Jakk is one of those special dogs that Alex Cearns photographs. Picture: Alex Cearns
Jakk is one of those special dogs that Alex Cearns photographs. Picture: Alex Cearns

'Dogs don't see themselves as disabled'

THERE'S a photograph of Alex Cearns as a baby, laying on a blanket next to her Old English sheepdog named Ben.

As an only child growing up on a large rural property in outback South Australia, Ben was one of Ms Cearns' first real friends. She also found companionship in a guinea pig, a horse, some rabbits and bottle-fed lambs.

Looking back on those formative years, it's no wonder her life is all about special animals now. And "special" isn't a throwaway word.

The photographer, who now lives in Perth, makes a living capturing a side of dogs with physical impediments and deformities that the casual observer might otherwise overlook. And the results are stunning.

Aryah was crushed in the womb and born with glaucoma, cranial deformity and learning difficulties. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Aryah was crushed in the womb and born with glaucoma, cranial deformity and learning difficulties. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns

Like the photo of Pip, a Bali street dog with mange. Or Vegemite, a Japanese Chin cross who lost an eye when another dog attacked him. Or Jakk, a boxer mix born with malformed legs but a face you can't forget.

They're what Ms Cearns calls "perfect imperfections", an appropriate name for the book in which they all feature. Vegemite snagged the cover, and Ms Cearns admits he's her favourite.

"I love them all but I think he is the perfect picture," she told news.com.au.

"He was a very sweet little dog and he lost an eye in an attack from another dog. He sums up everything in the book. They're happy, loved, pampered."

Ms Cearns said she first photographed a dog with a disability five years ago.

"He walked in just the same as every other dog. He was glad to be alive and I noticed his tenacity." She said they all have that in common.

"The dogs don't see themselves as disabled. I thought, 'Wow, they really live in the moment'."

Vegemite lost an eye after being attacked by another dog. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Vegemite lost an eye after being attacked by another dog. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns

Five years on, her studio is booked out months in advance. There, she sits for hours at a time sometimes, coaxing the often abused animals into a perfect pose. Patience helps, but understanding the animals is most important.

"Some rescues have been through really traumatic things," Ms Cearns says. "Some are from abusive homes and so body language and knowing how to be around dogs is really helpful.

"I normally make sure I'm not making eye contact, working with them quietly and carefully. I just go with whatever they're comfortable with. I sit about two feet in front of them. I keep them engaged using toys and treats."

Her work is also her passion and affords her a platform to push more rescue dogs into loving homes.

French bulldog Raul ruptured a lower disc in his spine causing paralysis. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
French bulldog Raul ruptured a lower disc in his spine causing paralysis. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns

"I figured out early that my two aims were to show people how beautiful animals are and then also help them," Ms Cearns said.

"When I was growing up, dogs in rescue centres had behavioural issues. That's changed now. There are rescue animals from almost every breed now."

Her home is full of them. She has a "fat cat" from the RSPCA which she adopted during a break at one of her pet photography classes. She also has two greyhounds, one from Western Australia and another from Tassie.

She hopes others take the time to look harder at the animals in rescue shelters and to recognise that their imperfections are what makes them so special.

Her book is available in book stores or online via Booktopia. For more information, visit Houndstooth Studio.

Lady Bug lost both eyes to glaucoma. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Lady Bug lost both eyes to glaucoma. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Bali street dog Pip had the skin condition mange when she was rescued. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Bali street dog Pip had the skin condition mange when she was rescued. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Oompah, a Shar-Pei mix, with mange. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns
Oompah, a Shar-Pei mix, with mange. Picture courtesy of Alex Cearns

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