Senior dogs are "in," as they should be

While browsing through the Boulder Bookstore in my hometown a few weeks ago, I saw a most wonderful and inspirational book by photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky called Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love. I picked it up and about an hour later, I was still standing in the same spot marveling at the deeply moving stories and incredible photos. At times I got teary. I recalled my own days with senior dogs with whom I shared my home and heart, and my last days with Inuk, who made me think deeply about how to give him the very best life possible (please see "What's a Good Life for an Old Dog?). I also recalled my interview called "My Old Dog: Rescued Seniors Show that Old Dogs Rock" with Laura Coffey and Lori Fusaro about their book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts. And, like other dogs, senior dogs are darned smart and know more than we think they do (please see "Dogs Remember More Than You Think").

When I got home I immediately looked up its author, wrote to her about her new book, and most fortunately, was able to interview her. 

The description for Ms. Klonsky's book reads:

Experience the deeper, sweeter love of senior dogs with Unconditional. This captivating collection of photographs and anecdotes is a one-of-a-kind celebration of humans’ special bond with, and love for, their senior dogs. Since 2012, photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky has traveled the United States with one mission: to capture images and stories that focus on the powerful relationship between dogs in the twilight of their lives and the people they share their life with. A book for any dog lover who appreciates the connection, unconditional love, and bond that can only be provided by a canine companion. 

Our interview went as follows:

Jane Sobel Klonsky
Source: Jane Sobel Klonsky

What was the inspiration for Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love?

Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love is a collection of photos and stories focusing on the relationships between people and their older dogs. It is based on my series Project Unconditional. The idea for Project Unconditional came by chance more than four years ago when I was in my insurance broker’s office and noticed how touching and powerful her relationship was with Clementine, her old Bulldog. Before then, dogs had not really featured in my photography, even though I have always had a dog and they are one of the great passions in my life. My more-than-30-year career as a professional photographer had taken me around the world doing commercial sports, travel and lifestyle photography, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how much I wanted to create a collection of images centering on dogs. Beginning with Clementine, I began doing shoots not just with older dogs but also with the dogs together with their humans. The love and intimacy between them was essential to what I wanted to document.

Jane Sobel Klonsky
Source: Jane Sobel Klonsky

How did you do it?

I started out with people I knew who had older dogs and were close by in Vermont, and also reached out to friends and family with connections in the dog world, as vets or dog trainers. At first I had no end goal in sight, I just took pleasure in the shoots, in meeting and talking with people, and in slowly starting to create a body of work about the bonds we share with our dogs. Once I decided to do a series (with an eye to a book), I began taking trips across the country to do shoots; to date, participants in Project Unconditional span 17 states. It was important to me to include a variety of people, dogs and types of relationships as well. I contacted service dog organizations like Guiding Eyes for the Blind, search dog organizations, and rescues groups like Muttville Senior Dog Rescue in San Francisco. The Grey Muzzle Organization, which provides funding for senior dog rescue programs nationwide, was great about spreading the word on what I was doing and connecting me with adopters and permanent fosters of older dogs. The book features only a fraction of my shoots and the stories I collected, but it is representative of the diversity of the project.

What are your major messages?

Unconditional is intended as a testament to what is special about older dogs, what they have to teach us, and how loving and caring for a dog at the end of its life can bring out the best in us. It is also a celebration of dogs more generally—especially their capacity for unconditional love and the unique role they play in human life. My hope is that people will read the book and want to document the love they share with their own dogs. I’m always gratified when photos and stories from the project inspire people to talk about what their dogs mean to them and even to have photos taken together with their dogs. In addition, nearly a third of the dogs in my book are senior rescues and it has become important to me to show people that they shouldn’t be afraid of bringing an older dog into their lives and homes. Dogs who are homeless or were abandoned late in life have so much joy to bring and love to share. 

Who is the book’s intended audience and how has it been received?

The book is for anyone who loves dogs and who appreciates the beauty of dogs. Undoubtedly, though, it will resonate most strongly with those who have older dogs themselves or who have recently lost a dog. I have found that people see themselves, their dogs, and their emotions in the photographs. Readers I’ve met have been brought to tears by how a photo captures the way they feel about their own dog or reminds them of a beloved dog that has passed. I think it gives them the impetus to experience and share the depth and intensity of their connection. It validates how significant our relationships are with dogs and also that their dogs’ stories are worth telling. When I talk to participants in the project, they mention how meaningful it is to have the photos, how challenging they found it to write about their dogs, but how grateful they are that they did. 

Why do you think 'senior dogs' are so attractive to many people?

Young dogs are a joy, but we tend to be focused on keeping up with them, training them, providing them with enough exercise, etc. As dogs get older, it’s more about the time we spend together. Older dogs want to be with us more and be right by our side. When we pay attention to senior dogs and go at their pace, we are able to slow down and appreciate the little things—like enjoying a walk or treasuring the company of those we love. I’ve heard over and over that spending time with older dogs helps people live in the moment and better come to terms with aging. I think older dogs inspire us not to feel sorry for ourselves and not to waste time fearing death. In this way, they teach us to value every day and live each day to the best that we can live it.

What are you working on now?

I am still doing shoots for Project Unconditional, while also thinking about how to develop it further, perhaps through concentrating the series more closely on one of the various human-animal connections that have been reflected in the project. For instance, there are nuances to the relationships both between senior rescues and their adopters and working dogs and their handlers that are different from relationships with companion dogs that have been raised from puppyhood. Before my career in photography, I studied psychology and I think my work has been informed by thinking about how people feel and think and relate. Likely, my project will continue to be about both animals and humans.

How has doing this project affected your own relationship with dogs? 

Through Project Unconditional, I have learned so much about the way aging changes dogs physically and emotionally, and I have had the privilege of seeing what dogs are capable of in terms of loyalty, resilience, trust and love. It has certainly enhanced my relationship with my own dogs. I have two dogs now, Charlie and Sam. Charlie, a Goldendoodle, was five when I started this journey and now, having spent time with so many dogs in the twilight of their lives, I’ve become more attuned to what’s changing as he gets older. He’s always been an independent, confident dog and I see him craving my attention and love more. I feel our bond is stronger for it. I also see him starting to slow down a little bit—neither one of us can hike up the steep mountain trails the way we used to. Now we have to stop and take breaks and we do it together. Just in the last couple months, my 6 ½-year-old Golden Retriever, Sam, is starting to get white around his eyebrows and I know that he will be entering his senior years very soon. These things make me wistful, but also more appreciative.

Unconditional provides countless life lessons for people of all ages and cultures 

Thank you, Jane. I so appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. And, good luck with all of your important and inspirational projects. Unconditional truly is an outstanding book (as of this writing, 100 percent of the reviews on Amazon are five star reviews). It provides countless life lessons for people of all ages and cultures. 

Senior dogs can bring us so much love when we share our homes and hearts with them. I hope Unconditional receives a broad and global audience. It really is that good. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

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