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Signs of Stress

Animals can get stressed, and when they do, the results can be unpredictable. Therefore, the best strategy is to talk to the animal’s owner before the shoot to find out what might cause their pet to become tense or nervous.

In the worst case, a stressed animal can act out aggressively, and someone can get hurt. The following sections provide signs of stress exhibited by some animals that you can look out for when you’re photographing your pet or someone else’s pet.


Dogs yawn and lick their lips even they are not stressed, but you need to pay attention to all their behaviors as a whole. Take into account the dog’s ears, the tail, and the body position overall to give you a complete picture of how the dog is feeling. Don’t just rely on the old “wagging tail equates to a happy dog” theory. Here are some signs of stress to watch for when you’re photographing dogs:

  • Nose and lip licking. Excessive licking of the nose or lips can be a sign of a dog under stress. The licking is usually combined with some of the other stress indicators. You can see an example of the lip licking in Figure 4.4.

    Figure 4.4

    Figure 4.4 This dog was in the middle of a training session, which was putting the dog under some stress. You can clearly see the lip licking.

    Nikon D4 • ISO 200 • 1/2000 sec. • f/4.0 • 70–200mm lens

  • Ears pinned. A dog’s ears can tell you a lot about how it’s feeling. When the dogs ears are in a neutral position, not forward or pinned back, the dog is relaxed. When the ears are pinned back tightly against the dog’s head, it usually means that something is making them upset, or they could be happy. Look at the rest of the dog for confirmation. If the rest of the body is tense and rigid, chances are they are upset or stressed; if the body is loose, this usually means they are just happy. The ears going forward typically means that something has their attention, and they are not sure how to deal with it yet.
  • Panting. Dogs pant for lots of reasons. One main reason is that it is a way for dogs to cool down because they don’t sweat through their skin like humans. Panting can also mean that the dog is not feeling well or is stressed out. It is especially important to pay attention and determine if the dog is panting heavily for no discernible reason.
  • Avoidance. If the dog is actively trying to avoid you by looking away or turning their back on you (Figure 4.5), it is a sure sign that they are uncomfortable with the current situation. If the dog starts to show signs of avoidance, just stop what you’re doing and give the dog a chance to relax.

    Figure 4.5

    Figure 4.5 When a dog turns their back on you, it is an obvious sign that they are trying to avoid whatever it is that is stressing them out; in this case, it was me.

    Nikon D4 • ISO 200 • 1/2000 sec. • f/4.0 • 70–200mm lens

  • Tail actions. A dog’s tail can tell you volumes about its mood. When the tail is held low or tacked between their back legs, it signals that they are uncomfortable. When you see a dog wagging its tail because it’s happy, usually the whole back end of the dog is moving. When you see the tail held high and stiff, and not moving, these signs indicate that the dog is tense; it is best to give the dog some space.
  • Yawning. When a dog yawns (Figure 4.6), it doesn’t mean that the dog is tired and needs a nap; instead, it indicates that the dog feels anxious or even threatened. A yawn is a way for the dog to try to relieve its anxiety. If your subject is yawning, try yawning back; it can have a calming effect.
  • Shedding. Dogs shed as a way to get rid of old or damaged hair, but excessive shedding can be a sign of stress. If you don’t know the dog or how much it normally sheds, this stress indicator can be very difficult to identify. If you see a lot of hair being shed when you’re working with a dog, talk to the owner and keep an eye out for the other stress indicators.
  • Whining. Dogs whine for several reasons, from trying to get your attention to when they’re excited about something. But they can also whine when they’re feeling stressed in their current situation. Along with the body language, pay attention to the dog’s verbal cues as well.
  • Raised hackles. You can tell quite a bit by the state of the dog’s back hair, especially between the shoulder blades and down its spine. When a dog raises its hackles, the hair stands up in these spots, which means the dog is concerned or excited about something. This is a very easy sign to spot when you’re walking your dog and looking down at their back. When the hair rises, it is usually combined with the tail being up and stiff, and a tensing of the whole body. It could just mean they are excited, but it is more likely that they are nervous, stressed, or basically unsure of something in their environment.

    Figure 4.6

    Figure 4.6 Yawning is not a sign of the dog being tired but a way to try to reduce stress.

    Nikon 700 • ISO 400 • 1/160 sec. • f/4 • 70–200mm lens


Cats are not as easy to read as dogs, but some signs will reveal that the cat is not happy in the present situation. Many times these signs can be subtle and not that easy to see, especially if the cat is not yours. Talk to the owner and find out what the normal behavior is for the cat and where the cat usually hangs out. Photographing the cat in the areas where it is most comfortable can make the whole process less stressful for the cat and for you. Here are some signs of stress to watch for when you’re photographing cats:

  • Ignoring food or treats. Often, I use treats to get a cat to relax or pose in the right spot. If the cat is very stressed, it will ignore the treat and instead just bolt for a hiding place or for higher ground. This is a definite sign to stop and back off until the cat feels safe again.
  • Hiding. When cats are stressed, they tend to hide. This usually means they go to a place where they feel protected, like under a bed or a chair. They can look out to see the world, but nothing can get to them. If you just wait them out, you can get some great photos as they come out of their hiding place. However, this might take patience on your part, depending on the cat and how stressed it is. The cat in Figure 4.7 was hiding from me when I first started photographing but slowly came out from between the couch and the chair.
  • Aggression. A stressed-out cat might just turn and swipe at you with their claws. It is a natural reaction to something that stresses them out and is one of the reasons I like to use a longer focal length when photographing pets, especially those I’m unfamiliar with.

