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The stories behind our amazing pet paw-traits

Four people tell Linda Stewart why they're thrilled with images of their pets taken by award-winning Peter Thomas Photography, which is based in Belfast

Stacey Irvine and Peter Crymble
Stacey Irvine and Peter Crymble
The seven huskies that belong to Zena Gardner
Stephanie McGall with her rescue puppy ruby cavalier Thea
Zena Gardner
Gregor and Fiona Neish's baby son Leo and their pet dog Josie
Gregor Neish
Paul Edmondson and his cat Toby

They say you should never work with animals or children but the people behind Belfast business Peter Thomas Photography have won a host of awards by throwing the rulebook out of the window. The company's photographer Peter Crymble has just won the Professional Photographers Association of Northern Ireland pet portrait photographer of the year award with a stunning image of Hugo the dachshund, while his co-worker Stacey Irvine's portrait of pomeranian Kizzy came second.

Although the firm also caters for humans, the pair have topped the pet category for three years in a row, with Stacey winning in 2017, followed by Peter in 2018 and again this year.

Peter explains: "We have different approaches to pet portraiture. Stacey would be more hands-on but I find the opposite works for me - a lot of patience and not being afraid of getting the odd lick."

Stacey reveals the secret to their success: "You have to be prepared to make an absolute fool of yourself. From making silly noises to get their attention to knowing what special words also work. 'Walk' for instance, is great but yesterday the name 'Gavin' was the only thing the pup responded to.

"You just need to ensure the dog feels comfortable and not stressed being in a studio with huge lights - whether that means having their owner sitting right next to them. It's all about making them feel safe.

"Once, a dog came and just sat on my lap while I was trying to take their photograph. She just wanted a cuddle and you need to work with them on their terms," Stacey says.

We talked to some of the pet owners who are overjoyed to have their four-legged friends committed to film.

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Zena Gardner (43), from Millisle, works for Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. She is married to Paul and has two children Amy (20) and Lewis (12), and also cares for seven huskies.

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The seven huskies that belong to Zena Gardner
 

Zena says huskies can be hard work and are not for the faint-hearted - and she found most photographers were unwilling to hold a session with seven of them at once.

"They don't do off-lead and they don't have good recall. They're not an obedient dog, so Peter Thomas Photography did exceptionally well. We were very impressed," she says.

"With most photographers, when they see you have seven huskies, they back right off. We did have one who wanted to go to Tollymore and photograph them like they're wolves, but we didn't want to do that. They're not wolves, they're dogs and associating them with wolves is one of the things that gives huskies a bad press."

Zena says several of her dogs are rescues that have been rehomed. One of them, Delta, is a 56kg "monster" who was supposed to be a foster and is still with the family over two years later.

"There are so many needing homes. Game of Thrones has a lot to answer for, because a lot of people want a dire wolf," she says. "They should tell you that the fur comes out in handfuls. I had my dogs' hair made into wool and I crocheted a throw from it.

"They sing every morning at 6.30am for their breakfast and they sing every night at 6pm for their dinner."

Zena has always had dogs, but she chose huskies after her Jack Russell and German shepherds passed away.

"I did a bit of research and read up on breeds, and the breed that stood out was the husky. I like the fact that they all have such individual personalities," she adds.

"Any husky owner will tell you, don't just stop at one. Huskies are a pack animal and they like to be with other dogs. Very rarely will you get one that is happy in his own company. There are so many needing homes."

The huskies sleep together at night in a shed in a galvanised steel cage and are walked on waist leads, harnesses that are fastened round the waist.

"We bought them a scooter for Christmas that we get them to pull," she says.

They also have a rig for running five or six of them at once, but haven't entered them in any of the Dryland Mushing races yet.

Zena says she won a photoshoot voucher at a PDSA fundraiser and, after meeting the huskies, Peter Thomas Photography has gone on to raise money for Tyrone Husky Rescue.

"The dogs trashed the place but they were so patient with them. I kept apologising and saying they get really excited when they meet new people," she says.

"When they got there, (employee) Tara's face was a picture.

"She was delighted - it was like all her Christmases had come at once.

"They peed everywhere, they pooed everywhere, but the staff didn't even blink an eye.

"The photographer was wearing black, but she was covered from head to toe in white fur. They laughed the whole time.

"The photographer was on the floor with them, she was on the sofa with them - she was brilliant."

Civil servant Stephanie McGall (35), from south Belfast, was photographed with ruby cavalier Thea, one of the pups that was recently rescued near Larne Port during a police operation.

