• ... home of Ontario's premier pet photographer. This is where the photos of scruffy dog photography meet the heart and soul behind all of those fun and wacky photo shoots and the long hours in the digital darkroom ... a behind-the scenes peek into the zany life of a pet-exclusive photographer and her scruffy sidekicks. For more details on illona and the mcscruffies, check out the "about" section.

    What you will find here is the past several years of blog entries -- selected client shoots, sneak peeks, facebook recaps, news and announcements, promos and specials, as well as info on canine health and general dog chat. (NOTE: previous years of blog entries have been archived.)

    So, grab a cup of jo, give your scruffy a beef tendon to gnaw on, and enjoy the photos and ramblin's.

Emma ~ DOGS WE’VE LOVED ~ Guelph pet photographer

Meet Emma … a.k.a. Emmie, E-dog, Emma Bear … another entry n the special Dogs We’ve Loved series — a series that pays tribute to those dogs whom we’ve loved in life and continue to love beyond, who live on in our memories, in our hearts, our souls, and through the very important photos we create of them.  This stubborn, princess diva was the heart and soul of Dr. Renee Fleming of the Guelph Animal Hospital.

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Emma was 12 yrs old at the time of her scruffy Honor Session™ in February 2013.  Renee had been managing Emma’s chronic arthritis for years, but that winter was particularly frigid and icy, making it exceedingly difficult for Emma to get around.  Renee writes:

“I remember looking at her laying near the fireplace and thinking that I wouldn’t always have her beside me, and that prompted me to call Illona – I wanted to have her photographed so I would always remember what a beautiful spirit she was.”

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Like every Honor Session™, Emma’s was completely memorable.  Renee and Emma and I piled into the scruffy dog mobile, along with my equipment and the SDP settee; in fact, I had only just purchased the antique settee after a three-year search for the piece, and Emma was the first scruffy to use it.  First, though, we started by exploring the forest, complete with a costume change part way through so that Emma could show off her very pretty faux-fur shawl.

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Emma was such a trooper.  But so was Renee!  I’m not sure how much this stout little girl weighed, but when we weren’t taking photos, Renee carried her girl down the trail so that Emma wouldn’t tire herself and her old joints out.

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As is typical of photographing older dogs, it is such an amazing honour to witness the deep bond between dog and guardian … and that certainly held true with Emma and Renee.

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Renee writes of her memories of the session:

“I’m so thankful that Illona was able to squeeze us in.  I was hoping to photograph Emma in the fall but I knew I couldn’t wait, even though she lived 5 months past her session.  I remember carrying her through the trees so that she wouldn’t hurt herself, and I also remember helping Illona drag her red chaise out into the snow and the back alley, and miss Princess Emma jumping up onto it like it was made for her!”

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Emma passed five months after her scruffy session.

“Emma was 12.5 years old.  I have photos of her that day.  She had been playing with a doggie friend the day before, and she seemed particularly sore that evening.  I gave her some extra pain medicine and a massage.  When I woke up in the morning she couldn’t get off the bed, nor could she walk very far without needing to sit down.  She needed help to go pee — and something about the way she looked at me that day made me realize that she was ready to say goodbye; even if I wasn’t.  It was a beautiful day — August 11 — and the weather was perfect.  My husband and I patted her and held her and let her eat as many timbits as she wanted.  I was able to say goodbye in our backyard and John and I held her paws and patted her until she was gone.  It was as beautiful as she deserved.”

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As for Emma’s photos and the artwork that Renee has…

“I am writing this as I’m sitting in my office, and the one large framed canvas of Emma hangs above my desk.  I also have large canvas at home and it is the highlight of our dining room .  I look at her often and the expression on her face is classic Emma – I can tell she’s looking at me off camera because I’m holding liver treats, but she’s patiently allowing Illona to photograph her because she’s been told to stay.  She knew she was spoiled and was old enough that she knew she could pretty much do what she wanted.  🙂  I love that I have albums and canvases to remind me what she looked like and all of the beautiful expressions she had. 🙂 

I will always have my dogs photographed as they are such an integral part of our family and lives.”

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If you’d like to see more images of Emma, you can check out her previous blog entry.

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Emma, I know you are pain-free now … and your spirit will forever be in Renee’s heart and with your family.  Dog speed, Emma.



