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Caspin, an 8-year-old Canine Companions for Independence service dog, learned more than 50 commands in American Sign Language to help his disabled owner, Wallis Brozman of Santa Rosa, communicate.

Cookie, a blind, 14-year-old terrier mix was fostered by Deirdre Kidder of Sausalito, who had already rescued a stray mutt from Mexico named Muchacho. Cookie taught both the damaged dog and her foster family how to love unconditionally.

Patty, a 13-year-old abused pit bull, melted the heart of her rescuer, Animal Control Officer Shirley Zindler of Sebastopol, then became “a pit bull ambassador to everyone.” Although Patty passed on, it was partly due to Patty that Zindler was inspired to found the nonprofit Dogwood Animal Rescue Project.

“She was a throwaway dog who was dumped and abandoned because she was old,” Zindler said. “But Patty was a great, solid wonderful dog ... and she taught that every dog is an individual, just like people, and every dog deserves to be judged on their own merit.”

These are just three of the touching dog stories chronicled by Vermont photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky in her latest book, “Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love” (National Geographic, 2016). The hardback book features photographs of 65 dogs from across the country, accompanied by essays from owners who have either raised the older dogs from puppyhood, fostered them temporarily or rescued them permanently.

While the photographs are touching, the stories go even deeper, plumbing the depths of what makes the relationship between humans and their older canine companions a unique and precious bond.

“I think it’s cathartic for someone to share their stories,” Klonsky said in a phone interview during a recent Bay Area book tour. “But for some of them, it was so intimate and so deep that it was difficult to put that into words.”

Project Unconditional

Klonsky started Project Unconditional in 2012, when she noticed the special connection between her insurance broker, Angela, and her elderly bulldog, Clementine, who had just been diagnosed with bone cancer.

“I always knew I wanted to do something that would combine my photography with my passion for dogs, but I couldn’t figure out what it was,” she said.

“Then a light bulb went off. It was all about the relationships we shared, and that was what I wanted to document.”

It wasn’t until the following day, after photographing Angela and Clementine together, that she decided to concentrate on dogs that were a little bit older.

“There was something so poignant about them together ... everything was so gentle and loving,” she said.

“They treasured every moment, and it felt right.”

The photographer started the project through word of mouth, photographing friends and friends of friends. But, most of those friends had owned dogs since they were puppies.

Rescue groups

Looking to diversify her dog stories, she started to make connections with rescue groups and national organizations such as The Grey Muzzle Organization, which funds senior dog rescue groups such as Muttville Senior Dog Rescue of San Francisco.

“I ended up using a lot of frequent flier miles and sleeping on a lot of people’s couches,” she said.

“I went to the Green Dog Rescue in Windsor ... I’ve never seen anything like that place in my life. It’s gigantic, and all the dogs are free.”

Here in Sonoma County, she also connected with Lily’s Legacy Senior Dog Sanctuary in Petaluma, a volunteer nonprofit organization that provides a safe and loving home for senior large breed dogs that have been displaced from their homes or abandoned.

One of the dogs in the book is 10-year-old Missy, an Australian Kelpie-Border Collie mix whose owner had died. Missy was adopted by a volunteer from Lily’s Legacy, Linda Mannella.

“I decided to foster Missy and give her a course in ‘doggie charm school,’ ” Mannella wrote in the book. “Well, she charmed her way directly into our hearts and never left.”

Among the other dogs that Klonsky photographed for the project are dogs who work with autistic kids, dogs trained for avalanche rescue, bomb-sniffing dogs and dogs who guide the sightless.

The photographer’s mission was to raise awareness for senior dogs while helping people appreciate the special gifts that come from giving and receiving love from an older dog.

“These relationships are so dear and so special,” she said. “Hopefully our relationships with our dogs help us slow down a little.”

Verrazano Bridge

Klonsky launched her career in 1976 as the first photographer to scale the Verrazano Bridge to shoot the start of the New York City Marathon. She became the marathon’s official photographer for the next 10 years and has worked for 30 years in the worlds of commercial and sports photography.

With her husband, Arthur, and their two Great Danes, Klonsky took a 57,000-mile cross-country tour in 1987 of rural America, which resulted in the book, “Heartlands: An American Odyssey” (Simon & Schuster, 1989).

“The dogs were our ambassadors,” she said. “The last month of our trip I got pregnant. I was 42, and I raised my daughter, Kasey, in a little town in Vermont.”

Kasey Klonsky, a filmmaker who now lives in Portland, has created a documentary video series, “Unconditional Stories,” as a complementary part of her mother’s Project Unconditional.

“Senior dogs can play such an important part in our lives, as we can in their lives,” Klonsky said.

“I hope that people who have dogs — or don’t have dogs — might pet a dog or sit down and see what’s so important about the relationships ... dogs just bring us back to what’s really important.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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