For weeks, Lisa Urness went to the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee on her lunch break in search of the right dog for her. 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. 

Dr. Jen Myers and her husband share a moment with a "smiling" Mason during their Joy Session with Sarah Beth Ernhart.

Lisa Urness says this photo of Tanner turning back to look at her while walking toward the woods is one of her favorites.

The majority of Ernhart's sessions are with dogs, but she has photographed several cats, too. She says that cats can be hard to photograph regularly, so capturing one who's ailing can be even more tricky — but she says she's up for the challenge.

One of Ernhart's canine subjects looks off into a still pond.

While her portrait sessions with younger dogs often include only the pet, Ernhart says she likes to get the owner into the photo during her Joy Sessions, to try to illustrate their relationship.

"It’s really nice if we have the luxury of time, when the pet still looks good and feels good," Ernhart says.

"Animals tend to warm up to me pretty quickly," Ernhart says. "They seem to kind of know why I’m there."

Ernhart's images give owners a way to remember their pets and to cope with their loss.

Ernhart’s Inspiration

Ernhart specializes in pet photography; in 2010, she started doing special reduced-rate sessions for elderly or terminally ill dogs and cats. It began when Ernhart photographed a woman named Joan, who was in hospice care, and her service dog, Joy. Ernhart, who is based in Minnesota, 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.

Lisa Urness hugs her dog Tanner during a Joy Session.

Savoring a Pet’s Spirit

Dr. Jen Myers, medical director at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in the Twin Cities, often has to help families through the loss of their pets — but she also knows firsthand how hard it is.

Myers adopted Mason, then a 2-year-old black Lab, when she was in her last year of vet school. “Many changes took place in my life between [ages] 25 and 35, and Mason was always there to sit quietly with his face on my lap while I cried or to run around and celebrate the good times,” Myers says. “No matter what was going on at work or in my life, he always knew the ‘right thing to say’ to make everything OK.” 

In 2012, at age 13, Mason was diagnosed with a type of terminal cancer in his spleen called hemangiosarcoma, and Myers, who’d met Ernhart, knew she wanted the photographer to capture his personality. 

“When looking at those pictures now, you would never guess that Mason was a ‘sick’ dog,” Myers says. “He is depicted with his tail wagging, begging for french fries, and ‘smiling’ without a care in the world. … She captured his quiet, soulful spirit. … The weight of illness was only with us, and his carefree spirit helped remind us to enjoy life each day that we had together. This is what I think of when I look at his pictures even now and is exactly the way I wanted to remember him.”

Mason died in June, just two days after taking part in Myers’ wedding ceremony.

Finding the Joy

Ernhart says her subjects always seem to show their best selves for the sessions, despite their poor health, as if they understand what’s happening.

“It’s always kind of shocking to me when you do the session and the dog looks amazing, just looks like a regular dog, but you hear they pass away that same day or that night or the next day,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s serendipitous, but I always wonder if they were kind of waiting.”

While Ernhart grew up on a farm and dealt with the death of animals regularly, she hasn’t yet faced the death of a beloved pet herself. She has two cats and a 6-year-old Schnauzer named Gracie.

“A lot of people will say to me, ‘How can you do this? I’d be crying the whole time.’ It’s not like that for me — not yet anyway,” she says. “As an adult, I don’t know how to do this yet. I don’t know if that helps me stay disconnected, to kind of focus on the pictures.”

She does get emotional when hearing about the pet’s story, but during the sessions, she’s busy focusing on finding the best angles and lighting, just like at any other photo shoot. And Ernhart’s professionalism pays off for her clients.

“We all know they won’t be around forever, but the images Sarah gets have an amazing way of conveying the personality of these pets and memorializing them in a very special way,” Myers says. 

Tanner’s owner, Lisa Urness, knows her time with her beautiful companion may be limited — and she’s relieved to have captured him “when he was still Tanner in all the best ways that he could be.”

“Tanner’s still here, but I have the book on my shelf,” Urness says through tears. “That’s my little time capsule of him.”