Alaskan photographer shines a light on service dogs for a good cause

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Service dogs can play an important role in improving the quality of life for many types of people, and an Alaskan photographer is using her skills to raise money for those who need access to trained dogs.

Cris Skinner’s journalistic-style photography project titled “I Am Your Constant in Chaos” focuses on the work that service dogs do for their handlers. His photographic techniques aim to capture service dogs in their daily lives. Skinner is a disabled veteran who relies on her service dog, Cooper, to help her in her daily life. Her personal experience of 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 range from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on each individual’s disability and the training involved, Skinner said.

“It does a lot for people, not only helping them physically to alleviate their disabilities, but it also makes them feel like a friend, a companion, someone watching over them. It is therefore their constant. When everything else is chaotic, they can rely on their service dog,” Skinner said.

Skinner received Cooper eight years ago after she fell ill and had to support herself. Her photography career began by taking pictures of Cooper in a way that documented their journey together. Since then, he has been his muse.

According to Skinner, having a disability can be isolating. Ashlee Schwark, a friend of Skinner’s who also lives with a disability and participates in the project “I am your constant in chaos” understands this better than anyone. Schwark’s PTSD will often turn a daily task into an ordeal.

“Honestly, one of the worst things is the checkpoints and all the beeps and all the commotion and the queue and the people in front of you and behind you, and you try to stay oriented and not disassociate. Dogs can really help create that distance between you and the person behind you,” Schwark said.

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

“Unfortunately, when you have a service dog, you are no longer invisible. You are much more visible and I know this can be difficult for many new Service Managers to understand. You’re no longer invisible, you’re no longer going to walk in and out of a store without people looking at you,” Schark 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 says that ultimately dogs are dogs and although highly trained, if provoked by an uncertified dog, they can become distracted and miss medical alerts from their owners. On top of that, if a service dog gets injured, it could potentially end their career. This can be detrimental to 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 be willing to be part of his photo projects. Those interested in participating or making a donation can contact her through the contact page on her website.

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