Murph ~ DOGS WE’VE LOVED ~ Ontario pet photographer

This entry in the special Dogs We’ve Loved series is a little different than the others.  While this series focuses on and pays tribute to dogs whom I have photographed in my almost decade-long career as a pet-exclusive photographer — dogs who we have loved in life and continue to love beyond, who live on in our memories, in our hearts, our souls, and through the very important photos we create of them — this entry is a throwback to the original scruffy dog.

This is Murph.

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He had no silly McScruffy name, as the scruffy dog brand had yet to come in existence.  Murph was simply Murph.  Or, quite often, Best-Dog-In-the-World-Murph.

And all that I have of him is a couple of rolls of film taken on a waterproof, point-and-shoot camera from the late ’90s … so these are all scanned photos from old, crappy Kodak prints.

He passed 14 years ago to the day … 14 years and 9 hours ago.

Murph was what I call a true ‘rescue’ dog … not a shelter dog.  He came into my life when I was living in Baltimore.  My partner at the time — a homicide detective — discovered him, emaciated and abandoned, locked in a house for 17 days while his drug-addict owner (a witness to a homicide they were investigating) was being held in jail on unrelated charges.

When Murph was brought to the ER Vet Clinic, they were going to euthanize him as his body was simply too far gone to consider him adoptable.  But my partner figured this was the dog for me … and after spending a day on IV fluids, Murph came home to me.

I’ll never forget that first meeting … 2 a.m.  He’d had diarrhea all over the back of the old Volvo during the drive from the city.  We had to keep him separated from the other two dogs, so he stayed in the finished basement.  You’d think he would have been starving, but affection was far more important to him than any treat.

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Those initial days and nights were long, with small feedings every hour to bring his system back up.  And there was never any question that Murph and I belonged together.

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My life over the next few years was not easy.  Ultimately, after much heartbreak, I had to abandon my life in Baltimore.  It was Murph who always pulled me through those tough times and emotional turmoil.  He was my world and my rock.  For a while we were essentially homeless … moving between family and friends … and Murph was always fine because he knew his home was me … and my home was him.

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When he and I did finally settle, I had found a stray pregnant cat, took her in, and Murph played nursemaid to the kittens.  While my parents kept mom and some kittens, I took one of the kittens for Murph when Hank was old enough.

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…those two loved each other.  In fact, I don’t think Hank ever knew she was a cat.

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At the age of four Murph had to have cruciate surgery … it was the beginning of the end.  I won’t get into the details about how his system became so utterly overcome by vetting, how vaccines on top of an already weakened immune system finally did him in and he succumbed suddenly and very quickly to lymphoma at the age of 4 1/2, a mere 6 weeks after his vaccines and his surgery … an otherwise vibrant, healthy, full-of-life dog … gone.

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If I knew back then what I know today about canine health and nutrition, I do absolutely believe Murph could have lived a much longer life.  For years I blamed myself, blamed myself for putting Murph in harm’s way, for blithely believing everything every vet told me.  But over the years I have taken everything I learned from that loss, from all of the reading and research I  have done as a result, and made a difference in not just the lives of the dogs who came after — Morley, Matea, and Merrick, and my cats — but also in the lives of countless clients’ dogs and friends’ dogs.  Murph will always stand as my first great teacher.

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His loss was unlike any other I had suffered.  I grew up on a working hobby farm … I’d lost animals before, even my own horses.  Nothing … nothing compared.  He had spent two days at the OVC while vets were determining what was wrong with him, and during that time I never left my bed … because I knew … they didn’t know, but I did.  I knew I was losing him, and I swore I could never and would never have another dog.  I could never go through this again.

When I was finally able to bring him home — told that I’d have only a few short days with him — I took Murph up north where I knew he was always the happiest.  And while he lay in the sun, I spent my days preparing his grave site.  Up on the Niagara Escarpment you don’t dig a hole with a shovel, you use a pickax.  It is one stone after the next.  And that is what I did, for three days, in a lovely little spot beneath three wild apple trees among the rocky ridges and pines.

We slipped down to the lake that one morning, took a few photos with my super crappy camera … and fourteen years and nine hours ago I sat out on that rocky ridge, the sun touching Murph’s soft hair, his amazing smell filling my nostrils, the breeze ruffling his ear tufts, and I held my amazing boy in my arms for the last time, and felt his last breath leave his weakened body.

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…and all the while I kept saying in my mind: Never. Never again.

