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New masters: Dogs take up painting

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Shore Service Dog Kayne paints one of his masterpieces. (Courtesy of Shore Service Dogs)

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Shore Service Dog Major paints one of his masterpieces. (Courtesy of Shore Service Dogs)

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Shore Service Dog Sammy paints one of his masterpieces. (Courtesy of Shore Service Dogs)

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One of Kayne's first masterpieces (Courtesy of Shore Service Dogs)

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One of Major's first masterpieces (Courtesy of Shore Service Dogs)

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One of Sammy's first masterpieces. (Courtesy of Shore Service Dogs)

Sammy, Major and Kayne are not your typical artists. They’re not starving; in fact, their paintings have sold for as much as $1,700. They don’t go around bragging about their success. They’re also more than willing to demonstrate their talent in public.

And what a talent it is. As visitors to Art in the Park, a juried show in Montclair, N.J., will be able to see in May, Sammy, Major and Kayne use their mouths to drag their paintbrushes across a canvas in random and abrupt motions. They shake their heads and walk quickly alongside the piece, drawing abstract images with their muscular jaws. All the while, their tails wag in excitement.

Yes, these artists are canines. The “Doggie Da Vincis,” as they are known, have gained worldwide attention since their first exhibition at Salisbury University’s Atrium Art Gallery in Salisbury, Md., last year. While these dogs’ fame is unusual, a growing number of owners are encouraging their pups to make similar creations by walking through paint and across canvases. The resulting “paw paintings,” as they are known, have been sold at fundraisers, hung on refrigerator doors, or stored away as memory keepsakes. The divide between humans and their four-legged friends, it seems, keeps getting narrower.

“People are so different about their pets today than they were many years ago,” said Michelle Schuyler, who lives with her Shih Tzu Winnie in Pensacola, Fla. “They are more humanized. If you can buy it for a human, you can buy it for a dog.”

Knowing that many dog owners are looking for activities to engage their loved ones, Tammy Zaiko has developed Art-Casso painting kits for dogs (there’s also a version for cats). “Years ago I had my Golden Retriever, who has died since, walk through paint,” said Zaiko, who lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “I was looking at the painting and thought that’s what other people should have as memories of their dog.”

Zaiko’s patented product costs around $25. It includes five colors of non-toxic acrylic paint, three pieces of art paper, protective sheets to keep the pets’ paws dry, and a picture frame. Owners apply the paint to the paper, put on the sheet and let their dogs walk across (or run, as the case may often be).

Many owners proudly display their canine’s artwork. Winnie’s owner Schuyler, who uses the Art-Casso product, has framed her pooch’s paintings and even had one printed on a coffee cup for use at work. “It’s just like what people do with their kids’ paintings,” Schuyler said. “Dogs don’t live that long, and that’s what you can remember them by.”

At the annual Paw Print Turkey Thursday hosted by Ark Animal Hospital in Liberty, Mo., staff members walk the guest dogs across a floor covered in non-toxic paint and then across paper. Owners proudly take home the “muttsterpieces.”

“People wait so long to have families that pets in some ways have become their children,” said Melanie Perez, a veterinary assistant at the hospital. “Our clients always look forward to it. We have quite a few that frame the pictures.”

Of course, said Perez, the dogs also enjoy the activity. “The texture of the paint, having something soapy on their paws is stimulating,” Perez said. “Some dogs would just slide right through it.”

Some owners believe the colorful mess helps dogs lose fears and liberate emotions. “They are curious about the paint, the feel on their paws, and the freedom to be as silly as they want,” said Ellyn Boone, a California artist who has painted with shelter dogs for more than ten years. “Of course some of them would like to eat the paint!”

Boone first discovered the art potential within her dogs after they ran across a canvas she was working on. Their colorful footprints sparked Boone’s idea for a creative fundraiser. Her annual Paws for Love art show raises money for animal shelters by auctioning artwork she creates with the dogs.

Service dog trainer Mary Stadelbacher had a similar concept in mind when she began teaching Sammy, Kayne and Major to paint two years ago. Stadelbacher runs the Shore Service Dogs academy in Salisbury, Md., where she trains abused shelter dogs to become intelligent companions for the disabled by doing such chores as opening doors, picking up garden hoses or pulling wheelchairs.

Her academy runs solely on donations. When fundraising stalled, Stadelbacher turned to her dogs for help. “I wanted something cutting edge,” she said. “Nowadays, you have to have something interesting.”

So the trainer taught her three current service dogs--a Foxhound, a Doberman, and a Labrador--to hold the paintbrushes with their teeth and drag them across a canvas. Within a couple months, they had perfected the craft.

“It’s not an instinctual thing,” Stadelbacher said. “They had to learn to put the paintbrush in their mouth and keep it there. They had to learn not to smash it too hard into the canvas so they don’t choke.”

The trainer admits her Doggie Da Vincis still need guidance. “They can’t do just one stroke,” Stadelbacher said. “That would be a very boring painting.” So she verbally encourages them to move around with the brushes. She also changes colors for them, something she hopes they will soon do themselves. “The next step is to teach them to pick their own colors,” Stadelbacher said.

But do dogs really have an artistic disposition? Some critics have been doubtful, and many owners don’t really care. “Every dog is different, and you want to think yours is more special than others,” Schuyler said. “But I don’t think my dog has an artistic ability.”

Boone is also skeptical. “I do think dogs have an aesthetic sense,” she said, “although perhaps on a different plane than humans, and perhaps not directly related to creating art and not applicable in this sense. They assess beauty differently than we do.”

However they assess beauty, Stadelbacher has high expectations for her dogs. “People don’t give animals credit for what they can do,” she said. The trainer hopes to measure her dogs’ artistic sensibility once they pick their own colors. “I am curious to see what happens,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t look like mud.”

E-mail: ct2318@columbia.edu