The Camera as Magical Treat Dispenser


What do you do when the tool of your art, your camera, makes your subject nervous?  Unfortunately for us photographers some find our cameras pretty scary.  Some pets have discovered that looking at a camera rewards them with a painful bright flash of light.  Others have histories that cause them to fear humans holding objects that look like they could inflict pain.  And for others cameras . . . Just. Look. Suspicious.

The same techniques that help your pet discover the mailman is not a horseman of the apocalypse or that the vacuum cleaner is not a horror film star can help here.  Our goal is to replace negative associations with cameras with new positive ones.  This process does take time and patience as it’s critically important you let them set the pace and not rush the process. 

I start by setting my camera on the ground, letting them check it out if they’re inclined.  Some give it a good sniff and even a lick.  That’s enough for some to get comfortable with it.  Others though look warily from a distance.  In this situation I put treats on the camera and see if that entices them to explore.  If it doesn’t, I’ll make a trail of treats from the camera to them.  This will bring some closer, while others remain nervous and back up.  Again, let them set the pace; just keep a happy, friendly attitude, and reward every bit of progress.  Every step shows amazing trust in you — imagine what it would take for someone to convince you to eat a treat off something that scares you!  And imagine how much scarier it’d be if you felt pressured to do it.

Once they feel comfortable getting close to the camera, whether that takes minutes or hours, give them a big reward and let them get used to just being close to it before trying to pick it up — that motion can be especially scary and set you back.  So I do it very slowly and watch how they react.  Often I’ll just slowly bring the camera into my lap and then repeat the treat/reward process.

Once we get this far the next step is to encourage them to associate the sound of the camera with good things.  So I’ll give them a treat, and right as they are eating it, I’ll click the shutter.  I may do this many times until they don’t startle.  The goal is to have something good happening (tasting a yummy treat) every time they hear that noise.  Doing this long enough can replace their previous negative associations with that noise, to a happy new association of yummy treats.

Once they’re comfortable with the sound you can slowly transition to picking up the camera and eventually taking photos.  Keep a careful eye on your friend at every step so you can judge whether they’re comfortable with you continuing. 

Using this approach I’ve had dogs go from terrified of the camera to following their newfound friend the treat dispensing camera everywhere.  Remember, patience is key; if you get frustrated they’ll sense it and that can undo all the progress you’ve made up to that point.

If you’d like to learn more I recommend reading up on positive reinforcement training techniques.  A good book about our more cautious friends is The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell. 

Before long you may have your friends excited to see not just your camera but the mailman and the vacuum cleaner too. 

Our class’s new home on Spot’s new website is nearly complete.  There’s no assignment this month, but if you have ideas you’d like to send please do.  Then get ready to pick back up next month.