Adventures In the Land of Scruff – My Scruffy Dog Mentorship

As many of you know, last month I had the opportunity of doing a mentorship with Illona Haus of Scruffy Dog Photography.   I have sat here for over a month stumped as to how I could possibly put into words how much this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, experience has meant to me.   So for all of you that keep asking me about it, and I keep replying “It’s coming.”…I apologize for the wait!  Get a cup of coffee, there’s lots about our experience and it’s all picture-heavy!

My journey into pet photography started like most pet photographers…Discovering my love for it, wanting to shoot pet-exclusive, and then finding myself on a quest to legitimize it as an art form.   Back then, my search led me to finding but a handful of professional pet photographers…all of whom were amazing women.  These women gave me inspiration, purpose and a dream.

One of those talented ladies was Illona.  I was mesmerized with her ability to engage a dog to portray their identity… It’s almost like Illona emboldens them to declare loudly their selfdom before these amazing stages of environmental beauty so that they can be immortalized forever in art.  I was scheming up ways I might possibly be able to work with Illona, but never had the nerve to reach out and ask her if she would do any kind of mentorship.

Then the day came when Illona mentioned  in her question forum that she is providing mentoring and I couldn’t type an email fast enough.   After reading all the material on her mentoring, I questioned if I was quite ready for it since I was still portfolio building and hadn’t really “officially” started a business; a little crushed,  I decided to wait.  So, I turned to two of the other women pet photographers I admired and inspired me to pursue my dream, Bev Hollis and Teresa Berg.  Last Fall, I jumped on a plane to Dallas and attended their Unleashed workshop.  It was just what I needed to further advance my photography and get real knowledge on how to start a pet photography business.

After launching my website and talking with  friend and fellow pet photographer, Rachel Potter, about her mentorship with Illona, I knew it was time.  Rachel mentioned that she knew a person from a photography forum seeking a partner to join her in a Two-on-One mentorship with Illona. Turns out, Bonnie Grower lived an hour away in Annapolis.   Once meeting Bonnie and talking hours and hours about the pet biz, we agreed that we were going to head up to the Land of Scruff together.  I spent every day consumed with anticipation and excitement…I couldn’t cross the days off the calendar quick enough!  For months leading up to going to Canada, Bonnie and I talked, met together, shared information and business advice and amassed lists of notes, questions, and goals to discuss with Illona.

Like most Scruffy Dog mentees, I arrived with my question-filled notebook, nervous as hell to meet and shoot in front of my hero… and of course, totally giddy to meet the Scruffnuts, Merrick and Mattea.   And there they were, running out to greet us the minute we pulled up!  They were everything Illona so amazingly characterizes in her photography.

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Minutes after meeting Illona, my nerves melted away.  Illona is so jovial and down to Earth; I adore her wit and sense of humor.  Her studio and home are inviting; the dogs are so personable and comforting… all that was left was excitement.  But there wasn’t much time for that because we set our stuff down and dove right in.  The flow of information was non-stop, and my brain cells were swelling with every word she said.  Now, I always knew Illona was a smart cookie, and obviously a fabulous photographer and business woman, but the wealth of information and the answers to my questions so impressed me.  She didn’t rattle off canned answers, but rather very thoughtful and honest responses specific to my needs…In fact, many times my questions were met with questions, before an answer was given.  It’s a technique Illona uses often, whether she is teaching you about marketing, business, or pricing…or out in the field shooting.  She makes you think and rationalize…engaging your thought process instead of just giving you the answer.   To me, this is the sign of a brilliant mentor; I find guided discovery far more effective teaching method that ingrains knowledge and understanding.

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On day two, after a full day of mentoring on marketing and pricing aspects, we went out to meet our Scruffy models for an afternoon shoot.  I loved watching how Illona conducts and steers the energy of her sessions.  It comes as no surprise; she is thorough and a perfectionist.  Here’s a few photos of Vegas the Cao de Fila (Azores Cattledog) …

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You gotta love the crazy face…

I’m still trying to decide is she uses that tongue like a sail to slow herself down!

