Southeastern Guide Dogs Behind the Scenes—Creating Pupcasso
A video featuring puppies—and paint? Are you crazy? Would this even be possible given how careful Southeastern Guide Dogs is with our future superheroes?
That was the first thought of many here when team producer Shannon Gazdacka came up with the idea, then suggested it to Puppy Education and Assessment Specialist Liz Rote. But Liz not only took the suggestion in stride—she was all for it and for many interesting reasons. We just had to learn more, so we Zoomed for a quick interview with this dynamic duo to find out the why, how, and “What were you thinking?!” of this incredibly cute and, for the puppies, enriching video experience.
So, we just had the chance to watch the video, and boy, is it cute. But before we start talking about it, Liz—who are you, and what do you do at Southeastern Guide Dogs?
Liz Rote: I am the puppy education and assessment specialist. What I basically do is oversee the puppies’ development and socialization from when they are first born until they go home with their puppy raisers at about 10- to 12-weeks old.
I also evaluate them, with our staff here, throughout that process as well, to make sure that they’re meeting their developmental milestones all the way along. I basically keep an eye on them and make sure they are reaching all of their goals, and we’re doing everything we can so they’ll be ready to go home with their puppy raisers and start their journeys with a strong, confident foundation.
We’re also talking with Shannon, who is the producer of his video. What is your role at Southeastern Guide Dogs?
Shannon Gazdacka: I am one of our videographers, and I do everything from filming puppies to videoing our students while they’re in class, to filming our dogs while they’re in training with our students. Just about anything video related, I’m involved with at some point.
First off, the video is just so charming and cute. Where did the idea come from to take these rambunctious little puppies and put paint brushes in their paws?
Shannon: Liz, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is my memory of our interaction on this idea. I think we were shooting video for our Sponsor A Puppy program.
We were videoing one of the sponsored puppies, and we’re cleaning up the area or getting it ready or something. We were also talking about the Puppy Bowl video we created earlier and all the crazy things we could do with that.
I just started thinking about aquariums and zoos, when I’ve seen elephants and hippos painting portraits, and then the art they create goes up for auction, and it’s featured on the news. And it hit me—we should do that with our puppies, and make a fun video out of it. I immediately asked Liz if that was something we’d be allowed to do with the puppies, and to my surprise, she liked the idea. So, we started brainstorming.
Your concern is totally understandable because at Southeastern, puppies are very precious. But from what I understand, part of the goal of raising a puppy is creating a puppy that’s ready to handle anything as an adult, especially if they become a guide or service dog. They have to be able to work with humans of all ages and sizes. Was part of the plan that this wasn’t going to be just a feel-good marketing video, but also serve as a valuable part of an overall strategy to expose the puppies to new things?
Liz: Exactly. It’s really beneficial for them to experience new opportunities and novel experiences in their first 12 weeks of life. What we always strive for is making sure the puppies always have positive experiences. Everything we do with our puppies is positive and fun.
I’m always thinking of new ideas, new things we can have to enhance our dogs’ kennel life and puppy education. A big part of that is ‘novelty.’ Exposing them to new things. To help with that novelty, we want our puppies to have fun experiences with new materials, textures, scent, and sounds, especially for our older puppies that have already completed all of the programs in our curriculum and are ready to go home with puppy raisers. It’s great to give them a new opportunity to explore and have fun at the same time.
You mentioned 12 weeks old specifically—is there something about that magic window of 8 to 12 weeks that is so important for a puppy’s development?
Liz: Yes. The window is from three weeks to about 12- to 13-weeks old, depending on the breed.
We call that the critical socialization period for puppies. It’s kind of similar to having a toddler. They learn and see all these new things, and they’re constantly taking in information that they’re going to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Our puppies, they’re going to take in all that information, the things that we do for puppy education, their experiences with new people, and also with their litter mates. They take all that information to their future as they prepare to become a guide or service dog superhero for one of our students. Our goal is to make sure we have really good opportunities for them to explore, and to then take and apply those experiences throughout their lives as guide or service dogs.
So, Shannon, how do you prepare to video puppies? It’s got to be hard to plan for what must be a riot of fur, color, mess, and mayhem.
Shannon: We always think about, in an ideal world, what we want to do. Our end goal. We think and plan for exactly how we’re going to do to achieve that goal, and what we need to set it up.
The first thing I did was start researching for the right paint. Our number one concern is always the safety of our puppies, so I was looking up non-toxic paints, and then suggested them to Liz and her team for approval before ordering anything. We included our vet staff in the approval process, too.
Then when it came to ordering the paint, brushes, the easels, and everything else, I created a list of everything I wanted to use in the video and sent that to Liz and her team, to make sure it’s not only puppy-safe and puppy-proof, but it would help enhance the learning programs they currently run.
On the day of production, we get it all set up with everything ready to get the shots we planned for—but
about 10 seconds into filming, it’s destroyed because puppies get all over it. [laughs]
Liz: Working with Shannon is always great, too, because we’re really good working together. We have different ideas, like if we want to have the puppy come from behind an easel and past the camera, we can plan where Shannon needs to be with the camera, and then I’ll work with the puppy on any training aspects to get that perfect shot. Over the years we’ve been working a lot together and have become a really good team. That’s the only way to get those perfect shots in a positive, fun environment for the puppies. Shannon’s amazing at what she does to capture all these cute videos and pictures.
