LOS ANGELES -- Professional pet photographers are using owner interviews, familiar toys and favorite places to bring out the best in the dogs they shoot, knowing that beloved family pets won't be around forever, but portraits of them will.
It takes more than a squeak toy to stand out in a profession that grew nearly as quickly as dog popularity in the last decade. Twenty years ago, most people didn't think to put their pet in a family photo or on the annual Christmas card. Today, family portraits and cards are likely to be built around a beloved animal. And the older a pet gets, the more owners will think about professional photographs.
"I offer a special package for dogs that are very old or have terminal illnesses," said Jenna Leigh Teti of Jersey City, New Jersey. "It's an important shoot for me, a special thing to capture for someone. And it's happening more frequently, especially with people who had dogs previously and did not have photos with them."
Teti and two other well-known pet photographers live continents apart but all specialize in candid, environmental photos, shooting dogs in their favorite outdoor spots, not in a studio. They spend time with people and pets before the session starts, and they know the importance of immortalizing aging animals.
"Older dogs have a much more regal presence. A wise old dog understands more quickly what you are trying to achieve and can give off the most incredible emotions," said Rachael Hale McKenna of New Zealand, who has answered commission calls around the globe and just released her 15th book, "The Dogs of New York."
Lori Fusaro of Culver City, just west of Los Angeles, is set to publish a book called "My Old Dog" next spring. She has shot thousands of photos for Los Angeles Animal Services, which puts dogs young and old on its website to aid adoptions.
All three women focus on the special quirks of each pet to bring photos to life.
Knowing she is creating "a lasting memory and an individual piece of art" for her clients, "I spend time getting them to trust me so I can reach into their soul," McKenna said.
She talks to owners about the relationships they have with their dogs and what personality traits they'd like her to bring out.
McKenna said she even asks dog owners where they're going to hang a photo in their home so the colors along a trail, in a yard or at a dog park can be matched with the scheme of the room.
For their part, Teti and Fusaro send letters before an appointment.
In her letter, Teti asks: "If your dog could be someone or something else, who or what would they be and why? It can be a famous person your dog reminds you of, or an animal they take on the characteristics of at times."
She says it gives her clues about the relationship the dog and owner share.
A bulldog owner responded with Tony Soprano, the lead character on the HBO mafia hit "The Sopranos," and another client said a small mixed breed resembled Cary Grant, "because he really knew how to charm the ladies with his dance moves."
Teti's methods have created lasting memories for Zarina Mak of Jersey City, New Jersey, and her a pair of rescue mutts.
"She makes a mental bridge," Mak said. "You know when you look at the photo that these dogs are family members and not just discarded dogs."
Mak said she's had the dogs photographed twice and plans several more as they age.
"The dogs are definitely our children," she said.
The photo sessions Mak and others seek usually take an hour or so, the photographers said, and their prices vary. McKenna charges $500 for a consultation and session, and Teti's sessions fetch $175.
Fusaro, whose packages start at $350, has come up with some go-to spots for dogs' different personalities. An outdoor pooch heads to a hiking trail, a couch potato gets a sofa and an active dog frolics on a beach with a ball.
And she never heads out without her jewelry, a necklace made of a squeaky toy, a duck call, a squirrel call and her "secret weapon," a coach's whistle.
"It only works once" to get pooches' attention, Fusaro said.
In front of the camera, some dogs are timid and some are hams, McKenna said, but her secret for a successful shoot with any canine personality is patience.
"Never force an animal to do anything," McKenna said. "If an animal doesn't want to do it, you are not going to get the image you are after anyway."
There's not much forcing for Mak's two mutts, whom she frequently photographs on her cellphone. But she said professional pictures were a totally different experience.
Through her lenses, Teti captures "the trueness of them without intruding. I could never get the true joy of them on the cellphone," Mak said.