How to entice potential adoptive parents with cute photos of pets looking for forever homes.

I REMEMBER standing in an animal shelter a few years ago, hugging one of the staff members who was crying her eyes out. The vet had just been in, and two dozen perfectly healthy dogs had been killed. The abandoned pets were considered unadoptable because they were plain looking brown and black dogs.

The killing was done humanely but the manager was in floods. “It’s not fair,” she wept. “They only want the pretty dogs.”

People haven’t changed but thanks to smartphones, browsing for an adoptable pet is no longer confined to visiting the shelter. Many people start their search for a pet online. This means going to shelter and rescue websites and also, sometimes, just asking people to share posts they see.

Thanks to this change, so-called ugly dogs now have a better chance of getting their forever home.

The miracle starts with a carefully planned photo.

Carnea Lee – the first registered user of online pet adoption website back in 2008 and also a member of Independent Pets Rescuers KL – is adept at showing a pet’s pretty side.

“I’ve had people fall in love with the photo and when they come, they say, ‘Hey, it’s not the same dog!’” Lee laughs. “They say, ‘This one’s ugly and the one in the photo is cute’. Then they pull out their phone and they look at the markings and say, ‘Ohmigod, it IS the same dog!’”

Lee’s secret is in the prep that goes into the mini photo shoot.

“Look to bring out the dog’s attractive qualities, a red collar for a black dog, for example, and make sure the fur is clean and brushed,” she advises.

Background is also essential. “I love green grass as it’s best for lifting the subject naturally. If you don’t have a handy pretty patch of that, pick up the dog and cuddle to get that smile.

“Lighting is important! Broad daylight is too bright and casts too many harsh reflections. Take photos early in the morning between eight and nine o’clock or wait until after five in the evening.”

Chia Ern Leong, senior shelter manager for PAWS Selangor, believes that positive traits make for the best photos.

“When it’s a ‘plain’ or ‘ugly’ looking dog, it’s important to remind people that the dogs have individual personalities. The dog should look happy – either being affectionate with a human or happy on a walk or playing.

“Multiple photos or a photo collage helps as well – there’s a lot more to look at.

“You might want to do a simple before and after where you can see their progress either growing older or looking happier after being rescued.”

While the photo is the main hook, the post that goes with it must also be carefully planned.

“Start with introducing the dog, mentioning character and behaviour,” Lee advises. “Like, ‘Milo doesn’t bark and he loves to play fetch’, and then tell the rescue story, like, ‘his owners abandoned him’, so that the reader becomes involved in the story.”

Leong suggests you kick off with a fun caption that describes the dog’s temperament, “A simple sentence like, ‘She loves sitting on your lap when she’s tired after a long day’, paints a vivid picture that will stick with the potential adopter.

“Details such as age, gender, health condition, etc, are important,” he adds, “but leave that to the end. These don’t attract attention as well as a simple story would.”

When it comes to don’ts, Lee adds, “Don’t start your post with too many restrictions up front. If you begin by telling people you’ll be inspecting their homes, visiting weekly and so on, it becomes off-putting.

“Yes, we need to make sure dogs are properly homed but you explain how all that works when you first talk on the phone or when you first meet up.”

Leong further advises to be careful about giving a wrong impression.

“Long, rambling sentences about the situation the current owner is in, eg, ‘I cannot keep this dog because my neighbours are complaining and the local council has come to issue me a warning three times and if I don’t get rid of the dog by next week…’, can mean you risk people losing interest in adopting from you if they think you’re just giving excuses and giving up on your pet.”

While every dog deserves a chance at getting a loving home, all rescuers agree that the number one aim is to ensure a good and lasting match.

As Lee points out, people who come to meet the dog whose photo they see aren’t necessarily going to adopt.

“They fall in love with the dog because they’ve seen the beautiful side. Frankly, I’m sometimes cautious, in case it’s a pity adoption. The last thing anyone wants is for a pet to think he’s found a home, only to be returned. But mostly, we talk and it’s all good.”

And that is the magic of smartphones and social media: They allow us to see beyond outer looks and into the pet’s true nature.

How to get good shots of your pets

Have you found an abandoned pet that desperately needs a home? To set up your mini-shoot like a pro, here are some tips.

> Before you even pick up the camera, look at setting. Avoid cages, peeling walls and ugly backgrounds. Grass and flowers are good, and so are trees and bushes.

> Brush the pet. This removes loose hairs, brightens the coat and ensures he or she is looking pretty.

> Accessorise! A fancy collar is nice but you can also try a scarf or, if your pet is very relaxed, a hat. Tip: never put on shoes. Dogs perspire through their feet, and shoes can cause heatstroke and heart attacks.

> Take a snap of the background without the dog. Check your light settings. Look for warm but not glaring.

> Get your pet to pose. This may take offers of a treat, or a helpful human to hug and smile. Note: the human needs to be brushed and accessorised too!

> Make sure you have a photo of the face, and that the pet is smiling. Also have photos of the whole dog, so that people can see how big he or she is.

> Finally, you can pick up a small dog and do a cute-’n’-cuddle pose. And with a big dog, you can sit down next to it and put your arm around the pet. Just pretend you’re taking a selfie with a human friend.