Honoring Your Pets This Christmas

The Tradition of Dead (and Living) Dog Ornaments


A long-standing Christmas tradition in my family is honoring our pets with the creation of a custom-painted dog ornament in the likeness of our (current) dog.

Unfortunately, sometimes the impetus for making one of our doggy (or kitty) ornaments has been that, Snuggles is getting on in years, and we worry she might not make it to next Christmas.

Some might say that a photograph could do the trick for the portrait, however, I disagree. As an artist and pet-lover, I believe that living portraits are superior to those painted from a photograph. A living portrait captures a liveliness and presence that just can’t be copied from a static picture.

Think of the master himself, John Singer Sergeant, who was a painter of personality and expression far beyond that of a standard portraitist.  Madame X, for example, was more than a lady in a black gown but rather a woman who resonates mystery, confidence and elegance. You want your fur baby to resonate from his likeness as well – whether he be scruffy or noble.

Beginnings and Credits

I can’t take all the credit for creating these masterpieces.  My dad was pretty skilled with a coping saw, and he cut the forms for me when I started this endeavor. Our first portrait ever was of my sister’s dog Petey, a devilish runt of mixed Poodle and Chihuahua heritage.  Petey is best remembered for his courageous heart—and his sharp teeth.  Without getting into too much trouble with sis, I’ll just say that I must love her a lot to have perpetuated Petey’s image for all eternity.

Getting to the point, here’s my step-by-step guide to making that prized puppy portrait for your pine tree.


Coping saw
½” Plywood
Acrylic Primer
Acrylic Paints (a moderate assortment)
Paper plate or palette of your choice
Brushes: a large primer brush, a thin liner, a round brush, a flat shader
Hot glue gun with glue*
*Or, alternately, you can use craft wire and a framing nail to create a hook on the back of your ornament.


1.Take a good look at your pet’s glorious face – and its quirks. Create a sketch emphasizing the qualities that stand out.
A subtle snarl? Mischevious eyes? Unique markings? Unruly fur?  There’s something obvious that sets your pug/chow/tabby/little angel apart from her cousins.

Our dog TC (above) has distinct freckles on his nose and some strange long fuzz that sticks out from under his ears.  I played those up in my sketch.

2. Create a dark outline of your sketch, trace that onto the plywood and cut out your basic form for the ornament.

3. Sand the rough edges and the surfaces of your ornament. Sanding the flat surfaces will create a smoother surface for painting.

4. Prime the wood piece using a water-thinned coat of acrylic primer. When dry,  apply a second coat of the pure primer.
The thin coat is partly absorbed by the wood and helps the thicker primer and paint “stick”. Let the coats dry completely.

5. Choose your paint colors by taking a good look at Max and noting the various hues in his fur.

6. Hang out with your pet, and trust in your artistic ability. Catnip may be in order.
Pay attention to how the light reflects on your pet’s eyes, to the size of his nose in relation to the size of his eyes, and to the planes of your pet’s face.  Call his name repeatedly if he starts to ignore your inner artiste. Don’t overdo the painting, mainly go for the exaggerations you noted previously. His personality will shine through as you paint, and because Acrylic paints dry so quickly you can easily re-paint over blunders.

7. Seal with an acrylic gloss, let dry, then glue a loop of yarn to the back of your finished portrait.
Now Baileyboots is a part of Christmas, forever and ever! And she will be remembered for years to come.


4 thoughts on “Honoring Your Pets This Christmas

  1. I have Petey’s and Rebel’s Out all year hanging in front of the fireplace. They are true treasures to me. (I can see that they need a seal on them, so that will be my next project.) I promise to send you pictures of them, on and off the tree. Merry Christmas dear sister!

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