It’s that time of year again—the season when your Instagram feed is flooded with pets in cute holiday costumes and sitting pretty with St. Nick. Pet pictures with Santa make for a great keepsake or holiday card, but if your pet isn’t accustomed to being around crowds of people and other animals, wearing a costume, or sitting still next to a big, bearded stranger, it can be a stressful time for your pup or kitty. (And you.)
Whether it’s your first time attempting pet photos with Santa or you’re looking for some tips to make it a fuss-free event, we have you covered.
Finding the Picture-Perfect Pet Outfit
While a costume or pet sweater isn’t necessary, dressing your pet in a holiday-themed outfit will probably get you more Instagram likes! But remember, your pet’s comfort and safety should be priority.
John Bouma, owner of MaxNorman Pet Photography in Miami, Florida, says anything goes in terms of outfits—so long as the pet is comfortable. Look for pet costumes or apparel that fit well—not too tight and not too loose—and that your pet can walk, sit, and stand in.
“Ultimately, I want the experience to be fun for the dog, or at least not stressful,” Bouma says. “Sometimes getting hats or anything on their head to stay on can be challenging. If a dog is constantly trying to get a hat off … I will try to convince the owner to leave it off.”
If you’re worried about choosing an outfit that will photograph well, rest assured. Bouma says any color or style will work.
Lisa Hartman, a nationally recognized dog trainer, pet expert and author, adds that it’s usually helpful to get your pet used to wearing the costume before the big day and using treats, like American Journey Grain-Free Training Bits dog treats, to reinforce good behavior.
“Let the pet inspect the costume first, then start by putting on an easy part of it for a few minutes, like a bandana,” Hartman advises. “Feed him his favorite treats or play only while he’s wearing it. Eventually, add more costume. Do this over a few-day period and tell them how handsome they look!”
Speaking of bandanas, if your pet prefers the less is more look, a pet bandana or special holiday collar is an easy way to add some seasonal flair. The Frisco Flip Sequin Naughty/Nice Cat Bandana lets you tell the world whether your feline's in Santa's good graces, switching between "naughty" and "nice" with a swipe of the hand. The Frisco Festive Dog & Cat Bowtie Set is a more low-key way to celebrate, sporting a simple bowtie in the colors of the season.
Let’s be honest—pet pictures with Santa can be chaotic, with hundreds of people and pets gathering at the local mall, pet store or vet’s office. And if your pet isn’t used to being in a crowded place with unfamiliar people, animals and smells, it can be stressful for everyone involved.
Before the big photo day, Hartman advises pup parents to practice basic commands like “sit” and “down.” Pet parents should also bring some high-value food rewards like True Chews Premium Jerky Cuts with Real Chicken and SPORTMiX Wholesomes Gourmet Biscuit with Real Cheddar Cheese Grain-Free Dog Treats, he says, as well as a couple of your pet’s favorite toys.
Bouma says treats can also help with dogs who are initially startled by the camera’s flash. While some photographers may not use a flash, it’s good to know how to handle your pet’s reaction if they’re scared.
“Typically, what I do is try to spend some time at the beginning pairing the flashes going off with giving the dog a treat, so they associate that experience with something positive. Fire the flash, give them a treat, and repeat several times until they seem OK with it,” Bouma says.
If you have a flash, he adds, it’s a good idea to practice this at home before picture day, since you may not have time for this training exercise at the mall or vet.
For cats, “start small,” Hartman says. “Let your cat watch crowds from a car if they like car rides, take your cat for a walk on a cat leash, or invite people over to your house on a regular basis. It will help if Santa photos or vet visits aren’t the only time they are out of the house.”
But remember, Hartman adds, don’t force your pet to approach people.
“It should always be the animals’ choice,” she says.
If your pet is shaking, not wanting to enter the room, or showing other stress behaviors, you may want to consider not moving forward with the photo opp.
“You probably won’t get a good photo anyway,” Hartman says.
Getting Comfortable With Santa
Dogs and cats tend to react differently to the same stimuli, so be sure to take a minute to get your pet comfortable.
