Dogs are amazing creatures.
They come into our lives and bring us smiles, laughter, snuggles and joy.
They give us every ounce of love they have, unconditionally.
Some dogs give us more than that.
They give us comfort and therapy and assistance.
They give us our independence back when it’s been taken away.
They are service dogs and, without them, life would be drastically different for many humans.
A life-altering day
She remembers the accident like it was yesterday.
May 8, 2012, 6:15 p.m.
Laura Renz was on her Harley, cruising down Trent Avenue. A driver didn’t see Laura on her bike, pulled out onto the road and smacked Laura in the right leg.
Laura flipped off her bike and onto the driver’s windshield, shattering the glass. She somersaulted onto the road and landed on the asphalt, shattering her left arm, breaking her neck and banging her head.
She broke 13 teeth, and her right hand was damaged, too.
“I can still taste the road,” Laura says. “I taste it every day.”
She faced a long recovery, and wondered how she would care for her horses and her main man, Lobo, a beautiful, young German shepherd.
“He had never been in the house,” she says. “We had just started doing leash work in April and he was starting to overcome his fear of stairs.”
While she was in the hospital for two weeks and physical rehabilitation for five more days, friends cared for Lobo and completely refurbished her house to help her manage her recovery.
“I got out of my wheelchair and started to fall,” Laura recalls. “Lobo just came around and stopped me from falling.”
Just like that, Lobo recognized Laura needed him.
“He started helping me in different ways that I didn’t know he could.”
Adding to the pack
A year later, a friend brought Vinny into her life.
A sleek, black shepherd, Vinny is a big boy — intimidating at first glance but a lover to the core. One look and you know, he would lay down his life for Laura.
With a six-month-old puppy, though, and still — always — recovering from her accident, Laura looked for help. She didn’t have enough grip in her right hand to hold the leash and control a strong, growing puppy.
She found Cole Upegui at Protection K9 Training Club, who helped her see there could be more to training a dog than just “sit, stay, heel.”
Oh, she’d known dogs could help … dogs that guide the visually impaired or comfort veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
This was different. She started learning how dogs — her dogs, her boys — could help with her day-to-day activities.
“Lobo is 100-plus pounds,” she says. “Just being able to balance on him changed my life again. And Cole helped teach me that anything like that they do, you can shape it into a task.”
Through innumerable surgeries and recoveries, she worked long, hard hours with Vinny and Lobo. Both dogs became certified in all three Canine Good Citizen tests and the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners standards.
With Lobo’s and Vinny’s help, she was able to return to work as an optician.
Lobo took on the task as guardian. He started blocking people from getting too close to her.
Vinny showed signs of being a good tracking dog. He and Laura joined a search and rescue team.
Life was getting closer to a state of normal.
A Little more help
Laura soon saw her dogs starting to age.
She knew it was just a matter of time before they’d be unable to help. That’s when she found Little One, a sweet chocolate Labrador retriever, who is a service dog, a therapy dog and a snuggler all in one.
“She’s so smart,” Laura says. “She does mobility work, gives me a counterbalance and forward momentum when I need it. She’s great on stairs and uneven ground.
“She senses my migraines coming on and alerts me, poking at me.”
Little One met Canine Good Citizen and IAADP standards just a few months past her first birthday.
She has even learned how to find exits, Laura’s car, City Hall.
“That’s really just a stupid pet trick but it’s handy if I’m getting overwhelmed,” she says.
And now there’s Jazzy.
A gorgeous German shepherd puppy, Jazzy is full of piss and vinegar but her training is taking her in the right direction. She’s learning everything Little One knows but hasn’t gotten into detecting migraines.
“Little is great at deep pressure therapy,” Laura explains. “After my last surgery, she lay on me all night to keep me still. Jazzy is getting there, still figuring it out.”
Laura needs to have two active service dogs, fully trained. Much like humans, they need breaks from their work. Otherwise, they get tired or stressed out and become less helpful.
From owner of service dogs to advocate
It wasn’t long before Laura became hyperattentive to how service dogs are received in the outside world.
Or how some people take undertrained service dogs out and expect them to just “get it.”
Or how able-bodied people take advantage of the available “service dog” gear to attain special treatment.
Little One has been attacked several times in retail establishments throughout Spokane. Businesses tell her “there’s nothing we can do” as they follow the American Disabilities Act that prevents them from questioning people with “service dogs.”
Her friend, Pia Hallenberg, encouraged her to start speaking up. Before she knew it, Laura was standing in front of Spokane City Council and talking about service dogs and how they need to be better understood throughout the Spokane business community.
She convinced council member Mike Fagan to get on board. Since that relationship formed in 2017, the councilman has held community forums focused on educating Spokane about service dogs. He has also pushed through pass two ordinances that mirror state law around service dogs.
And Laura started the Northwest Service Dog Alliance to help handlers learn their rights and to advocate for service dogs throughout the Spokane business community.
It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and more service dog handlers join the Facebook group regularly.
“We do a lot of business education,” Laura says. “We’re focused on education, outreach and resolution. We also teach handlers what to do during encounters with businesses and how to be respectful.”
Laura points out service dogs don’t need to have certification or pass a test. They do, however, need to pay attention to their handler, looking for cues or warning signs, and so it’s vital people around them don’t try to distract the dog or the handler.
That’s the tough part for a lot of folks, she acknowledges, especially with a dog like Little One whose eyes are soft, welcoming pools of liquid chocolate.
“It could be a matter of life and death for the handler,” she says.
The goal of owning a service dog is to not need one, for the handler to recover her independence and do her daily tasks on her own.
“The work they do takes a lot of time and training,” she says. “It makes the difference between us having to stay home and being able to have a life. A service dog is never a first choice; it’s a last resort.”
Surrounded by love
Nothing about Laura is normal — from her life circumstances to her penchant to tell you about life as it is.
There’s no fairy dust or unicorn farts with Laura.
She has a matter-of-fact approach to life and she knows her dogs are workers, partners that help her get through a day of pain management and “normal” living.
Oh, but she loves them.
She looks fondly at Lobo and calls him her “old man.” He’s 11 and retired. He seems to forget why he came into a room and he doesn’t tolerate loud noises.
He still stands by and gives her strength and balance.
Vinny slipped on ice and hurt his leg. He needed surgery this past spring and can’t help rescue teams anymore. He’s turned to drug detection work.
Laura relies on Little, while training Jazzy to be the next head service dog in charge.
But she would give anything to retire them all, and be able to handle life on her own.
“We love our service dogs,” she says. “They are amazing, selfless creatures that work for us because they want to and they give us our lives back.”
All around the circle
Laura can talk for hours about service dogs. And you can see that we talked long enough that I started to lose the light, on a day I was hoping to get some good sunset images.
I fought with the natural light for a bit and then whipped out some off-camera flash. The dogs were bored of me by that time, though. Especially Jazzy.
They do, however, make the perfect story for International Assistance Dog Week, which started this past Monday. Laura is an incredible spokesperson for the subject matter, and an amazing advocate for service dogs.
Service is the hot topic this week for the worldwide pet photographers blog circle. I’m excited to see how my friends in the circle handled the topic. Let’s start with Nicole Hrustyk of Pawtraits by Nicole, serving Las Vegas, Nevada and surrounding areas.
Click the link at the bottom of Nicole’s post to get to the next post and so on. When you get back here to Laura and her pack, you know you’re home.
Right where you belong.