Key Takeaways from Our Interview with Helen
Event Planning Insights from Dogstival: Helen appreciated the careful planning of Dogstival, where every detail, including the layout of the grounds and the positioning of water stations and vendors, was thought through to ensure the dogs' comfort.
Event Preparation: Helen shared valuable advice on preparing for events like Dogstival. She emphasized the importance of setting flexible goals, learning from others, having a clear pricing strategy, and ensuring Wi-Fi availability at outdoor events.
Positive Reinforcement and Patience in Dog Photography: Helen advises to never rush the process, and especially not to stress the dog. She uses positive reinforcement to create a relaxed, playful environment by involving herself in interactive activities with the dogs and allowing them to approach her at their own pace.
Introducing Helen Rushton: Capturing Canine Moments
I'm pleased to introduce you to Helen Rushton, a passionate dog photographer based in Romsey, an historic market town in Hampshire, England. Helen's work, represented by Love Phodography—Tail Wagging Pawtraits, beautifully encapsulates the unique bond between dogs and their owners. Her life is lovingly intertwined with her miniature dachshund, Mash, whose images fill her home—dachshund-themed wallpaper even decorates her bathroom!
Having a profound interest in canine communication and behavior, Helen consistently deepens her understanding of these areas. She has applied this knowledge while volunteering in the past at Armchair Dogs, a dog training school advocating positive methods. Currently, she collaborates with StreetVet, an inspiring charity providing free vet care to homeless individuals and their pets. Helen photographs behind-the-scenes moments at various outreach clinics for their marketing needs and captures poignant images of the dogs and their humans for an annual calendar. The sale of these calendars aids StreetVet's noble cause.
We recently had an engaging Zoom conversation with Helen, during which she shared her experiences and preparation strategies for Dogstival, a major canine-themed event.
The Art of Patience: Tips for Picture-Perfect Pooches
Kicking off our interview, I expressed admiration for Helen's photography, found on Instagram, and my anticipation for Dogstival. Helen graciously shared her approach to photographing dogs at events, with patience and animal comfort at the forefront.
Helen: "The same as when you're training your dog to do a sit or a stay or a come. You know, use high-value treats. Just don't rush it... nothing is worth stressing the dog out over."
From Dog Owners to Dog Parents: Understanding Canine Needs
In our conversation, Helen also touched upon the contrasting behaviors she’s noticed from 'dog owners' — individuals who might love their dogs, but don't necessarily tune into their pets' needs as attentively. Helen provided an example where some dog owners would pull their dogs away from water bowls at events, not out of malice, but simply due to a lack of awareness about their dogs' needs. In contrast, as 'dog parents,' we tend to prioritize our dogs' needs, even in social situations. This isn't to pass judgment, but to highlight the importance of understanding and responding to our dogs' needs as sentient beings with their own personalities and preferences.
Personal Pet Experiences: Lessons from Scooby and Loki
I shared my personal learning curve about catering to my dogs' individual preferences, recounting a lesson about Scooby, my Chihuahua mix, and his dislike for the beach.
Amy: [My dogs’ trainer] said "You know, your dogs are individuals, just like people…The way your little dog Scooby–the Chihuahua mix–is, he doesn't like things like the beach. Why are you taking him there?..." And you know, that was something new for me because I always had both of my dogs together. But now I'll take Scooby just for his little thing. Loki loves the beach and Scooby doesn't so I’ll just take Loki to the beach.
Unleashing Dogstival: Behind the Scenes
Our discussion then transitioned to Dogstival. Helen revealed the meticulous planning that ensures the event's success. From the layout to the positioning of water stations and vendors, no detail is left to chance. She also shared that her primary product at such events is photo shoots, alongside eco-friendly items.
Helen: "Dogstival is amazing... They've put so much time and thought into the layout... You go to some other shows here, and you're literally inviting confrontation all the time because of the tight alleyways between the stalls."
Helen further illustrated the importance of sufficient space at such events, citing examples of leash aggression, a common issue encountered at dog gatherings.
Amy: "Ah, leash aggression!"
Helen: Absolutely. You know, I have the most literally 10 yards, 15 yards out of my window. Beautiful path with trees on both sides. It's amazing in this warm weather, apart from it's basically a tunnel of dog meeting dog …And I've got quite a reactive dog.
Amy: Yeah, my Chihuahua mix is a reactive dog.
Helen: "Absolutely, but Dogstival really thought about that and...you know, just little things like the layout. There's lots of where we have it, which is in the, you know, in the grounds of a country house, there's little pockets of trees and so they make sure it's as open as possible. So, there's shade for the dogs."
Amy: That's wonderful.
Helen: "I always make sure there is space behind my little trade stand. If I see a stressed dog, I say [to the owner] 'Just go, go sit down behind my stand for 10 minutes.'"
A Gentle Lens on Aging Dogs
Helen opened up about her work photographing older dogs, noting her preference for familiar environments. She revealed that she typically visits the dogs' homes or gardens, creating a stress-free atmosphere that honors the dogs' comfort and familiar routines.
Helen: "... it's not about sit, stay, stand, smile, do this, do that. It's just your dog and you know that soul lives wherever the dog lives, so it's... I mean, that's why I do this, because dogs aren't here long enough."
When asked about Dogstival's influence on her career, Helen lauded its positive impact.
Helen: "Yeah, I mean, I am really, really lucky... donating prizes to Dogstival, but also to StreetVet, they're my charity...[Dogstival] gives you that, like I said, that opportunity to chat to people about their dogs. We all love our dogs."
