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Carbón: assistance dog turned supermodel

Service dogs, amirite?

There they are, the head girls and boys of the dog world, proudly strutting their stuff in their smart little uniforms, never putting a paw out of line and, with the precisely measured raise of a perfectly disciplined eyebrow, sending the rest of us scuttling back to the naughty step to watch in awe how it should be done.

We mere mortals might look at them guiding their owners across a busy road, or alerting them that their blood sugar is in need of attention, then look at our own hooligans rolling in poo and nicking the sandwiches from an unsuspecting family picnic, sighing that little sigh of “Where did I go wrong?”.

Enter Carbón, stage left.

Black Labrador wearing his service dog uniform in Tarragona, Spain.
Every Head Boy needs a smart uniform.

Carbón - pronounced carb-ON since he is a Spanish gentleman dog - is a mobility assistance dog to Emily, a digital nomad from California who now splits her time between Germany, Spain and the UK. Plus the odd trip to Italy, the US, Portugal, and wherever else the wanderlust takes her. I need a lie down just thinking about it.

Emily was travelling on a passenger train in London, 1999, when it was involved in a head-on collision with an oncoming train, killing thirty-one people and injuring hundreds more. Emily’s injuries included 60% third-degree burns, a broken back and hip, and head trauma, all of which left her with long-term difficulties with her balance. A service dog can help mitigate that by acting as a counterbalance, so contrary to what you might initially imagine, she pulls up on his harness to balance herself, rather than pushing down.

We spent the day together, visiting some of the sights around the Ebro valley in Tarragona, so I could get to know Carbón and see him both at work and - because this was his holiday too - at play.

Carbón is Emily’s second assistance dog, the first being her beloved Rottweiler, Brogan. Having a Rottie as a service dog had its own challenges, especially for someone as well-travelled as Emily, with them often butting up against breed stereotypes and legislation. With Carbón, that's not an issue. He's a Labrador, of course he's a service dog!

Off on one of my wild tangents: Back in the day when my own Labrador twins were puppies, I was teaching Shadow to sit nicely at the side of the road, waiting to cross. "What are you training him for?", someone asked. "To cross the road.", I replied. "But what for?", the gentleman persisted. Somehow, I had found myself in the middle of a joke. "Um.... to get to the other side?". It turned out he was convinced Shadow must have been some sort of guide dog in training. Because isn't every Labrador? (Narrator: No. No they're not.)

Back to the star of the show....

Black Labrador service dog posing for a photograph at Miravet castle, Tarragona.
Cracking a smile for the camera

As we wandered around the castle at Miravet, high above the flowing waters of the mighty Ebro river, Emily and I chatted about how she and Carbón came to be in each other's lives. She was left devastated after the death of Brogan, her beautiful Rottweiler, and spent two long years searching for another dog to don the harness. She looked in shelters, consulted breeders, and went back to shelters again before giving up in despair, feeling that she simply wasn't emotionally ready take the step of committing to her next assistance dog. I can truly empathise. This isn't like replacing a car: a service dog is family, a best friend, a protector, a confidante. Hearts are intertwined with each step and breath taken together.

Feeling the draw to be around dogs even if she wasn't ready for her own, she volunteered at the shelter where she was at the time in Cádiz, and met Carbón her very first day. He was very unwell at the time and that, along with the cultural prejudice against black dogs, meant his chances of being adopted in Spain were very poor, so Emily and some friends arranged for Carbón and his kennel-mate Paul (a bodeguero) to be transported to the UK for eventual adoption.

Emily says: "Paul was adopted immediately but Carbón continued on with me to Germany for the summer to get him in better health. Then we undertook a mad trip down to Italy, through France, Ireland and eventually to the UK again. All the while I was relying on him more and more to help me on stairs and slopes – he pretty much mastered the mobility dog thing helping me over all the bridges in Venice! Everyone along the way told me that he was MY dog. I was a little slow to the party but eventually admitted he’d pretty much been mine all along."

A photograph of a black Labrador service dog at Corbera d'Ebre, Tarragona, Spain.
Carbón says: "You took your time working that out, lady!"

Carbón's training took place under the tutelage of the excellent Donna Hill, a world-renowned service dog trainer based in Canada. Due to Carbón's early life in the shelter, he'd had very little contact with humans which meant starting out as if he were a puppy. Emily's lifestyle means that he has to be able to work in all sorts of different environments, and spending a lot of time in Germany, which is wonderfully dog-friendly, meant that they were able to train in all sorts of places he wouldn't have been allowed had they been in another country. Eventually their trainer approved Carbón's readiness for "service dog only" locations. Since then he has been able to enter hospitals with Emily and become a frequent flier, curled up under the seat as they jet back and forth across the Atlantic.