    Figure 4.7

    Figure 4.7 This cat was not happy with me, and although he didn’t run away, he did hide between the couch and the chair, keeping a very careful eye on me across the room. it took a while for him to get used to my presence and the sound of the shutter.

    Nikon D4 • ISO 6400 • 1/100 sec. • f/2.8 • 70–200mm lens

  • Body language. A cat’s body language signs are good indicators of when it is best to back off and let the cat relax. The cat will crouch low to the ground with eyes fully open, head held low, ears back, and possibly be hissing or growling. In this mode, the cat is just as likely to lash out as it is to run away, so don’t take any chances; just back away and ignore the animal. A relaxed cat will sit up and pay attention, and not have an aggressive stance (Figure 4.8).

    Figure 4.8

    Figure 4.8 This relaxed cat was so used to people that it didn’t even mind dressing up for the photos wearing a stylish orange witch hat.

    Nikon D4 • ISO 1600 • 1/200 sec. • f/4.0 • 70–200mm lens


Horses have a very different way of seeing the world than do humans. The placement of their eyes on either side of their head means that they can see a wide area on either side of them with each eye. This is called monocular vision, and each eye works separately to keep track of their surroundings on that side of the horse. Because of the placement of a horse’s eyes, when the eyes work together, which is called binocular vision, the area it sees is down the nose and directly in front. This creates a blind spot at the forehead and poor vision. So you need to be careful when you’re approaching a horse and come toward the animal from an angle, not straight on.

Once again, the best strategy when you’re photographing a horse is to talk to the owner first, because they know the horse and its behaviors better than anyone. However, a few signs can tell you how a horse is feeling:

  • Whinnying. Horses whinny as a form of communication that can mean they are not happy, but it can also have other meanings as well, so use the verbalization as part of the whole picture.
  • Eyes. A horse’s eyes can tell you if the horse is relaxed or scared. If the eyes are slightly closed, the horse is relaxed and calm, but if you can see a lot of white, chances are the horse is stressed or scared.
  • Ears. The position of the horse’s ears can help you determine the horse’s mood. If the ears are pinned back against the horse’s head, the horse is angry or upset. If the ears are upright, all is well, as shown in Figure 4.9.
  • Head up high. Check how the horse is holding up its head. If the head is held high in the air, there’s an issue and the horse has some anxiety. When they lower their head, it is a way to reduce their anxiety and they could be trying to relax.
  • Sidestepping or stamping. If a horse is stamping on the ground, it indicates that it is not happy. When the horse starts to sidestep away from you, it shows that it wants to get away from the situation it’s in. When horses are spooked, they have a tendency to move backwards or sideways quickly. You can avoid this behavior by being calm and allowing the horse to see you and the camera before you start taking photos.

If you do start to see any of these stress indicators and believe that the horse is starting to stress out, having the owner around with a reassuring touch or a treat can really help defuse the situation (Figure 4.10). I always want the owner to be close by to help with the horse and to act as a second set of eyes, making sure the horse is comfortable and all is going well.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 A relaxed horse shows its calmness when the ears are up and out to the side, breathing is easy, the head is held in a neutral position, and no whites of the eyes are visible.

Nikon D4 • ISO 400 • 1/500 sec. • f/5.6 • 70–200mm lens

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 having the horse’s owner at the shoot makes it easier to keep the horse stress-free. A simple touch or treat can do wonders.

Nikon D4 • ISO 500 • 1/320 sec. • f/5.6 • 24–70mm lens


Working with reptiles can be quite a challenge. They can get stressed easily, and because they can’t verbalize what they like and dislike, you need to learn how to read the danger signs.

When you’re photographing snakes, watch out for when the snake wraps its body tightly around your hand or arm. The snake may also draw back its head and rise up in the classic S curve as it prepares to strike. An upset snake might also strike out and bite without warning. These acts are not done to intentionally hurt you but are just instinctive behaviors that reptiles exhibit when they feel threatened.

Lizards will dig their claws into you and try to crawl away from whatever it is that is upsetting them. Sometimes they whip their tails around and try to puff up so they appear bigger and more threatening to whatever they perceive to be the threat. They also might gape as a warning or as another way to appear more dangerous.

Turtles or tortoises have the perfect way to show their dislike of their surroundings; they just retreat into their shell. This makes it very difficult to photograph them when they are stressed.

When a reptile is happy and comfortable being handled, it will rest comfortably on your hand or arm (Figure 4.11), looking around and flicking its tongue. It will move smoothly and not thrash around trying to get away.

With reptiles, you must rely on the pet owner to give you feedback on their behavior. But in general, you need to move calmly and avoid making big, sudden movements.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 A nonaggressive, happy lizard just hanging out on his owner’s hand.

Nikon D4 • ISO 800 • 1/250 sec. • f/11 • 105mm lens


The signs of stress in birds can include feather picking, ruffled feathers, pacing, and even some biting. All of these behaviors make a stressed bird very difficult to photograph. Birds are very sensitive to changes in their environment and can stress over even minor changes, including the introduction of a new person with a large camera that produces shutter noise. You need to take it slow: Start off with a longer lens at a greater distance, and don’t make any sudden moves around birds. It’s always a good idea to discuss the best way to approach the bird with the owner. A happy bird will sit comfortably on a perch, as shown in Figure 4.12.

Birds can be very cute, but keep in mind that they can have sharp beaks and claws, so pay attention to their movements, especially when you’re working in close.

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