For weeks, Lisa Urness went to the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee on her lunch break to search for the right dog. One day, a 6-month-old Husky and Shepherd mix who had been found on the streets caught her eye.
“I got to my car door and I couldn’t leave,” she says. “I walked back in and I said to the people at the desk, ‘That’s my dog.’”
That was 14 years ago, and the two have been inseparable ever since.
“I don’t know how to explain him, but he’s like my ‘heart dog,’” she says, choking up. “I’ve often used the expression that he’s like my familiar. He and I are just one.”
So when Tanner started having trouble with his legs in 2012, it was “very hard to watch,” she says. Urness didn’t know how much more time he had when she turned to photographer Sarah Beth Ernhart to schedule a Joy Session.
Specializing in pet photography, Ernhart started offering reduced-rate sessions for elderly or terminally ill dogs and cats. It began in 2010 when Ernhart photographed a woman named Joan, who was in hospice care, and her service dog, Joy. The Minnesota photographer was touched by their bond and realized that she could do the same thing for pets who are near the end of their lives.
She called these photo shoots Joy Sessions, a term she trademarked, and she created a website that lists photographers who do similar work across the country and around the world.
“When people contact me [for a Joy Session], it’s usually a tearful call when they’ve just gotten home from the vet” and gotten bad news, Ernhart says.
While some pets, like Tanner, turn out to have the luxury of time, in some more urgent cases, Ernhart has dropped everything and gone to the owner’s home an hour after getting a phone call.
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