Tonawanda News

August 10, 2013

Swimming into the spotlight

Shelter pups get chance to shine as award-winning photographer returns to Tonawanda

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Ramona, Ritzie and Rachel were just not too sure about this water stuff.

The puppies, 9-week-old sisters in the care of the SPCA Serving Erie County, clustered at the edge of the big pool at Canine Splash in the Town of Tonawanda, eyeing both the large amount of liquid and photographer Seth Casteel, with what appeared to be canine misgivings.

Casteel had his work cut out for him.

The award-winning photographer whose first book, “Underwater Dogs,” was a New York Times bestseller, returned to Western New York this weekend after a photo shoot in February at Canine Splash. However, this time, in addition to paid photo shoots with adult dogs, Casteel and Canine Splash put out a puppy casting call for his upcoming book, “Underwater Puppies.”

And that’s where the trio of shepherd mixes, recent transplants to Western New York as part of a rescue transport from the southern United States, come in.

Miranda Workman, a behavioral specialist on staff at the SPCA and director of training at Canine Splash, brought the pups to have their time in the spotlight. 

“They’re little fluff balls right now. But they seem to be very happy, very confident. We’re hoping this will be just one more positive experience for them,” she said. “It’s great for them to be ambassadors for the SPCA, to show you can get some great dogs from the SPCA.”

Kim Klementowski of Sadie’s Safe Harbor, a rescue group based in Springville that has fostered pets throughout Western New York, agreed. The group contributed Grace, a 3- to 5-month-old feist recently brought to the area from a rescue transport out of North Carolina, to the photo shoot.

“Hopefully it will get the word out that shelter dogs can do it,  too,” she said.

Joanne Campagna, one of the owners of Canine Splash, said 17 puppies (in addition to the adult dogs) were expected this weekend. Some were brought by their owners for a chance at celebrity, but the SPCA and rescue groups Sadie’s Safe Harbor, Black Dog Second Chance and Educate-A-Bull also contributed pups for a possibility of  photographic stardom.

Campagna said that any rescue or shelter with a puppy whose photo gets included in the new book will also be included in the marketing of the book, a public relations windfall for an organization.

“It’s obviously good for a business like ours, but it’s even better for shelters,” she said. “If he can get shelter puppies in the book ... what a great statement that could make.”

As opposed to the shoots for the adult dogs, the puppy photo shoots last only about 15 minutes each, Campagna said, for practical reasons. “Within 15 minutes, they get tired. Within 15 minutes, he either gets a shot ... or he doesn’t.”

In the pool, some of the challenges inherent working with young ones were showcased as Casteel coaxed the pups from the SPCA into the water, working to build their confidence and their comfort around the water. Eventually, in fact, he shooed watchers out the door temporarily so the little ones wouldn’t be distracted.

It’s not easy. In fact, Casteel said, during a recent photo shot in Chicago, he worked with 30 puppies over a four-hour span ... and didn’t get a single book-worthy shot.

“That’s how hard it is. There are many more challenges, 100 times more challenges” to working with puppies, he said. “The first challenge, of course, is their level of confidence.  ... You need to build their confidence so they can start to enjoy themselves. Once they enjoy it, I’m starting to get pictures.”

Despite all those challenges, Casteel said, there’s a good chance some shots from the Canine Splash shoot will end up in the new book, which is due out in October 2014. 

“I want to feature as many adopted and adoptable puppies as possible,” he said. “I think that it’s an important thing to do for the mission of promoting rescue and adoption and showing people it’s a great option. We’re making heroes of these puppies.”

Workman said it’s a wonderful opportunity for the shelters.

“How cool is that? To know your puppy was a star before you ever met them? That would be fabulous,” she said. “It’s great to have shelters who are willing to partner to do things like this, to work together to show how awesome these dogs can be. They can do wonderful things.”

As for the SPCA pups, they’re on to their next adventure. The three will be visiting the Erie County Fair today, continuing their role as SPCA ambassadors ... this time on dry land.




Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @JillKeppeler.