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Stephanie McGall with her rescue puppy ruby cavalier Thea
 

Stephanie says she had been looking for a pup for a while and had spotted a Facebook post by Mid Antrim Animal Sanctuary which took in three of the dogs.

She asked to take the morning off work and was the first person in the car park waiting for the sanctuary to open.

"We were watching all the cars coming in and were starting to panic, and about 20 minutes before they opened, I got out and started a queue. When they opened the doors and came out, there were about 100 people there for the three puppies," she says.

The sanctuary carried out a home check at Stephanie's house.

She adds: "On Friday evening we got a phone call to say that she was ours. She was 10-weeks-old and very tiny. I work full time and she stays with my mum and is with us in the evenings. She follows me about, is full of energy and is very clever, learning little things like 'fetch' very quickly. She's doing great.

"She's very cuddly and loves to be cuddled. If you are lying on the sofa, she's cheek-to-cheek with you."

Stephanie says she noticed early on that Thea would take a bite of her food and then hide with it.

"She is probably used to other pups sharing food from the same dish. I've had to get special dishes to slow her down because she was eating so quickly," she says.

She says Peter Thomas Photography had sent vouchers to the animal sanctuary for photo sessions.

"We went and had her photo taken. She was around 13/14 weeks at the time. The images are fantastic and it was so hard to choose the best.

"Ruby cavaliers are all the one colour, which seems to be quite unusual, and the photographs they took with the red backdrop are absolutely amazing," she says.

Retired chef Paul Edmondson (62) rescues stray cats around his home in south Belfast and decided to get his picture taken with his cat, Toby.

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Paul Edmondson and his cat Toby
 

I am a life member of the Cats Protection League and have been for last 25 years," he says. "There are feral cats near my home and I've rescued 10 of them. Seven went to new homes - the CPL took them in after I rescued and tamed them. Three were too wild to be tamed and they were released after being neutered.

"I got bitten by one of them and had to get a tetanus injection. That's how committed I am to rescuing them!"

Paul uses a trap borrowed from the CPL, baits it with food and sets it to close without hurting the cat, then checks the traps at 7am every day to see if he has caught any.

"Some of them are only kittens," he says.

Surprisingly, he describes himself as more of a dog person.

"I had to have cats because I was working. If my cat Toby goes, I will get a dog, but Toby is only 12 at the moment," he says.

"Toby was a stray that came round to my house and tortured me until he got in. Somebody must have owned him because he wasn't neutered and then he went away for a week and he came back neutered. He mustn't have liked it there because he kept coming back.

"He's always there. He's more like a dog - he follows me everywhere. The neighbours all know him."

Paul won a small pet portrait in a competition and decided to have a bigger one taken of himself with Toby.

"I thought I'd get a bigger one - it will do for the top of my coffin when I am gone! We both got dressed up for it and the cat has a dicky bow on him," he says.

"He wasn't too bad at the session because I thought he would be a lot worse than he was. He did sit for a short while."

Engineer Gregor Neish (32), from Scotland, lives in Lurgan with his wife Fiona, baby son Leo (seven months) and dog Josie. He explained why they chose to have Leo and Josie photographed together.

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Gregor and Fiona Neish's baby son Leo and their pet dog Josie
 

Josie is a rescue dog. We never knew what she was, but we recently had her DNA tested to find out what she was and she's a mixture of spaniel, terrier and beagle. She's just a bit of a scruff really," he says.

"We think she's about four-and-a-half but we are not quite sure. We got her from Causeway Coast Rescue in November 2015 after we saw her on their Facebook page. We went up to visit and decided to adopt her.

"She's lovely. She's quiet and never really barks. She was a bit nervous when we got her but she's really placid and chilled out now.

"When Fiona was pregnant we were looking at newborn photography. We were looking at various websites and we saw they offered the chance to include the pet so we decided to go for it."

The family chose the newborn package, which involves a newborn photo followed by a six month photo and a third around Leo's first birthday.

"The first one went great. We went in and tried to get photos of the dog and the kid together, but she's not trained and we tried to get her to sit but she wasn't really taking part.

"So we focused on the newborn photos and as the session went on she started going over, so we got pictures of her just acting natural.

"Josie is fine with Leo. When he was a newborn and he was screaming, she would take herself off to a quiet spot, but she's really good with him.

"She hasn't really changed at all since he came along.

"She's always been quite chilled out."

Peter Thomas Photography, 48 Duncrue St, Belfast, tel: 02890 756705 or go to www.peterthomasphotography.com

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