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Alaskan photographer shines light on service dogs for good cause

Published: May. 30, 2022 at 9:14 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Service dogs can play an important role in improving the quality of life for many different types of people and one Alaskan photographer is putting her skills to use to raise money for those who need access to trained dogs.

Cris Skinner’s journalistic-style photography project titled “I am Your Constant in the Chaos” focuses on the work service dogs do for their handlers. Her photo techniques are meant to capture the service dogs in their daily lives. Skinner is a disabled veteran who relies on her service dog, Cooper, to assist in her daily life. Her personal experience with the challenges faced in public and the cost of a service animal is the driving force behind her project. Costs associated with service animals can be anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on the disability of each individual and the training involved, Skinner said.

“It does a lot for folks not only physically helping them mitigate their disabilities but it also gives them a sense of a friend, a companion, that somebody that’s watching out for them. So it’s their constant. When everything else is chaos they can rely on their service dog,” Skinner said.

Skinner received Cooper eight years ago after falling ill and having to tend to her own needs. Her photography career began by taking photos of Cooper in a way to document their journey together. He has served as her muse ever since.

According to Skinner, having a disability can be isolating. Ashlee Schwark, a friend of Skinner’s who also lives with a disability and helps with the “I am Your Constant in the Chaos” project understands this better than most. Schwark’s PTSD will often turn an everyday task into an ordeal.

“Honestly one of the worst things is check stands and all the beeps and all the commotion and standing in line and people in front of you and behind you, and you’re trying to stay oriented and not disassociate. The dogs can really help create that distance between you and the person behind you,” Schwark said.

Both Skinner and Schwark feel that because of these lesser-known struggles, they hope this project also provides educational awareness. For many, it’s hard to talk about and those who have disabilities may want to do a lot to hide what makes them different.

“Unfortunately, when you have a service dog, you’re no longer invisible. You’re very much more visible and I know that can be a hard part for a lot of new service handlers to understand. You’re no longer invisible, you’re no longer going to be to go into a store and come out without people looking at you,” Schwark said.

These days, it’s far too easy for anyone to put a vest on their dog and claim it as a service animal, according to Skinner and Schwark. Schwark states that at the end of the day, dogs are dogs and although highly trained, if provoked by an uncertified dog, they may get distracted and miss medical alerts for their owners. On top of this, if a service dog gets injured that could potentially end its career. This can be detrimental to the service dogs and their handlers as it takes 14 months to train a new dog.

Skinner is looking for veterans with service animals who would agree to be part of her photo projects. Those interested in either participating or donating can reach her through the contact page on her website.

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