Developing your photographer’s eye in dog training

10152524_10103006114204917_2075487474_nAs a writer, I seek metaphors to illustrate, amplify, and enhance understanding of a concept. Metaphors allow us to make connections between ideas, to draw parallels between disciplines, and create understanding of difficult and foreign topics.

As a professional dog trainer, I have ample metaphors at my disposal to help me effectively communicate the science of animal learning and the mechanics of dog training to owners. After all, what good is the possession of knowledge if we can’t disseminate it in an approachable, useful way to those who need it?

The latest metaphor to come my way is the parallel between photography and training.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

These words from iconic photographer Ansel Adams brilliantly describe one of the most important factors when training a dog: Criteria.

As Jean Donaldson teaches her students at the Academy for Dog Trainers, criteria is the contract between you and your dog. It describes, in specific detail, exactly what your dog must do in order to receive a reward. If your criteria is unclear – or “fuzzy,” as Ansel Adams might say – nothing else in your training session will be effective. You might have impeccable timing, an incredibly motivated dog, and proper mechanics, leading you to think your image, your photograph of your dog’s behavior, is sharp. But if you don’t know what your dog must do to get a reward, neither will your dog. The picture will be fuzzy, unclear and confusing, not only for you, but for your dog.

Defining criteria takes your training plan from “fuzzy” to “sharp.” If you know what your dog is supposed to do at each step of the training plan, you’ll know when to push ahead, when to back up for more review, and what precisely to reward. If you are working on recall, does your dog get a reward for coming on the recall cue alone? Or is he allowed to come with the recall cue, high-pitched noises and clapping? From what distance is he supposed to come? Five feet? Ten feet? If it’s fuzzy in your mind, it will be fuzzy in your dog’s mind, too.

“When that shutter clicks, anything else that can be done afterward is not worth consideration.”These are the words of Edward Steichen, a noted American photographer.

“Dogs learn by the immediate results of their actions and the association of events which occur closely together in time.” These are the words of Jean Donaldson.

Notice the similarities?

The shutter in photography is akin to a marker word or a click in dog training. The shutter captures the exact image that occurs at that moment. Nothing after the close of the shutter matters. 

Marker words in lure-reward training, and clicks in clicker training, mark the split second in time when a dog does a behavior. If you’re teaching a dog to sit, you say “Yes!” or click the instant the dog’s rear end reaches the floor. Because dogs are most concerned with the immediate antecedents and consequences of their behavior, you mark the behavior immediately as it occurs to bide you time to deliver the reward.

Envision the photograph you create when you mark or click your dog’s behavior. Does it accurately depict the behavior you’re intending to reward? Is your shutter speed to slow? Or is it too fast? Maybe you clicked before the dog did the actual behavior. Or maybe you clicked after the behavior occurred. If you take a photograph of the right behavior at the right time, you get efficient and effective training. If you take a photograph too early or too late, you might get inconsistent behavior and a confused dog.

“You don’t take a good photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams

To be a good trainer is in many ways to be a good photographer. Compose your training plan and develop a sharp, clear concept of what you want your dog to do. Get the timing right and click the shutter at the right time so you mark the correct behavior. This is how you make good dog training happen.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at