate with people, but she will talk to Odin, and even the visitors get the benefit of him being there.

We have had a walk through the dementia ward, but that is very much on a week by week basis and we go for a short time when they request us. We are also visiting the secure unit now, and Odin is making a difference to the people there.

Hopefully, now the evenings are getting lighter, we can  take Odin for a walk around the hospital with some of the patients and staff, which will be nice for all concerned.

Odin has even had his photo taken by the staff on the secure ward to put up on their staff photo board of Who’s Who! He is definitely a permanent member of staff now – who knows, maybe he will get an employee of the month certificate!

Odin still helps my daughter, now she is older. Her diagnosis keeps changing - she has been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses and needs a lot of help and support. She has her own flat, but stays with me on a weekend - Odin lies with her on his bed (his bed is a 4 seater leather sofa) when she is a bit low, and he always make her feel better.

I’m so proud of Odin for what he is doing, and he loves it too - after all, he’s getting love and attention from a lot of different people –  he’s in his element!

Kara Ahronson, Odin's Mum.

Visit the Pets as Therapy website for more information.

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