The Key to Pet Adoption? We’ll Give You a Hint: Smile and Say Cheese

Seth Casteel, Jackson Galaxy and Jorge Bendersky get behind the lens of pet adoption.

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An appealing photograph can make all the difference in launching a new dating relationship, selling a product on eBay — or saving a dog or cat’s life.

With many adoptions these days beginning with online searches, a captivating photograph showing the personality of a pet can make a lifesaving difference, connecting that pet to a forever home.

That’s why Seth Casteel, one of the nation’s top pet photographers and author of the best-selling photo book Underwater Dogs (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), has made it his mission to empower shelters and rescue groups across the country to take great photos.

“Imagine you are a dog or cat, you are brought to a shelter in the middle of the night; you are going to be confused, and you are going to be scared,” Casteel says. “It’s not an ideal time to have your picture taken.”

SETH CASTEEL Seth Casteel shows off a photo of a shelter cat.
Seth Casteel shows off a photo of a shelter cat.

A blurry, depressing photo of a scared dog cringing the back of a cage could hurt, instead of help, that dog’ chance for rescue. Yet many shelters struggle just to transport, feed and care for animals, and lack the time, knowledge or resources to take a quality photo.

Teaching others

Teaming up with The Animal Rescue Site,, Wahl Home Products, the Petfinder Foundation and celebrity dog groomer Jorge Bendersky, Casteel launched the One Picture Saves a Life program, which offers workshops around the country to teach shelter staff and volunteers how to groom pets for photography, and take pictures with the right lighting, location and equipment.

Bendersky, known for being a finalist on the Animal Planet show Groomer Has It, a judge on TLC’s Extreme Poodles” and an expert on Animal Planet’s Dogs 101 teaches staff and volunteers how to groom shelter pets to look their best in order to help them get adopted more quickly.

“Grooming not only helps socialize dogs and cats in a big way, but it helps them look and feel their best for their adoption picture and when adopters actually come into the shelter,” says Noah Horton, director of foundation relations at “Having a clean animal that smells good and feels good really helps seal the deal.”


Casteel, an award-winning photographer who has been volunteering his photographic skills at shelters around the world since 2007, has come up with simple photo techniques that he says anyone can learn. “I taught my 93-year-old grandmother how to do this,” Casteel says.

The sessions also deal with tricky issues such as photographing black or white cats and dogs, or those who are afraid of cameras.

At a workshop in Baldwin Park, Calif., Casteel walked shelter staff and volunteers through the process of getting great shots. “We’re here to come in and take some uplifting portraits of dogs and cats to help them find forever, loving homes,” Casteel says with his ever-present huge grin.

And the results are stunning, capturing beautiful expressions sure to connect cats and dogs with potential adopters.

SETH CASTEEL Dog photo from One Picture Saves a Life
Dog photo from One Picture Saves a Life

Cats R Cool

Casteel was joined at this workshop by Jackson Galaxy, cat behaviorist, host of Animal Planet’s “My Cat From Hell” and author of the bestselling book Cat Daddy. Drawing on his many years working on the front line of rescue at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, today Galaxy works closely with animal shelters and rescue organizations across the country, teaching his methods to get cats adopted.

Galaxy leads a separate initiative called Cats R Cool, which is aimed at improving the overall public perception of cats, as well as improving the situation for cats in shelters and in feral cat communities. Whenever possible, One Picture Saves a Life and Cats R Cool workshops are combined into one event.

SETH CASTEEL Jackson Galaxy
Jackson Galaxy

At the workshop in Baldwin Park, Galaxy discussed cat behavior in relationship to photography and especially the importance of “challenging’’ cats to help them become more adoptable.

“My part of this is to get the cat to that place where Seth or whoever the photographer is coming in, they are already in this mode, the ‘uncaged mode,’ and that’s what your job as a cat volunteer is, engagement, it is not just comfort,” Galaxy says. “Comfort is a very deceptive concept in the shelter environment. What you are allowing them to be is small. And if you allow a cat in a shelter environment to be small they will not go home. And that is a stone guarantee.’’

Galaxy talked about simple training tools, such as clicker training, to get cats to become more adoptable.

SETH CASTEEL Cat photo from One Picture Saves a Life
Cat photo from One Picture Saves a Life

“Imagine a cat at the front of the cage, soliciting a little bit of attention, or if they are out, roaming around, playing with something, batting at something, they go home. Because then the potential adopter can sort of imagine that cat in their home. When they are in a cage (cringing and afraid) it’s hard for you to place them on your couch, in your head. So that’s the biggest thing we can do.’’

Get Involved Ideas

To find out the location of upcoming One Picture Saves a Life workshop tours, visit

Can’t make a workshop? All of the information and the entire process is also posted in videos on the site, available for free at

Once you learn how to take great photos of adoptable pets, contact your local rescue group or shelter and volunteer your new-found skills. You just might save a rescue pet’s life.

Spread the word and meet like-minded people on the One Picture Saves a Life Facebook page.

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in Rescue Me Magazine.

Jackie Brown

Jackie is a freelance writer specializing in the pet industry. She lives in Southern California with her husband, son, and adorable Miniature Poodle, Jäger, who is obsessed with fetch and killing all the toys. She is the former editor of Rescue Proud, Dog World, and Puppies 101. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.


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