I held his body for a long time and only then, after three days, did I allow myself to cry because Murph — being so sensitive — didn’t like when people cried.  I held him and rocked  him.  Never again.  How could I live without the feel of his hair? the smell of him?  And how could I possibly love another? and then lose another?  Never. Never again.

I remember wrapping him carefully in his favorite blanket.  In the enormous grave I had spent three days essentially carving out of that rock for him, I had put down a reinforced palette, and on that, I laid his bed.  Wrapped in his blanket, I laid him on his bed, and covered him with another blanket, and then a second reinforced palette, onto which I piled an impressive cairn of rocks.

But it’s what happened in between that I will never forget, and is something to which I find myself referring countless times when consoling a client who has lost their beloved 4-legger and is swearing off of ever getting another.  As I lowered Murph’s body onto that bed in his grave, I was overcome with something I can only describe as ‘permission’ … like a wave washing over me.

I’m not saying this came from Murph, but it certainly didn’t not come from any place of logical thought process.   This wasn’t me thinking anything through like: “I made it through this one, I can make another.”  Not at all.  There was no logic in this.  I was in a state of pure emotion.  It was an inexplicable but clear sense of ‘permission’.  It is the only way I can describe it.

Whatever it was, wherever it came from, nothing had been clearer in the past week.  And I am so grateful for it … because without it I would never have known Matea and Morley … and scruffy dog would never have been born … and I would never have known Merrick.  And while I don’t embrace the concept of reincarnation, I have to say, there is SO much of Murph in Merrick.  Their spirits are one and the same; they touch my heart the same way; and yes, sometimes I find myself flirting with the idea that a part of Murph has come back to me through Merrick.

God, I miss this dog so much, even fourteen years and nine hours later.

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I think of Murph’s bones today, wrapped in his blankets, lying on his red flannel bed under the protection of those reinforced palettes and the enormous cairn of rocks I built over him, and that is what makes me cry.  I know he was never happier than when he was on those ridges, running amongst the pine trees and the rocks, the wind blowing his glorious hair.  But I think about Murph all alone.  And I wish he wasn’t alone.


Kim Learn - That is such a beautiful story and yes I am balling. Thank you for sharing your story ! Love your photography and your heart!

Beate Konduris - Very emotional read for most of us ! Thank you for sharing. You are such a Dog Lover and no matter how much or little time your Murphy had he was very loved and knew it as most rescued animal do ;-))
For most of us being DOGLESS is a temporarily state…

Diane Peresie - OMG, you have so beautifully put into words the feelings many of us have had when an animal of our heart departs.

Debi Livingston - Oh how this makes my heart ache! I unexpectantly lost one of precious boys, Keegan, 3 years ago. He liked to lay near my heart (and I liked it, too). Part of me died that day. And now I find myself trying to ready my heart for the time that is coming too quickly….the passing of my 15 year old little man, Reilly. He has kidney disease, and now we’re giving him fluids every other day. I treasure the days right now, very rarely leaving him out of my sight…encouraging him to eat, cooking something for him if necessary. He can’t hear the things that I whisper to him now, and his eyesight isn’t what it used to be. I have had other dogs, and now have other dogs, but somehow Keegan was and Reilly is my heart dog. That’s the only way I can explain it. They grabbed my heart like nothing before or since. Heart Dogs….

Katharine Sterry - Thanks for reducing me to a blubbering mess (at work no less). Nothing ever changes that feeling of emptiness. Everytime I think about Darcy it stops me in my tracks. It took me nearly 20 years to get another dog and now I can’t bear to think of my life without Ryder.

Donald Townsend - Can relate to the way you describe your loss of Murph very well. Some of our dogs are so very close to us and they will be forever. Thanks for sharing.

Maya ~ DOGS WE’VE LOVED ~ Toronto pet photographer

Meet Maya … easily one of my most special and memorable Honor Session™ dogs … another entry in our special Dogs We’ve Loved series — a series that pays tribute to those dogs whom we’ve loved in life and continue to love beyond, who live on in our memories, in our hearts, our souls, and through the very important photos we create of them.

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Please don’t misunderstand … all scruffy dog sessions and Honor Sessions™ are special, and all are memorable … but Maya stands out for several reasons.  I grew up with shepherds like Maya – big, strong, brave, quiet ones like her.  I shot numerous sessions for this girl and her brother, Blitz, and then her successor, Zelda.  And I’ve become good friends with her amazing guardians Corinne and Phil.

