A few years ago, photographer Wendy Pearce Nelson was at a Colorado Springs Fire Department station to shoot images for a magazine feature on city officials and their dogs.

While waiting for her subject, then-Fire Chief Rich Brown, Nelson mentioned the reason for her visit to the other firefighters at the station. Instantly, multiple cellphones were produced.

"It was so precious to see these big, burly guys all pull out their phones to show off pictures of their 'kids,' everything from labs to chihuahuas to mutts," said Nelson, owner and president of Blue Fox photography of Colorado Springs, and an animal lover and activist. "They were just crazy about their dogs."

It's true: Colorado hearts dogs, and Colorado Springs hearts hearts them.

Whether it's the big open spaces, the weather or the attitude - dogs and Coloradans just seem to click.

"I definitely think the Colorado Springs area, and all of Colorado, is dog-centric," Nelson said. "I think that Coloradans tend to be practical and more outdoors and maybe a little more humble in a way than other communities. I think the dog personality appeals to that kind of demographic."

In Colorado, dog love goes all the way to the top. Rescue pooch Sky at his side, Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed into law two pro-dog bills at a media event at a Denver animal shelter. The "Dog Protection Act," the first of its kind in the nation, requires that officers undergo annual training on canine behavior in an attempt to cut down on the increasing number of non-threatening family pets shot by police. The other bill made shelter dogs and cats the official state pet.

To Susan Rademacher, who moved to Manitou Springs from the East Coast 20 years ago, all this means we've got our priorities straight.

"I noticed that people here put a lot more importance on things that matter, like their pets, and less on material possessions and appearances," Rademacher said. "The majority of the people here seem to be more casual, laid-back and down-to-earth. In my opinion, casual, laid-back, down-to-earth people are more likely to have an extra compassion gene for animals."

And, there's the weather.

"With a lot of sun and little rain, Colorado has the perfect climate for walking, biking, hiking, camping. Those activities are often more fun with dogs," Rademacher said.

Colorado Springs repeatedly has been named one of the nation's more pet-friendly cities, most recently by the real estate site estately.com, which ranked the area 11th of 17 based on the "abundance of affordable vets, plenty of dog amenities, and households that spend a whopping $35.75 per month on their pets."

El Paso County is home to multiple dog parks with fenced and off-leash areas, including Bear Creek Dog Park, which regularly shows up on national best-of lists.

In his review of the park on Yelp, Joe Twinem of Colorado Springs, wrote: "After living in multiple states and cities over the last years I have been to many hum-drum dog parks. This one though is anything but that."

In downtown Manitou, shop owners set out water bowls for perambulating pooches and signs listing the city ordinance on dog waste removal are written in both English and dog. Poo pick-up bag dispensers are located conveniently throughout the city.

The area is home to a wealth of rescue groups and animal welfare organizations with national profiles.

"National Mill Dog Rescue actually goes to the 'breeder belt' in the Midwest and brings dogs back into Colorado. Big Dogs Huge Paws is also stationed here in Colorado but spans to Nebraska, Missouri and Texas," said Cody Rilo, who founded Dizzle Dogs, a dog hiking business. "Being home base for organizations like this shows us that Coloradans love dogs."

We have our fair share of canine celebrities. There's Swagger, the Old English sheepdog who finished runner-up for best in show at the 2013 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show; Harley, the spokesdog for Mill Dog Rescue; and Neki'o, the "bionic dog" found frozen into a basement puddle inside a foreclosed home in Nebraska. Neki'o later was rescued by a Colorado Springs veterinary technician who had him fitted with a set of high-tech prosthetic legs to replace the paws lost to frostbite.

There are practical reasons dogs seem to be a little happier here. Fleas don't thrive in the dry climate. Urban planning, or lack of it, has worked in their favor, too.

"Since Colorado Springs has such a ridiculous sprawl, I think more homes have yards, which makes having dogs much easier," Rademacher said. "Many people opt for more natural yards here, since insisting on lush grass lawns in this arid climate is not a very logical decision to make. Not being in love with your lawn also makes it easier to love dogs."

Our abundance of pooch love pays us back in ways that can be subtle.

"I absolutely think that dogs make us better people," Nelson said. "They're all about forgiveness and unconditional love, which is so hard for humans to do."

A dog is the ultimate, slobbering, social butterfly, dragging us - their wingmen - into unexpected friendships and in unexpected directions (squirrel!).

"Dogs always look for a friend. They don't look for an enemy or a bad experience, they look for the good and lead us to it," said Nelson, who ghost-writes a blogspot blog, "Tales from the Pup Tent," on behalf of her West Highland white terrier Mick Wagger.

"I believe dogs were put on this earth to teach us how to trust, and how to be happy," Nelson said.

Or, as Mick plans to put it in his next blog post: "Wag more, bark less."


Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364