Shannon: We figured out a good system. Like, if I want the puppy running past the camera or something, Liz will try to get the puppy in a sit position and stay there for a second—and then she’ll run past the camera. The puppy will immediately chase after her. On camera, Liz has already gone past the lens, and then we just see the puppy running across.
So, it’s not as simple as just putting puppies in an area and pointing a camera at them?
Shannon: Right. We’ll go into it with some ideal shots that we want, and we’ll try to shoot those first. I’ll talk to Liz and I’ll tell her the shots that I like, the few ‘hero’ shots that I definitely want to try for, and we’ll determine if it’s better to do that at the beginning, once the puppy is used to the area, or at the end of the session. We figure out when’s best for the puppy to feel comfortable and confident doing those things. But to be honest, it’s like 80% just letting the puppies do what they want and filming that.
Shannon, you mentioned earlier that when you were talking about planning this video shoot, you had a big concern about paint. Whether it was non-toxic, whether it could injure the dogs in any way. Can you talk through how you identified the right stuff to use?
Shannon: I started looking at ‘kid safe’ paints. If it’s safe for kids, it may be safe for dogs too. So, I looked up kid-friendly paint first, then non-toxic, and then sent what I found over to Liz and her team to review and approve the specific paints I found, or if there were any red flags in the ingredients within the paints.
Liz: Especially when working with puppies, they like to explore everything and they will probably try to eat it too. They explore with their mouths a lot. So, we always want to make sure whatever we’re doing, whatever props or paints we’re using, that it’s safe for them. If they step in it, they lick their paws, they lick the other puppies. We always make sure everything they’re exposed to is not only safe, but helpful in teaching them about the world they’ll be growing up and working in.
If you watch the video, you can see that there are a bunch of different props on set. It looks like you had a variety of things—toys, brushes—but it sounds like you carefully vetted everything first.
Shannon: Yes, that was another thing. I didn’t just get regular human paint brushes because while I’m not a puppy expert, I just knew that they probably wouldn’t approve of them because if the puppy were to chew it off bristles, then they could possibly swallow it and that wouldn’t be safe. I was trying to look for paint brushes that are more like toddler-safe toys. Something where the brush is bigger, where pieces can’t be chewed off.
Liz: Redirection is key in cases like that. With puppies, if you know they’re chewing on anything that we prefer them not to, we immediately redirect them to something safe. Also, if we didn’t have any toys in the room, they’re probably going to end up ripping up the paper a lot. What we did is have a lot of rope toys to keep them busy, and redirect them to.
These props were all new to the puppies, too. They’re exploring the paint brushes. They’re playing with each other. It’s really important to have a lot of different options. And these puppies, they have short attention spans, but they’re really easy to direct, and so it’s no issue.
How long do you actually work with the individual pup? Do you put them in there for half an hour and videotape them? Do you monitor the amount of time they’re actually “on set?”
Liz: That’s a really good question. For photo shoots, it definitely depends upon their ages. Younger puppies have shorter attention spans, and they can go for short periods of time before they’re going to need a nap afterwards. Just like kids, they love to play. Then they’re going to either start to slow down and kind of fall asleep, or they’re going to become really, really energetic and start running around.
We pay close attention to them and how they’re playing. And then we’re able to take a break when needed, before they get to those spots where they’re really tired or definitely need a nap.
You mentioned that there was a video called Puppy Bowl created to coincide with 2021’s “Big NFL Game” in Tampa. And now we have Pupcasso, which features the puppies as artists, not athletes. Is there anything you have planned for the future that fans of Southeastern Guide Dogs can watch for?
Shannon: Oh man. Lots of pressure.
Liz: We have a lot of possibilities. Sometimes inspiration just hits us in the random times we’re working together, so who knows what we could be up to next?
Shannon: Exactly. A lot of inspiration is based on what’s happening in the world, and we just get talking and then suddenly, we have puppies running around with paint brushes.
Some fans and friends of Southeastern Guide Dogs may want to to chime in with some ideas for consideration for the next video. Would you be up for getting some suggestions?
Liz: Absolutely. But like I said, in everything we do, we always make sure it’s safe for the puppies—and they’re comfortable with it too. We’d love to get some ideas from our friends and fans. And one more thing I think everyone should know; while we had three puppies there during the filming, we also had two other human staff members in the background that were there to help me keep an eye on them, keep them safe, monitor their behavior, and redirect them whenever necessary.
In other words, this video production had an entire puppy-wrangling staff behind the scenes. You see the stars on the set, but you don’t see the superstars behind the camera that are making sure that our superhero stars are well watered, well fed, and certainly well loved.
Shannon: For all of our videos like this, there are always more humans involved than puppies.
Liz: It’s definitely a team effort. And afterwards, we bathe them, and they love that too. The paint came off super easily, which is awesome. And as you might imagine, after all that fun, those puppies slept like…puppies.