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Doggie da Vincis

June 18th, 2007, 12:46 PM
SALISBURY, Md. (AP) - Strapped for cash and looking for a way to keep open her fledgling dog-training academy, Mary Stadelbacher hit upon a bizarre fundraising scheme.

If she could teach dogs to become service animals for the disabled - holding open doors and even removing socks for people in wheelchairs - why couldn't she teach them to hold a paintbrush and swab a piece of art?

Sammy, a foxhound mix, uses a paintbrush attached to a rubber bone, to paint a canvas at a gallery at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md. (AP Photo/Matthew S. Gunby) Two years later, the owner of Shore Service Dogs has a collection of abstract paintings daubed by her three service dogs in training. The creations are rudimentary, to be sure, but the pictures of bright strokes across white canvases are winning fans because of their tail-wagging creators. "Signed" in the corner with a black paw print, 20 of the works are being shown this month at a gallery at Salisbury University.

The doggie da Vincis also have a line of greeting cards that has sold out as word spreads about the unusual works of art. One of the original works has sold for US$350.

"Go paint, Sammy!" Stadelbacher orders at a recent demonstration at the packed gallery, where about three dozen people strain to see the large mixed-breed dog chomp a red rubber bone with a hole drilled in the middle to hold a paintbrush. Stadelbacher has dipped the brush in blue acrylic paint.

After a little coaxing, Sammy takes the bone/brush and heads for a white canvas taped to an easel in the corner. As directed, Sammy swipes the brush across the canvas and then looks to Stadelbacher for more instructions, tail wagging.

His trainer repeats her "Go paint!" command a few times and then calls Sammy over for a treat while Stadelbacher changes the brush for a new colour. Within about 20 minutes, the canvas is covered in swabs of blue, red, yellow and aqua.

Sammy makes the canvas every time - even though the gallery hasn't taken any chances and has plastic taped to the wall behind the pup-level easel. Sometimes Sammy doesn't head immediately for his easel, walking instead toward a group of kids who squeal when the paintbrush comes near. But except for a dab of purple on a cameraman's lens, all of Sammy's paint ends up where it belongs.

"It seems like a silly thing, but we're all amazed about it. How many dogs could do that?" said Stadelbacher's mother, Elizabeth Stadelbacher, who attended the exhibition.

The audience was wowed.

"There are people who make a lot of money to make paintings that aren't as intriguing as what these dogs have done," said Sandy Waller of Salisbury, who paid $350 for Sammy's work this day.

For patrons who don't see the canine artists work live, a DVD accompanies each painting, showing the dog making the work. Stadelbacher dabs their paws in black paint for the "signature."

Stadelbacher's pups aren't the first painting animals to sell work. Several galleries have shown paintings done by cats, and a Jack Russell terrier from New York City has created paintings shown dozens of times. But Stadelbacher says her dogs may be the first nonprimates to paint with a brush, not their paws.

"They are so incredibly smart that it blows my mind," she said.

Stadelbacher isn't pretending that the paintings are, well, good. But she says the works that look like toddlers' fridge art can raise valuable funds for Shore Service Dogs, where she trains rescue dogs to assist people with disabilities. When people buy prints or note cards, she calls the transactions "donations," not "sales."

The paintings on display in the gallery are accompanied by photos of the painting pooches performing other tasks, such as putting dishes in the sink or standing at attention.

"The painting part came because I was thinking, 'Um, what can we do for fundraising?' I love training dogs. It's just a joy. But the fundraising part sucks," said Stadelbacher, who works as a computer consultant but hopes to one day raise service dogs full time.

Stadelbacher peppers her show with demonstrations on how service dogs are trained. She sits in a manual wheelchair and has Sammy pull her around the room. She demonstrates the dogs' willpower by placing a treat in Sammy's mouth and having the foxhound mix hold the biscuit until told he can chew it up and swallow.

"I just wish my kids were this behaved," joked Donna Turnamian, who brought her 12-year-old daughter to see the show. "I'm kidding. But the dogs are just amazing. . . . It's not a Picasso, but it's a novelty and you know it's going for something good."

The paintings actually aren't so terrible, said Linda Shipp, curator of the Salisbury University galleries.

"There's obviously no planning to them but they have some real nice accidental results to them," Shipp said. "They're unique. People can say, 'I have something no one else has. I have a painting by a dog.' "

After the show, Stadelbacher puts Sammy back into a vest that asks people not to pet him while he's on duty as a service dog in training. Stadelbacher says the painting sessions are rare chances for her dogs to goof around and get treats, something they won't get while working as service dogs.

"They get a lot of praise and admiration, but they're working dogs," she said. "They have to be rock solid."

Sammy doesn't seem to mind when art time is over. As Stadelbacher packs the acrylics and says goodbye to the gallery folks, he wags the whole time.