Another sign of a still-stubborn economy: Rescue dogs are having a tough time getting rescued.
Disclaimer: I have a rescue dog who runs my life. But this is about a St. Paul couple who had no idea there was a rescue-dog movement and now are rescue-dog champs, which makes for a better story.
Lynn and Paul Sansale of South St. Paul, married for 41 years and the parents of three grown children, got family dogs the old-fashioned way: The pet store.
Dachshunds for Lynn as a child, a Cairn terrier for Lynn and Paul as newlyweds, then a Westie named Emmy who lived to 18. Emmy was especially attentive to the couple's oldest daughter, Jenny, who has cerebral palsy, crawling into Jenny's lap to delight her as a child.
But rescue dogs?
"To me, rescue was, you go to a shelter, you pick out a dog with the saddest eyes and you might never be able to potty-train it," Lynn said. In other words, no thanks.
Two years ago, Lynn was laid off from St. Paul Children's Hospital, where she worked in administration. She needed to re-create herself. A co-worker, Gwen Riedl, invited Lynn and Paul to a local library where Riedl and her small golden retriever, Lucy, were cuddling up to kids through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) literacy program. Lucy followed along in the book (trained to do so by treats originally placed between the pages) and put her head in the children's laps to encourage them.
Turns out Riedl's wonder dog had been rescued. Paul, a veteran illustrator, couldn't keep his eyes off her. He took a photograph of Lucy, got out his paints and created his first canine portrait. And Lynn found new direction by partnering with Paul to create a calendar celebrating rescue dogs.
Their "Rescue Dog to Therapy Dog: 2012 Calendar" features stunning portraits by Paul and poignant back stories for Lucy and 11 other Twin Cities dogs, including Cedric, a stray pit bull saved one day before he was to be euthanized, and Dobie, a black Lab dropped from a fourth-floor parking ramp. Dobie was found 10 days later, wagging his tail at the sight of his rescuer. The dogs and their owners now volunteer in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and libraries.
"All these people are so special," Lynn said of the owners. "It made us want to meet the next one and the next one."
That wasn't difficult in this economy. Spokeswoman Deb Balzer said the Animal Humane Society of Minnesota aided more than 31,000 animals last year. Many owners reluctantly surrendered their pets due to forced moves. "It's a very emotional time," Balzer said.
"It's a big cost to care for animals," agreed Kellie Dillner, a Hennepin County social worker and Cedric's owner. "When people are experiencing foreclosures and having a hard time feeding themselves and their kids, pets are going to be disposed of."
After adopting Cedric from a pit bull rescue, Dillner tapped into his attentive and calm nature. Cedric-the-therapy-dog makes weekly visits to The Bridge for Runaway Youth and St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis.
Nobody is more surprised by the serendipitous shift in events than Paul. A Twin Cities art director and illustrator for 25 years, he'd never taken on fur until about 18 months ago. He took 300 to 500 photographs of each dog, mostly lying on his back for the best effect. "I was looking for a pose," he said. "Natural, regal, happy, beautiful."
Each painting took him 40 to 60 hours to complete. Lynn writes the dogs' stories, with the help of friend, Jen Hover. Wedding photographer and neighbor Mallory Nelson shot many of the accompanying photos of the owners with their dogs.
The couple pre-sold just enough copies to pay for printing. A list of stores carrying the calendar is available at www.rescuedogart.com.
"The whole point of this calendar is to show people who don't believe these dogs can be trained that, yes, they can," Lynn said. "We want people to look at rescue differently."
The Sansales are already three dogs into their second rescue calendar, to be published in 2013. They're also working on a calendar with the nonprofit Paws and Stripes organization, featuring service dogs partnered with returning veterans experiencing PTSD and traumatic brain injuries (www.pawsandstripes.org).
"Lynn and Paul are phenomenal people," Dillner said, "and Paul's a spectacular artist. This is a neat way to hear about other dogs that are rescued and to show that they can be wonderful, amazing dogs.
"It's almost as if they know they were rescued," Dillner said. "They appreciate life."