Sometimes, it’s all about the ears. “Put those ears up!” said Teresa Berg in the photo studio she operates at Dallas’ Preston Trail Village. “Put those ears up!” Her voice was soft, in a tone reserved for babies — which her impossibly cute subjects basically were: two large litters of 6-week-old puppies living in foster homes and ready for adoption from the Collin County Humane Society.Since 2007, Berg has devoted much of her free time to taking presentable portraits of adoptable dogs and trying to get others to do the same. Better photos, Berg said, lead to higher adoption rates.
But check out your average photo gallery of shelter dogs and cats, and you’ll likely find pitiful faces punctuated with droopy ears, glowing red eyes and tacky backgrounds. Anecdotally at least, the evidence bears her out, doubling adoption rates in some cases. The need is acute, as shelter populations reach all-time highs and more than 20,000 dogs and cats are euthanized in the city of Dallas each year. Dogs we have in the program a while will take pictures with her and end up getting adopted a couple of weeks later,” said Collin County Humane Society director Molly Peterson.
The Internet has changed how homeless pets find care, just as it has altered buying habits for cars or houses. Online photos, rather than shelter visits or booths set up at public events, have become the first impression people have of most pets.
“Eighty percent of adoptions are coming off the Web,” said Kelly Carden of Paws in the City. “They only have one chance to catch people’s attention. They’ve got to be super cute.” That’s why Collin County’s Ashley Pickering and Julie Menconi hauled two large dog crates to Berg’s studio Saturday — 21 puppies in all, most of them the pointer-shepherd offspring of two sister dogs the agency had recently taken in. One by one, the pups took their place against a white background as Berg tried with varying success to perk them up with squeaky toys, cutesy coos and well-timed yelps. “Hey, bruiser!” “Are you a tough guy? Huh?”
They posed atop pillows and peered out of baskets, little bundles of fur with names like Juniper, Willow, Austin, Vegas and Coco Chanel. Some wore bow ties, ribbons, party hats or headbands that Berg had fashioned into frilly necklaces. The grand finale: a chaotic group photo of all 21 dogs. “This was just too cool of an opportunity to pass up,” Pickering said.
Five years ago, Berg decided she wanted to adopt a long-haired dachshund; she found one online from the DFW Dachshund Rescue Foundation, but was frustrated by the quality of the photos she saw. She made a pitch. I’m a photographer, she said. I can help. With their blessing, she retook photos of the group’s foster care dogs. “They had been keeping them there for six to eight months,” she said. “With the new pictures, they were adopted within six to eight weeks.”
Now she shoots between 350 and 400 homeless dogs a year, a tiny fraction of the nearly 90 times that many up for adoption annually. In addition to DFW Dachshund Rescue and Collin County, Berg also works with Paws in the City and Dallas Animal Services.
A handful of other local photographers also put in time at the Dallas city shelter, where Berg lobbied to have studio space installed. Nationally, a Millbrook, N.Y.-based nonprofit collective called HeART Speak — of which Berg is a member — promotes similar efforts. So does the Shelter Art Foundation in Monterey, Calif. “It’s not the easiest type of photography,” Berg said. “It’s one thing to photograph a dog in the backyard, but when you pull a pit bull out of a pen where he’s been living for a week or two, this loud noisy place with no friends, he’s not going to just settle down for you.”
Shelter employees may not always have camera skills, but what they mostly lack is time. California’s Shelter Art Foundation cites the struggles shelters face.
“Within hours of a new animal’s arrival … it’s photographed, vaccinated, given a health checkup and a behavior test,” the foundation notes on its website. “There’s so little time to have photographs taken that they look more like Nick Nolte’s mug shot than anything else.” That’s where volunteer shooters come in. But taking quality photos doesn’t require fancy cameras or studio lights, Berg said. Even a smartphone can work wonders if used intelligently. “We’re not trying to get them to look like greeting cards,” she said. “We just want a look that says ‘Adopt me, I could be your best friend’ instead of ‘I’m a piece of damaged goods.’”
Inspired by Berg’s success, students at University of Texas at Dallas pursued similar efforts earlier this year, urging shelters to use photo-filter applications such as Instagram to pep up their pup pictures, then sharing those photos on a Facebook page set up for the class project.
Berg usually sees the dogs that are hardest to adopt out — large dogs such as pit bull and shepherd mixes, or darker dogs that are difficult to photograph well. Even if the dogs aren’t always adopted, Paws in the City’s Carden said, Berg’s photos have helped lift the number of foster homes for dogs waiting for adoption. “Wouldn’t you rather see a dog playing with a tennis ball in the yard than just sitting there cowering in a cage?” Berg said. “It’s having people visualize that dog as a family member instead of a potential problem.”
Humane Society’s Julie Menconi (left) and Ashley Pickering helped photographer Teresa Berg get her pups in a row. Twenty-one of the group’s 6-week-old puppies, all awaiting adoption, were the stars of last week’s photo shoot “We’re not trying to get them to look like greeting cards,” says photographer Teresa Berg, getting Vegas ready for his close-up. “We just want a look that says ‘Adopt me, I could be your best friend’ instead of ‘I’m a piece of damaged goods.’
IN THE KNOW: Picture-perfect tips for photographing Fido
SOURCE: Teresa Berg