Gertrude — Trudy, for short — came into Jane Poeschel's life as a tiny Shih Tzu "poof ball" on Mother's Day in 2014.
The puppy seemed to herald better days for Poeschel, who has grappled with mental, emotional and physical disabilities for decades.
Before bringing Trudy home, Poeschel let her New Brighton apartment complex know about her hope to get a puppy as an assistance animal. And that, as Poeschel says, is "when all hell broke loose."
Dog and owner soon found themselves in a heated battle with the apartment complex, which culminated in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last year.
Now, the pair is savoring the recent end to the dispute in a settlement that calls attention to disability rights issues and the challenges renters like Poeschel encounter in finding affordable and accommodating housing.
Poeschel thought she had found a suitable home in Garden Grove, an apartment that fit her price range and had a website that indicated "dogs and cats are welcome," court documents show. Then, trouble started brewing.
"I continually lived with harassment," said Poeschel, 57. "They were making it an absolute nightmare."
The resulting stress eventually led her to move out of the complex where she had lived since June 2013.
The U.S. Attorney's Office filed a lawsuit in October 2016 alleging that Garden Grove apartments violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to allow Poeschel to keep Trudy as an emotional assistance dog. The suit says she faced repeated bullying from property managers, including attempts to evict her.
Garden Grove, in settling the lawsuit, admitted no liability; calls to the apartment complex, a property associated with Oak Grove Realty Services, were not returned Monday.
Poeschel's struggle is not unusual, advocates and attorneys say. "The facts of the case are really common," said Lisa Hollingsworth of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), who worked with Poeschel.
Hollingsworth estimates that her organization sees 50 to 100 cases a year like Poeschel's, where a request for an assistance animal has been denied or ignored by a landlord.
"People's treating doctors recognize how much a companion animal can provide to people who are relatively shut in because of a disability," Hollingsworth said.
For Poeschel, Trudy makes navigating life with disabilities easier. Poeschel said she has been treated for anxiety and depression since her early 20s.
Trudy goes wherever Poeschel goes — to Walmart, to the mall, to Barnes and Noble, to grab supper at a local eatery. When Poeschel feels trapped in her own thoughts, there's Trudy, licking her face. Nudging her hands. Whimpering for treats.
"She pulls me into my present moment," Poeschel said.
The fight at Garden Grove began soon after Poeschel shared her plan to get Trudy as an assistance animal in 2014. Poeschel submitted her "pet addendum" and letters from doctors who had prescribed her an emotional support dog as therapy for her mental disabilities, according to the lawsuit.
But the apartment manager, the suit says, denied her request, expressing concern over puppy behaviors like chewing and barking.
The complex suggested she get a cat instead, stating there is "little documentation that show puppies of any breed are acceptable as companion animals."
Court documents detail the wrangling that ensued, which included eviction attempts, a complaint Poeschel filed with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and allegations that her personal care assistant was an "unauthorized resident."
Poeschel and Trudy moved out in October 2015. Unable to find another affordable apartment that would take Trudy, they moved into a camper vehicle.
The legal feud continued until September, when both parties struck a settlement. Poeschel said she wanted to share details of the deal to benefit those in similar situations.
Under the agreement, Oak Grove Realty Services must overhaul its policies on accommodating assistance animals, notify residents of the changes, and state in any new ads that they are an "Equal Housing Opportunity Provider." Oak Grove also agreed to pay damages to Poeschel, who declined to disclose the amount.
"Other people would have given up a long time ago," said Laura Jelinek, an attorney at SMRLS who also worked with Poeschel. "But Jane was really brave and really strong."
'She keeps me happy'
Poeschel says her 11-pound dog has helped quell her fears and anxieties.
"The change is unbelievable," said Derek Myers, Poeschel's personal care assistant and companion.
On a recent evening, Myers, Poeschel and Trudy popped into Perkins for a supper of omelets and blueberry pancakes. Poeschel gave Trudy drops of water through a straw and fed her bits of food off her fork. "Are you being a good girl?" she cooed.
At one point, a Perkins employee stopped at the table: "Folks," he said, "I gotta ask: Is the dog a service dog?"
Poeschel and Myers showed him a card with Trudy's photo that says, "Emotional Support Animal."
Other than the apartment dispute, Poeschel said she has faced little pushback over Trudy. With the lawsuit resolved, Poeschel said she is heading south soon for winter and hopes to travel, unsure if she'll return to Minnesota.
Trudy, she said, helps her not fret about the future: "She keeps me happy."
Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751