Of course, we all already know that service dogs are always Good Boys and Girls, never putting a foot out of line. But I asked Emily to tell me about any time that really stood out to her with this particular Head Boy. She told me this story, from well before he had earned his prefect pin:

"Early on with Carbón, I had a very bad fall down the stairs at home. This was before any of his training, but as I lay there flat on my back and trying to breathe through the pain, he just came over, lay down next to me, and put his chin on my chest. I was so grateful to him because I felt so alone and scared at that moment. I really thought I may have broken my back again. But there he sat with me until I calmed down and realised that while I hurt all over, I was more panicked than seriously injured. After about an hour, he got up, kind of looked down at me as if to say, “You’ll do – now get up and let's go to bed” and that gave me the courage to do just that. I already loved him before then, but that’s when I knew he had the right stuff to be an assistance dog."

If your eyes aren't at least slightly damp right now, then you are broken inside.

Service dog, black Labrador Carbón on a photography shoot in Catalonia, Spain
Always watching out for you

So, back to that Head Boy title I have bestowed upon this most guapo of all the perros. Of course, I jest a little. Service dogs are working dogs, that's true, but they're not robots, and they're not working all the time. First and foremost, they are dogs, with their distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies. Take his jacket off and Carbón is as fun-loving as the next Labrador and BOY, does he like his treats!

I asked Emily what is his favourite thing to do when he's off duty and her response was, "Eat. Duh.". Well, that's me told! And, it's true, with three Labs of my own, I should have seen that one coming!

Carbón was lightning-fast at working out I was the lady with the tasty treats and he was super cheeky trying to snaffle them. Emily looked on in horror as he broke his pose to snaffle some chuches, just like pretty much any other dog would. However good this Good Boy might be when he's doing his day job, having a strange lady rolling around on the floor making peculiar noises and handing out treats for simply being guapo - a permanent state that he can't do anything about - is enough to pique any doggo's interest! By the end of the day, he was backing up onto me to perch in my lap for scritches and snacks. Definitely not Head Boy behaviour, but absolutely perfect Happy Boy behaviour!

Black Labrador drooling during a photo shoot in Terres d'Ebre, Cataluña
You have treats? I like treats!!

And remember that thing I said about stealing sandwiches on the beach? Uh-hmmm. That was also Señor Carbón, off duty and living his best life. He has also helped himself to a cup of tea or two in his time. Yes, in Cornwall, England, people drink tea on the beach. Because, England. This certain señor prefers his milky, if it's not too much bother.

"Luckily the Cornish are by and large massive dog people and quite tolerant of my Señor in his wilder moments. And of course no one believes that he is an assistance dog while he’s enjoying his down time, running all over and greeting all his doggie friends. But when he’s in work mode he means business. You wouldn’t believe the working dog is the same tea-drinking marauder that you see on the beach!"

Black Labrador service dog guides his owner through the castle at Miravet, Tarragona, Spain
Happy at work in Miravet castle

So that's where we'll leave the multi-faceted Señor and our lovely Emily for today. I have many, many more photos to share from this full day session, including Carbón's first time jumping off a dock into the Ebro river! But those will have to wait for another day.

I hope you've enjoyed getting to know these two adventurers as much as I have. Since our session last week, they have jetted off to California, the Señor doing his normal sterling job of keeping his human on her feet and out of mischief. Fingers crossed he finds a random English ex-pat while they're there, sipping their milky tea on the beach and neglecting it just long enough for a stealth attack by a black Labrador.

If you're interested in a photography session with your own best furry friend, drop me a line and we'll make it happen! I can't wait to meet you both and to capture those sweetest of memories for always.

Back in the madhouse

It's starting to heat up again here at our Spanish hideaway, and a new heatwave with temperatures of up to 39C is expected over the coming week. The dogs will be keeping cool with lots of frozen Kongs and lickimats, and lazing around in front of the fans.

To help all her fans worldwide to prepare, sadly it seems as if Ginny won't be with us for much longer. The physical strain of living with three legs is taking its toll more each day, and we know we are approaching the end. For now, though, despite her failing body, she remains in good spirits and playful, so we're hanging on to that during the time she has left. She is getting lots of extra cuddles, which have always been her top priority since the day she came to live with us at the end of 2017. After too many years without attention in the shelter, she's certainly made up for it over these wonderful years!

All around the blogosphere!

This week on the pet photographers' blog circle, we're talking about dogs with jobs! You'll get to see a lot of wonderful photographs from talented pet photographers, and pick up some tips along the way as to how you might improve your own photos of your fabulous furry!

I'm delighted to send you off on your travels with the talented Cahlean Klenke. Cahlean of About A Dog Photography talks about the working dog.

When you get to the bottom of her post, click the link to continue on the circle until you find yourself back here, at which point you know you're back here, right where you belong!

Until next time, happy adventuring and wishing you the purest of joys that is the love of a dog.


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