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…and Leopold the charming Boston Terrier…


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One of my favorite parts of the trip was lying around with dogs…and watching Illona working with them.  They truly have an amazing bond and trust with each other.   Illona shares her wisdom and ability “to talk to the animals” openly with those around her…Just showing more how inherent teaching is in her.  Even while working with her clients, she was able to show them how to shape and get a desired behavior…All while photographing!  That connection she creates with the owner, the dog and her is yet another factor that enhances her photography.  She even taught me how to shape a behavior that I have been trying to get Banjo to do for years.  When I got home and followed Illona’s instruction…He was doing it reliably after three days!  Unfortunately, Jo-jo might not be appreciative of me learning this…

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We also got more time to photograph the Goober and Mattea…I got so many FANTASTIC pictures of these two…it was heartbreaking to just narrow it down to a few to show you guys!

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So in the end, the question most of you really want answered is…Was it worth it?  I can whole-heartedly say yes.  Illona gives way over 100% to her mentees and customizes her session to your particular needs and business goals. There’s no limit to how far she will go to explain a point or give you the very best example of what she is talking about.  And I love that she gave us an individualized plan based on where we currently are in our businesses.  I am eternally grateful to Illona, for the several ways that she personally invested herself into my business and helped me come up with solutions.  She helped me solidify a lot of loose ends, and develop a far more efficient workflow and best practices than I was previously using…Saving me a lot of time and allowing me to better serve my clients.  And although I came back with a little depressed that it was all over, I came back confident, enlightened and satisfied.  It’s now up to me put in the time and elbow grease to apply what I learned.  I certainly feel more prepared and armed with the best knowledge possible to make this move.   And every time I do something  wrong…whether it’s in my business or something as simple as forgetting  to adjust a setting …I’ll forever hear Illona’s voice saying, “How’s that marketing plan working out for you?”…Or “How’s that shutter speed working for ya?” and chuckle to myself and readjust.

September 15, 2013 - 12:31 am

Sue Fox - This is so exciting to see you blossom and succeed in something you love. All the “kids” from the neighborhood still hold special places in my heart! ♥Hugs♥

September 15, 2013 - 1:06 am

Betsy Wilson Sasnett - Your photos were great to begin with but these are amazing!!! I’m SOOO jealous as she has been my hero too. I’m determined to save up the money and go see her. Great job Shelly and I love your photo of Banjo with the sign…too funny!

September 15, 2013 - 1:44 am

Reena - Shelley, this is just awesome! The information about the mentoring, the photographs….they are just beautiful! I loved them all (especially Banjo!)

September 15, 2013 - 4:26 am

Teann - Amazing work Shelley! So wonderful to read about your experience and I love all the photographs! So much character in each one!

September 15, 2013 - 12:10 pm

Kathryn Schauer Photography - Great shots, and I loved reading about your time in scruffyland :)

September 15, 2013 - 1:41 pm

Karen Murphy Presecan - This is wonderful Shelley!! Love the the post!

September 15, 2013 - 2:02 pm

Dee Dee Henzler Eberle - So excited for you–and for your clients! Such great shots. Let’s set up a shoot with my pups!

September 15, 2013 - 10:47 pm

Diana Guthrie - Thanks for the info, Shelley, although you were pretty darned good way before this metoring! Beautiful photos!

September 15, 2013 - 11:35 pm

Rachel Potter - I’m SO GLAD you decided to go! I could in no way prepare you for the wonderful experience I knew you would have!!! <3 Illona!

September 19, 2013 - 6:06 pm

Angela - Lovely photos, Shelley – and what an amazing experience :-)

Not envious in the slightest. Not at all .

September 19, 2013 - 7:16 pm

hannah wheeler - What a wonderful opportunity. Your images are fantastic. You’ve captured the emotion of the moment perfectly. Love the image of banjo and the sign is too cute. So glad you got to go. I hope to someday have the ability to attend such a workshop

September 20, 2013 - 10:49 pm

Marilyn - So fun reading about your trip to Scruffyland. Just a tad bit jealous! :o) Maybe I will meet her some day….

October 10, 2013 - 1:04 am

Susie Bird - Wow Shelly, these pictures are just fabulous. I agree with the other comments–your photos were great before as you so artistic, but they seem to pop off the screen even more so now. Did your workshop also cover a lot of post processing as well as actual shooting?

November 29, 2013 - 1:32 am

Beth Adams - So jealous. I have wanted to do this for a couple of years and guess I’ll never be considered “ready.” Hard not to ache… Congrats and I’m glad you got the chance to make it happen.

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