Positive Reinforcement in Practice
Our conversation shifted towards the use of positive reinforcement. We found common ground on this, with both of us being firm believers in it.
Amy: "I like how you use positive reinforcement. How do you, besides treats, create a comfortable environment for dogs during photography sessions?"
Helen highlighted the importance of a relaxed, playful environment. She uses playful noises, noisemakers, and involves herself in interactive activities like running and hiding with the dogs. She treats nervous dogs with extra care, letting them approach her at their pace, and stresses the importance of positive reinforcement.
Helen: "Positive reinforcement can be letting your dog make decisions, as long as it's safe. We go with the flow, like with photographing kids and families, different photos at different times. A dog will do more for cheese than a child will, though!"
She also recounted a heartwarming encounter where her work had significant emotional value to a bereaved pet owner.
Helen: "These memories are so precious. Dogs deserve to be remembered in the best light possible."
Sustainable Practices in Pet Care
Helen shared her ongoing commitment to eco-friendly practices. She talked about her soon-to-launch venture, Love Dog Co., offering sustainable, plastic-free treats.
Helen: "Yeah, so that's actually morphed into something really new and exciting that we're about to launch... It's called Love Dog Co., and it's completely sustainable treats. There's no plastic in any of our wrapping."
Helen: "And what the material is--you've got to go and have a look at them, Amy--it's so exciting. West Paw is the company, and it's basically dog enrichment toys.... It’s made with ocean bound plastic plus natural rubber and it's this whole circular economy where when your dog's finished with the toy, send it back to them. They'll grind out and they'll make another toy from it."
Event Prep: Helen's Playbook
But the most insightful part of our discussion was Helen's advice on preparing for events like Dogstival. To set the stage for the Dogstival event, Helen shared her time-tested routine for event preparations. Drawing from her wealth of experience, she spoke about her indispensable "box of tricks", filled with an array of unexpected items from bulldog clips to Sellotape [Editor's note: Sellotape is a British brand of transparent tape].
Helen shared some invaluable advice for preparing for events like Dogstival. She emphasized the importance of setting your expectations and having flexible goals in place, especially when attending a new event for the first time.
Helen: "...I did a new event this year. I wasn't sure what I was going to get out of it, so I made sure I had sort of four or five small goals. So, if the customers weren't the right target market, then I had a different goal I could go after... The more that the dog business community works together, the better we're all going to be. The photographer that's always at the show, same as me. I don't know her well, but I've certainly always go and talk to her. Her work is beautiful. She does something slightly different to me... There's certain things I won't photograph. She will. So, I'll pass business to her."
Helen also highlighted the importance of learning from others, not just in terms of making business connections, but also for gathering ideas for displays and stand layouts. She advocated for a clear pricing strategy, urging the need to display price tags prominently to avoid customer assumptions that an item might be too expensive.
Helen: "And also by wandering around and seeing others... You're getting ideas for displays... Yes, I think [about] preparing for next year at this year's event... But more than anything, knowing your market and you know, like any retail store there is a methodology to laying out your stand... There's nothing worse than going into a shop or a shop window. Oh my God, I love that. I love that so much: there's no price on it!... We automatically [think], too expensive!... Make sure you got your price tags and all your little sundries....
She also pointed out practical issues to consider when planning for outdoor events, such as ensuring Wi-Fi availability, which can often be a challenge at events held in rural locations.
Helen: Oh, and Wi-Fi! Make sure... I've done so many events--cause obviously most of these things are in fields in the country--nowhere near a mobile phone mast.
Finding Humor in Shared Struggles
In a lighthearted moment, Helen confessed her struggle with setting up stands, prompting a burst of shared laughter over our mutual difficulties with hanging displays straight.
Helen: "The challenge for me personally is hanging huge pieces of wall art from a three-meter gazebo straight. Yes, I've always got one that's a bit squiffy."
Helen’s candid admission hit home. I found myself thinking back to a recent incident where I helped hang up paintings for a friend's art exhibit, only to realize afterwards that they were all slightly tilted. We found amusement in our shared experience and the real-world challenges we encounter -- mine with hanging paintings and hers with displaying her stunning pet portraits at outdoor events.
Amy: "I can totally relate to that...I helped hang up paintings for a friend's art exhibit...realized that they were all slightly angled..."
Helen: “You too? Every one of my photos needs to be edited straight...friends joke that I'm the wonky photographer..."
Amy: "That's hilarious! A friend pointed out that my left shoe was more worn than the right..."
Helen: "Imagine dealing with that in a tent! Just when you get it straight, a gust of wind comes along and messes it up..."
This exchange added a touch of levity to our conversation, reminding me that even as professionals in our respective fields, we're not immune to humorous hiccups along the way.
Amy: So, you're planning on attending Dogstival or similar events in the future?
Helen: Yes, yeah, I've got well... We haven't got any more or I haven't got any more dog-only events this year. I've got three country shows which...[feature]...a lot of shooting dogs, retrieving dogs, field trials, that sort of thing. So they will all be at the country show. So I've got three of them and then, yeah, already can't wait for Dogstival. It really is just so much fun. It's so enjoyable and there's always a real come down after it. Oh wow, we've got 12 months so we can do this again!
As our interview drew to a close, Helen recounted a humorous incident involving her dog, Mash, who adamantly refused to perform in a training challenge. I jested about the powerful allure of cheese, to which Helen responded, "I didn't have cheese, that was the problem!" This left us both chuckling, the perfect end to an insightful and inspiring conversation.
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