Commercial pet photographer, talent agency owner, animal wrangler, dog trainer

By Bob Freund  |  Photography by Barbara O’Brien

On any one day, Barbara O’Brien might be snapping shots at photo session for retailer Target Stores. She might be on site working for clothing discounter Kohl’s. Or she might be auditioning 50 prospects for casting in a client’s next advertising campaign.

Barbara’s job differs from most other commercial photographers. All her clients are animals—domestic animals, to be exact: Dogs, cats, horses, cows and cattle, sheep, rabbits, chickens, etc. Name one animal, and she probably has hundreds of photos of different breeds.

That extreme close-up of a friendly Jack Russell Terrier, with eyes sparkling and a slightly upturned pink tongue, might not carry a credit line for Barbara O’Brien. Yet chances are, you’ve seen Barbara’s handiwork. Perhaps it was a pet photo on a sign inside a Target store, a canine face on front of a Purina dog food bag or even that furry image in advertising for a Swiffer floor cleaner.

Since 2002, Barbara and her husband Kevin have made their home on a farm about six miles from Stockholm, Wis., in the bluffs above the Mississippi River. They live with a menagerie of animals, including two dogs, some cats, a goat, chickens, sheep, five rescue horses and a pony.

They operate both their animal talent and photography businesses from the farm. Barbara directs the creative operations, including finding animal talent and taking photos. Kevin produces photo sessions and handles the day-to-day details of management.

Actors that bark!

Barbara’s career with animal actors stretches back more than three decades to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where she grew up.

“I was working somewhere and read about a model agency (for people) that opened up,” Barbara says. She went to the owner of the new agency. “I said, ’I’ve got a dog that can model,’” Barbara recalls. She also promised that “I can find you anything” in the animal world for modeling. She got her chance when the new agency needed 10 rabbits for a job for the former Dayton’s retail chain. She located them, and a career with animal actors started.

Barbara launched her own talent agency called The Animal Connection in 1984. “We find animal actors for print ads, films, all kinds of media contacts.”

Her four-legged clients have appeared in numerous advertising campaigns and bit parts in a bunch of feature films. Among them was the Wire Fox Terrier that played Pepper in the recent film “Wilson” starring Woody Harrelson. (The Animal Connection also chased down “a few other dogs and six geese,” for the movie’s cast, Barbara says).

Wranglin’ for a livin’

With her animal clients, though, Barbara isn’t merely a booking agent.

“I go on set and work with the animals myself,” she says. She often is the “wrangler” handling the dog or other critter.

“When you train animals for advertising or movies … it’s called wrangling,” she explains. “We’ve been to Texas … we’ve wrangled up and down the Midwest.”

She also worked behind the scenes handling her actors in several films. Minnesotans might recognize “Thin Ice” from 2011 and “Feeling Minnesota” from 1996.

The key for the handler is to think like the animal, she says. For example, “Clients (people) sometimes think that animals are little people in fur suits and that they think like humans,” she says. You can give a dog a single command and expect results. But “you can’t give them three commands at once.”

That’s where her experiences training the animals pay off. Barbara says she achieves a rapport with the animals before she will ask them to perform or pose.

The animal photographer says she can sense the mood of the animal, feeling when they’re happy and when they’re lackluster. “The dogs that I work with love their jobs.”

She may enjoy that side of showbiz as much as a starring dog does. “My job is just so much fun, that I never feel like I’m working.”

Barbara estimates 70 percent of the agency’s animal actors are dogs, 20 percent are cats (mostly from the O’Brien’s farm) and the final 10 percent are a mixture including cattle, sheep and bunnies.

Picking up the camera

Nine years ago, Barbara added animal photography to her business for the commercial market. After years behind the scenes, she decided to put her skills to work with a camera.

The O’Briens’ barn became the main studio for taking pictures. Barbara has developed a recognizable style. She calls it “expressive, emotive animal photography.”

Her photos often are close-ups of the animal’s face, with some distinctive feature. “It looks like the animal’s personality comes through,” Barbara says.

Once again, she gives the credit for the style to a close connection with the animal. They cooperate in posing because “I’m not just some random person with a camera,” Barbara says. “They know me.”

At the same time, the commercial photographer doesn’t hesitate to sprawl out low on the animal’s turf for image impact. “I lay (down) in more cow pens and sheep poop,” she says. Another more alarming angle: “Horses galloping right toward me.”

Target has deployed Barbara’s photos across a range of marketing materials. “We did (photos of) the Bull (Terrier) puppies for Target and I’ve done a lot of signage in the stores,” she says. Those “bullseye” puppies appear on gift cards and in other Target promotions.

Two places to spot pics

Barbara offers a selection of those expressive portraits in her book “DogFace,” which was published in 2014 by Penguin/Random House.

She adds photos in “Daily Dose,” located on her Facebook page. “I put up a picture every single day of something,” whether it’s about cows, pet or flowers, she says. They are followed. “I get inquiries from around the world.”

Lately, O’Brien has begun moving her business a step beyond conventional and digital pictures into what is called “surface design.” The technique can place photographed images on fabrics or other surfaces. “It could be anything … a bowling ball, garden flag, greeting cards, wall art, fabric design,” she says. “Think about all the stuff that has images or designs or even patterns on it.”

Bob Freund is a writer based in Rochester.

Is Your Dog Actor Material?

Photographer Barbara O’Brien’s talent agency, called The Animal Connection, is looking for budding canine stars all the time. Art directors for advertising and public relations agencies contact her to place animals in their projects. Often The Animal Connection will hold mass auditions — 50 to 60 dogs at a time — to find a few prospects. It’s competitive. Being well-trained is a start, but Barbara and her staff are looking for more from acting dogs for their commercial clients. Here are some important traits. See if your pet measures up:

• Be a sociable and happy dog (Nervous or unhappy animals need not apply.)

• Obey basic commands.

• Be “super-great,” as Barbara says, with people.

• Be able to work off leash on the production set.

• Be comfortable with flash and strobe lighting.

• Be healthy and correct weight for its type.

• Be available on short notice. Also, owners must be available to assist in training
specific behaviors.

The Animal Connection generally requires owners to live in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.


The Animal Connection and Barbara O’Brien Photography have worked on advertising or other marketing efforts for these major brands, among others: Target Stores, Purina, Swiffer, Blue Bunny Ice Cream, 3M, Royal Canin, Ace, Pfizer, Iams, Nutrena