Creative inspiration hit, of all places, in the insurance office. Photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky was sitting in her broker's office in her small town of Manchester, Vermont, when she was transfixed by the bond between a woman and her older dog.
"This big old bulldog was sitting in a bed next to (my broker) and she had her hand on Clementine's side and a lightbulb went off. I thought I want to document these really intense relationships we have with our dogs," Klonsky says. "There was so much poignancy in the relationship she had with an older dog, so much kindness and love. They just lived in the moment and taught us to be better people, and I thought this is what I wanted to do."
Clementine (pictured above) became the first subject for Klonsky's book "Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love," in which she captures the special relationship between senior dogs and their people.
"Clementine has a wonderful, quirky personality that has always made me certain that she communicates with me," her owner, Phil Arbolino, writes. "The tilt of her head, the look in her eyes, her enthusiasm when I come home, and her joy when we play with her toys have been the greatest evidence that her love for us is real and unconditional. And we have unconditional love for her in return."
Klonsky started photographing friends' dogs in Vermont and then progressed to friends of friends' dogs. Eventually she branched out and began taking images of dogs all over the country. Like Walt, who lives in Texas.
When Judy Coates was 80, her son and his family gave her a Great Dane puppy as a combination Mother's Day and birthday present.
"Life with Walt is so amazing because of his size and his gentleness," Coates writes. "His love is so real — so uncomplicated. I am blessed to know this marvelous animal. Walt brings joy to my life, and to a lot of others who snicker when they see this little, gray-haired lady driving around town with his huge head hanging out the rear window."
When Klonsky began her project, she had only planned to include photographs. "I always believed the image would tell the whole story," she says. But her husband suggested she have her human subjects share stories about their canine relationships.
"I started asking people to write about their special bonds and what made their dogs so special to them. Everyone willingly said they would love to do it. I think sometimes it was hard for them to put their feelings into words."
Seline Skoug writes about her Australian kelpie-shepherd mix, Ozzie (pictured above): "Ozzie and I may be free souls, but we always return home to where our hearts are. Never have I had a dog who understands me as well as he does. Never has he wavered in being there for my family and me."
The secret story is in the eyes
Senior dogs communicate a whole lifetime of living just in their eyes, says Klonsky. "Most of these senior dogs just look at you and look into your soul. They have this intense love that they want to give."
A well-lived life means a bit of a carpe diem attitude, which Klonsky says the dogs seem willing to share with their human families. "I see it all in their eyes. They say it doesn’t matter what happened yesterday. Let's live for today. They're wiser and calmer, and they can share that with us."
Sometimes they live life on their own terms.
"Shelby came into our lives like a tempest and took on the demeanor of a precocious kid," writes Robert Gutbier. "Food and rides in the truck are her top priorities, with Debbie and I being third on the list. Always watching her human charges from a polite distance, Shelby gives love and affection as needed — but always on her terms. Such is a Corgi."
Many of the dogs photographed in the book are now gone. For example, Jennifer Lalli writes of her pit bull, Barbarella: "I didn't think I could live without her. We were a team. We faced everything together. Side by side, we were strong, intelligent, and beautiful. Now my once-in-a-lifetime dog is gone."
Although some people might think of the project as melancholy, Klonsky says she doesn't.
"I never thought of it as sad. I think of it as a celebration of relationships. I look at it as very beautiful."