Dagger might not have passed service dog school, but he's still found a creative way to serve his community.
On Long Island, New York, Dagger is best known as “DogVinci,” an award-winning abstract artist who never picks up a paintbrush without first donning his red beret.
And he shares more than just his art: The 6-year-old golden retriever Lab mix also spreads messages of creativity and self-belief among audiences of all ages.
“He's got a wonderful personality, he's got a wonderful demeanor,” his owner, Yvonne Dagger, told InsideEdition.com during a recent workshop at Hampton Bays Public Library. “And then to combine what he knows and how he paints, it inspires children and adults to be able to do it, too. ‘If Dagger can do it, I can do it.’”
At the library workshop, Dagger painted – by holding a specially made brush in his mouth – for a group of children, encouraging them to tackle their own canvases with broad, brightly colored strokes. He also rolled over for belly rubs.
“I never saw a dog paint in my life!” one girl said.
It's not the way Dagger was initially supposed to serve his community. In 2012, Yvonne and her husband were volunteering for Canine Companions when the charity asked if they would foster a dog training as an assistance dog.
Dagger – named after his new family by the charity – lived with them for 18 months before he was sent to advanced training to learn day-to-day tasks, such as opening doors and switching on lights, to help people with disabilities.
But four months in, the Dagger family learned their foster puppy wasn’t going to make the cut.
“He had been exhibiting some fear issues while he was being trained,” Yvonne said. “And so they called us one day and told us that Dagger was going to be released from program. … So, they asked us if we wanted to adopt Dagger and we said, ‘Yes.’ And we went out and adopted Dagger that day.”
Yvonne vowed to continue working with Dagger on his skills so he would feel a sense of accomplishment, she said.
“One day I was working in my studio … and Dagger came up to me and nudged me with his snout and jokingly I said, ‘Do you want to paint like Mommy?’ And his tail wagged,” she said.
So she took a tabletop easel and, placing a paintbrush in his mouth and using the command words he already knew, she started to teach him a whole new skill.
Yvonne even bought him a red beret – and now he won’t paint without it. She thinks it’s a trick he learned from his training days, when donning a yellow vest would indicate it was time to work.
“The beret signifies work to Dagger,” Yvonne said. “No matter where he paints, if it's in the studio, if it's in a workshop … he will wear his beret.”
After taking up painting and with some additional help from a trainer, Dagger was able to show off his talents at a fundraising event for a rescue group.
“He started painting all these works of art, and I thought, ‘You know we’ve got to do something with this, we’ve got to make this count,’” she said. “It was wonderful.”
After the event, some commissions trickled in from the area but it was when a local newspaper reported on Dagger that he became internationally known: His story went viral and he received 150 commissions in a week.
Today, he ships all over the world and his paintings, which start at $130, have been turned into silk ties in Milan and women’s scarves in Positano, Italy.
But for Yvonne, the workshops are the most rewarding part.
“It gets the word out about Dagger's message of education and community service, and what Dagger's all about,” she said. “Dagger has painted over 500 works of art now, and donated over $100,000 to charity, to various human and animal charities.”
He also gives children new confidence, Yvonne said. At one workshop, a boy with autism who had never shown interest in art started talking to the dog. Yvonne said she overheard him ask, “Dagger, do you think I could paint like you?”
He then picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. His mother was stunned.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, he’s never done this before!’” Yvonne said. “He just kept talking to Dagger. ‘Dagger, see what I’m doing?’ And the mother started to cry.”
It's a gift Yvonne knows that Dagger will continue to share.
“As disappointed as we were that Dagger didn't make it to be a highly trained assistance dog … I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Every dog has a purpose. Every dog has a place.’ And to me, we found it,” Yvonne said. “And Dagger is not only helping one child, Dagger's helping hundreds of people. It's just a door closed and two windows opened.”