“When it is your dog’s turn for a picture, take a minute for your dog and you to meet Santa. Let Santa chat with him, have Santa give him a few treats, a scratch behind the ear if he likes it, etc. Keep a happy, calm attitude,” Hartman says. “If your dog is nervous, then be in the picture with your dog.”
Hartman advises pet parents not to force their dog or cat to take the picture, or get angry at or embarrassed by their pet.
“Your pet will feel your tension and be more tense in turn. Better to practice for the next time,” she says.
Getting Your Pet to Look at the Camera
The key to great pet photos with Santa, of course, is to get your furry friend to look at the camera.
“Once your pup is sitting pretty with Santa, slowly walk behind the photographer a few times without saying a word. Your simple walk away will probably cause the dog to look at you, and when you are behind the photographer it will look like your dog is looking at the camera!” Hartman says.
She warns not to yell your dog’s name or repeatedly tell them to sit.
“Your shouting can make the dog more nervous,” she explains. “If your dog is too distracted or nervous to hold a position, let him stand or be on the side of Santa he chooses.”
Bouma says he finds that cats react badly to using noise to get their attention and can get stressed out. Instead, try using a cat toy, like the Pet Fit For Life 2 Feather Wand, to get his attention, and perhaps even scenting the toy with catnip using a spray like KONG Naturals Catnip Spray.
Creating a Holiday Photo at Home
Not every pet is suited to go on an outing and get their picture with Santa—and that’s OK! You can always create a holiday wonderland in the comfort of your own home.
Setting Up a Seasonal Space
What decorations you have and whether or not your pet wears a costume is up to you, but remember to make the experience pleasant and not too stressful, Bouma says.
“[Have] the space be quiet, letting them sniff around for a while,” he advises.
The ASPCA suggests securely anchoring your Christmas tree to make sure it doesn’t fall, causing possible injury to your pet, and to avoid mistletoe, holly, lilies and tinsel, all of which can cause serious harm if ingested. Use artificial or pet-friendly plants instead. Also be sure to keep lighted candles, wires and breakable ornaments out of reach.
Getting Your Pet Comfortable in the Space
If your pet reacts to the new décor with nervousness or a camera-unfriendly level of excitement, pet parents can use the same training tips as at the mall, Bouma and Hartman agree. Introduce the new environment gradually, using plenty of treats to reward calm, “good boy” behavior on Santa’s lap (or in any other festive surroundings).
Hartman’s “start small” approach applies at home, too; letting your cat explore the area independently (while you supervise for safety) will help them feel more at ease.
And just like at the mall, try not to get stressed or impatient with your pet. They can sense and absorb your tension at home too, Hartman says.
Tools and Tech You’ll Need
If you think your pet will be frightened by the camera’s flash, there are studio lights that stay on all the time and don’t flash when the camera shutter is pressed, Bouma says.
If you don’t want to invest in professional studio lights, experiment with the lighting you have in your home. Bouma suggests using outdoor, natural lighting or the natural light coming through a window. (Be sure to have your back to the window, so the light is illuminating your pet in front of you.) Take a few practice shots with or without your pet to get the look and feel you want.
“The portrait mode—isolating the subject and blurring the background—on the current generation of cell phone cameras is pretty good when there is enough light,” Bouma adds.
If you’re a solo photographer—meaning you don’t have someone else to get your pet’s attention while you shoot—try sticking a noisemaker, like a Downtown Pet Supply Dog Toy Replacement Squeaker, in your mouth to get your pet to look at the camera. Bouma often does this, he says, leaving his hands free to take the shots.
Both Hartman and Bouma advise pet parents to remember to stay relaxed and enjoy the experience. The last thing you want to do is look back at the photos and be reminded of a stressful day.
“It’s just a picture!” Hartman says. “Relaxed, happy dogs produce happy looking pictures!”
“You never want to force a pet to participate in a photo session,” Bouma adds. “If your dog has training already and knows some commands, that’s great. If not, practicing some before a shoot can be helpful.”