Service dogs: A journey of love, independence and ‘normal’ living

service dog advocate with her dogs

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.

black and german shepherd service dogs

Vinny and Lobo

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.”

older German shepherd in Spokane sunsets

Lobo the elder

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.

black German shepherd in Spokane sunset

Vinny, the serious one

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.

chocolate labrador retriever service dog in Spokane

Little One, the gentle 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.

german shepherd puppy training to be a service dog in Spokane

Jazzy the puppy

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.

32 thoughts on “Service dogs: A journey of love, independence and ‘normal’ living”

  1. Pingback: Working dogs: Bella comforts humans crossing the bridge | Noses & Toes Pet Photography

  2. I think service dogs are wonderful and I think Laura was extremely lucky to have such powerful dogs in her life. It’s such a shame when people have fake service dogs because it give the trained and true service dogs a bad name.

  3. These are gorgeous photos of extraordinary dogs. Laura sounds like an amazing person. I’m sorry she had that horrific accident, but it is great that she is helping others.

  4. This is a beautiful article. Our pets can have such a profound impact on our lives. I went through some serious mental health struggles and my girl was there for me. She always knew when I needed her to distract me by playing or when she should just come over and curl up for some snuggles, making me feel loved. I don’t know how I would have worked through it all up to this point without her.

  5. I am just humbled by not only the article Angela wrote, she told my story better than I could, but also by all your kind words here as well

    Thank you. When I started NorthWest Service Dog Alliance, I knew it would be a long, thankless, tough road…..but if it helped even one person….in anyway… it was worth it. Welll…that goal sure passed now didnt it!!! Worth every minute , with the people in it, and supporting it, and backing it….we have a winner.

    My friends and family got me thru the first 3 months after i got hit…. now we are “the village” it takes, and it shows. No “I” here. (Except when its pooper scooper time!!!) This is all a “we” organization now…..and its amazing!!! I am not, and will never be, where I was, but im coming to terms with being where I need to be , and am…now. and making it work!

  6. It is stories like this that are both humbling and inspiring. There is huge courage and amazing love and all of this has helped Laura create a life worth living, and paying hope and love forward is an inspiring way.

    Dogs never cease to amaze me.

  7. I think in the world today so many would be lost without their dogs as they do so much for us, whether disabled or healthy we all depend on them for something and they amaze me daily. Laura’s story is an eye opener for those that do not believe we need our dogs

    1. Thank you. They have, one by one, given me back so much independence I would not have had without them. ..
      Vinny and Lobo allowed me to maneuver up and down the steep rocks at the river by Mirabeau Park, one on each side. It was amazing. I could not have done that without their teamwork.

      As time went on, i gained back alot of mobility, and easily did it with one dog. But working them together for a time was so nice, a semblance of “something normal” for a bit

  8. I had a family member who died young in a motorcycle accident, so the first part of Laura’s story was a bit hard for me to read. Her recovery and partnership with her dogs is inspiring though. Laura sounds like a very strong person and, of course, everyone knows that dogs are just amazing creatures is so, so many ways.

    1. Lola The Rescued Cat

      What a great story! Pets are so important in people’s lives for so many reasons. Thanks for bringing Laura’s story to us.

    2. @michelle and the Paw Pack
      I’m sorry for your loss. This was hard for ME to read too. It took me a few tries. No matter how much time passes, that day , that trauma, all of it is still right there. It wont stop following me. I kick it away….shut the door. It sneaks back when you least expect it.

      Jazzy is trained to help with that. So is Little One. I added that to their tasks a couple years ago. Very helpful. Took me many years til I could pass a Subaru wagon without shaking. Now I just glare and quietly cuss at them. (Knowing it wasnt the CAR….but it still helps my brain)

  9. Great article and story! Thrilled to see you pushing through and managing everything through a horrific circumstance. Love ya!

  10. I first met Laura in person when I came to speak at a Spokane City Council meeting on behalf of Idaho Service Dog Advocates and our combined efforts to get a similar program started in Idaho. I admire Laura in her efforts and know that she has come a very long way from where she was. She is an incredible advocate and person! Thank you for all you do in your efforts to be a true advocate and wonderful person!

  11. Heidii Kingsland

    Your story still wrecks me. Mad props for all of the obstacles you’ve overcome, my goddess. Love you!!!!

  12. Grace Hammersley

    I am a friend of Laura’s and have watched her journey for a few years now. She is a force to be reckoned with and a fierce advocate for anyone lucky enough to be her friend. If she takes on a task or a cause, it is sure to be accomplished. So I am not surprised that she has been successful in her endeavor to raise awareness around the service dog issues in our area. Way to go Laura!

  13. Laura was a huge help to me and my granddaughter when we first dipped our toes into the service dog world. She directed us to Cole Upegui at Protection K9 Training Club who changed our world. Laura’s encouragement and support has been a tremendous factor in our journey.

    1. Laura is magnetic. I first saw her and Little at the fair. Having a chockolate lab myself, I wanted to go meet her, but I was working a booth and couldn’t. A short time later she came into my regular day job. Now I had an opportunity to meet her. We talked briefly and she invited me to come to her Facebook group that was recently started. That group later became the 1st part of NorthWest Service Dog Alliance. Something I have been passionate about for almost 4 years now. With Laura’s amazing experience and compassion we continuously work on trying to better other handlers lives through educating the public and business’s. We (NWSDA) have been asked to speak at many events and conferences. If you want to learn more about service dogs and everything that goes with having a service Laura is the best person to seek out. I am very proud to be just a small part of the amazing things NWSDA are doing in our community. Angela, what an incredible piece you wrote. Absolutely love the gorgeous pictures and fantastic writing of this story.

  14. I am so incredibly proud of Laura and her selfless work to help other people.
    And, well, Little One is a fabulous dog. I can think of at least one time where I met Laura for coffee, I was upset about something that I didn’t share, but Little knew. She’d just come over and do one of those great lean ins that she does.

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