- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

SALISBURY, Md. — Trapped 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?

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 bright strokes painted 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 $350.

“Go paint, Sammy,” Miss Stadelbacher ordered at a recent demonstration at the packed gallery, where about three dozen people strained to see the large mixed-breed dog chomp a red rubber bone with a hole drilled in the middle to hold a paintbrush. Miss Stadelbacher had dipped the brush in blue acrylic paint.

After a little coaxing, Sammy took the bone brush and headed for a white canvas taped to an easel in the corner. As directed, Sammy swiped the brush across the canvas and then looked to Miss Stadelbacher for more instructions, tail wagging.

His trainer repeated her “Go paint” command a few times and then called Sammy to get a treat while Miss Stadelbacher changed the brush for a new color. Within about 20 minutes, the canvas was covered in swabs of blue, red, yellow and aqua.

Sammy made the canvas every time — but the gallery didn’t take any chances and had plastic taped to the wall behind the pup-level easel. Sometimes Sammy didn’t head immediately for his easel, walking instead toward a group of children who squealed when the paintbrush came near. Except for a dab of purple on a cameraman’s lens, all of Sammy’s paint ended up where it belonged.

“It seems like a silly thing, but we’re all amazed about it. How many dogs could do that?” says Miss 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,” says Sandy Waller of Salisbury, who paid $350 for Sammy’s work that day.

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

Her 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. Nevertheless, Miss Stadelbacher says her dogs may be the first non-primates to paint with a brush, not their paws.

“They are so incredibly smart that it blows my mind,” she says.

Miss Stadelbacher isn’t pretending that the paintings are, well, good, but she says the works, which 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 notecards, she calls the transactions “donations,” not “sales.”

The paintings on display in the gallery are accompanied by photographs 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,” says Miss Stadelbacher, who adds that she strongly dislikes fundraising. She works as a computer consultant but hopes one day to raise service dogs full time.

Miss Stadelbacher peppered her show with demonstrations on how service dogs are trained. She sat in a manual wheelchair and had Sammy pull her around the room. She demonstrated the dog’s willpower by placing a treat in Sammy’s mouth and having the foxhound mix hold the biscuit until he was told he could 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, says 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,” Miss Shipp says. “They’re unique. People can say, ‘I have something no one else has. I have a painting by a dog.’ ”

After the show, Miss Stadelbacher put Sammy back into a vest that asks people not to pet him while he’s on duty as a service dog in training. She 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 says. “They have to be rock solid.”

Sammy doesn’t seem to mind when art time is over. As Miss Stadelbacher packed the acrylics and said goodbye to the gallery folks, he wagged his tail the whole time.

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