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I did post a previous tribute blog post about Maya, but will write a few words again about this beautiful, larger-than-life girl.

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I met Corinne and Phil and their two fabulous scruffies in the winter of 2013 for the first of their three scruffy Seasons Sessions.  On a bright, crisp February day I was introduced to two energetic, vibrant, joyous shepherds.  Maya was 8 and Blitz was 5.

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Then came their summer session …

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…but then, in late summer, before our fall session date, came the horrible news.

In dad Phil’s words:

“One night Maya started acting strangely; she was restless and it was apparent within a few minutes that we needed to take her to the emergency vet clinic. What the veterinarian found was that Maya’s pericardium was full of blood, crushing her heart. The most likely cause was hemangiosarcoma which is a highly invasive form of cancer that affects the lining of blood vessels, and it was made abundantly clear to us that this was not something Maya could overcome. They were able to drain the blood, and with the pressure gone, she acted like her old self again. While we clung to hope this would be a one time deal and that the vets were wrong about the cancer (after all they hadn’t really run any tests), we decided it wise to prepare for the worst.

The very next day Corinne called up Illona, asking to move up the final session, mentioning the terrible news about Maya’s health, and that it was highly unlikely that she would be with us when her last session was scheduled. Kindly, Illona booked an honor session for Maya two days later … and only a few days after our session Maya’s heart re-effused and we were forced to make the decision we had always dreaded; to say goodbye to our special girl. That day she slipped quietly away while we held her in our arms. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to experience.”

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I’m not going to lie.  This was not an easy session.  I mean, any Honor Session™ is tough, but it becomes extra tough when you’ve already come to know the dog through previous sessions, and when you connect with the guardians and have become friends through a mutual love, respect and passion for dogs.

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While we took it easy on Maya during this final session, we spent a full afternoon hitting numerous locations knowing that this could be our last opportunity.

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Phil’s reflection on the session …

“The memories of Maya’s sudden passing were so overwhelmingly heartbreaking and I felt they would be all I could think about were it not for the honor session. That session helped us heal by allowing Corinne and me to remember Maya for the beautiful and loving companion that she had been for 8 years of our lives. The results of that final session decorate the walls of our apartment, more than any shots from any other photo session we had that year. The work Illona has done for us has always been fantastic, but she really took the time required to capture what we felt was special about Maya that day, and we are extremely thankful.

It’s easy to dwell on the bad and traumatic moments in our lives. In my case it was having my first dog, that I loved very much, die in my arms; a decision I felt I had to make out of love to spare her a far more gruesome fate. However, Illona put another image in my mind when I think about Maya. This image in my mind is inspired from a fantastic shot of Maya and her brother sitting happily in a field of wheat. That shot exists as a large framed canvas hanging on the wall in my living room so that I cannot miss it”

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“We will never forget Maya, and we still miss her to the point of tears some 3 years later, but Illona made sure we wouldn’t just dwell on how she died, but remember the good times we spent together as a family. In the end, as cliché as it sounds, it’s what Maya would have wanted.”

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I say it again and again: it is so absolutely important to capture photos of your 4-leggers.  It doesn’t matter if you choose to hire a professional and create artwork, including an incredible keepsake album, or you take photos yourself and make up some kind of online consumer photobook.  Just, please! … make sure you capture those photos to remember them by.   scruffy dog photography is a business that was born from the loss of a dog named Murph — the original scruffy dog.  I lost him very suddenly at only 4 years of age to vaccine-induced lymphoma.  With only four rolls film — two of those taken in the final days when he was dying — I learned the hardest way possible how utterly meaningful even a small handful of photos can be … and I would do anything to have more and better photos of him today.

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As for Maya, it was the deepest of honours to have met her and to have played even the smallest of roles in the creation of this one facet of her memories for Phil and Corinne.  It is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time to bear witness to the incredibly deep bond between dogs and their guardians, and an honour to be responsible for capturing it.

It has been one of my greatest pleasures in my career to come to know Corinne and Phil and their pack, including new girl Zelda and two-legged progeny Oriana, and am I beyond confident that Maya’s spirit will always be with them, in their hearts, and following the spirit of this entire pack, wherever they go.

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Donna Rigg - It’s very hard reading these beautiful stories and not feel their pain. But Photography is the most amazing craft that gives back to so many.
Stunning images as always

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