DETROIT — Jill Andra Young has a soft spot in her heart for dogs and a photographic eye. Combine the two and you get photos of captivating, charismatic canines ready for adoption.
The Plymouth, Mich.-based photographer loves dogs, but volunteering in an animal shelter upset her too much. But bring rescue and shelter dogs to her studio and she uses her talents to showcase a dog’s best side.
Dog rescuers say the professional-grade photographs Young creates — rather than those amateur dog pound shots — help them place dogs that otherwise would be overlooked.
Young calls her effort the Sirius Project, named for the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky, and because of the double meaning — “I’m serious about dogs.”
A greyhound rescue group, Greyhounds of Eastern Michigan, can tell the difference when Young photographs their racetrack rescues.
When they post her photos on Petfinder.com, there’s a noticeable uptick in how many people browse the pooch’s page, says Mark McCloskey, a Greyhounds of Eastern Michigan volunteer.
“She does a better job of capturing a playful side or more attractive side,” says McCloskey, a stay-at-home dad in Pinckney, Mich. “She’s got a better eye than we do. I think the more a dog gets viewed, the better its chances of getting adopted.
“Those photographs are what they would call in the real estate world ‘curb appeal,’ ” McCloskey said.
Growing up in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., Young’s family had a collie, Jody.
“I learned to walk hanging onto her,” Young says. She also had cats, all white and always named Kitty. “I don’t know how many Kittys there were, but there were several.”
When she was 15 years old, her brother Jack gave her a rescue basenji — her preferred dog ever since.
Young has been operating a studio since 1989, marketing it as pet-friendly. The pet side of her business grew as more families included their pets in photo shoots. Her studio’s growth coincided with the period in which independent pet stores and chain stores started to blossom.
Young photographed rescue dogs on and off, but was inspired to create photo workshops for volunteers through the Sirius Project when she saw a television feature about a photographer shooting rescue dachshunds in Dallas.
She has photographed a variety of critters, like birds, gerbils, guinea pigs, iguanas, one alligator and a quartet of racing turtles.
“They were very difficult, because once you set them down, they run,” Young says. But she says she can outwait any restless, fidgety, cranky creature.
“Mostly, it’s just being patient, and you go with what they can do. Everything is about the dog’s comfort. Even when we’re doing family photos, I put the people down with the dog, since dogs are closest to the floor.
“I’m good at pets,” Young says. “I can speak dog.”
Among Young’s attention-getting tools are stuffed animals, a pole with feathers and a bird puppet. Squeaky toys are “sometimes a mistake” because “they all have squeaky toys at home and the first thing they want to do is run to you.”
Balls don’t work because the animals will want to play. “And we rarely use the S word,” says Young, referring to the chase reaction elicited with “Squirrel.”
A secret weapon is a harmonica. It’s high-pitched and surprises the animals because it’s a sound they haven’t heard. She uses it to make ears stand perky.
“We try to figure out what calms them down or whips them into a frenzy,” Young says.