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Dagger, the canine painter, creates his own kind of art

Dagger II, a black Lab-golden retriever mix, was once on track to become a service dog for a disabled person, but after being let go from the Medford-based Canine Companions for Independence training program because of insecurities, he found a home with a professional artist. Now Dagger II takes after his owner, Yvonne Dagger of Massapequa, who taught him how to paint. March 16, 2016. (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

Red beret slightly atilt, Dagger II — aka DogVinci — sits before his blank canvas.

“Brush,” says his owner, Yvonne Dagger. He takes the brush, made with duct tape and a paper towel tube, in his mouth.

“Paint,” Yvonne Dagger says, and Dagger, a 3-year-old black Lab-golden retriever mix, is off and running — running the brush across the canvas, making a red dab, then another, then pausing for more paint.

“He’s just remarkable,” says Yvonne Dagger, 65, a fine artist herself, who specializes in pet portraiture. “He has a definite stroke — he has his own style.”

Dagger had been on a path to becoming a trained service dog for the disabled, but after a career turn is channeling the follow-command skills he learned to become a professional artist. And, yes, people are paying $50 to $100 per canvas, with the proceeds going to animal-related organizations.

He’s “helping in his own little four-legged way,” says his mom, who with her husband, Denis, had served as his “puppy raisers,” caring for him and providing socialization before advance training kicked in with Medford-based Canine Companions for Independence. A little insecurity around going up and down stairs eliminated Dagger from the assistance-dog route, so the Massapequa couple adopted him.

The “four legged, furry canine artist,” as he’s described in his Twitter profile, made his in-real-time painting debut in November — on stage in front of an audience — at a fundraising event for Forgotten Friends of Long Island, an animal rescue organization. Since then, the more than $700 in proceeds from his work has gone to that group as well as Canine Companions, his mom says.

Just last week, with her help, he sent off his first commissioned piece, a 16-by-20-inch canvas for a couple living just outside Seattle. Brittany King, 24, a photographer and a puppy raiser who follows Dagger on Facebook, had an empty wall to fill in her new home and loved that the money benefits the canine training program.

The piece is “perfect,” she said, and came with a certificate of authenticity, should there be any disbelief over its creator.

Dagger’s canvasses — viewed on social media — bring to mind the styles of abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, the U.S.-born artist who spent much of her time in Paris, said Carson Fox, associate professor in Adelphi University’s visual arts department and a fine artist based in Brooklyn.

Though this is the first time she’s heard of a dog who paints, she does know of such work created by elephants, “and certainly some 5-year-olds.”

Besides his artistic endeavors, Dagger is also a certified therapy dog, making regular visits to the South Shore Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Freeport.

In service-dog parlance he is known as a change-of-career dog, one of the some 60 percent of trainees who don’t make the cut, said his mom, who also serves on the Canine Companions board for the Northeast region.

Yes, not graduating from that program was bittersweet, she said. Still, he’s doing service in a different way, and “is where he should be.”

Dagger received his first paint brush last summer, when, instead of quietly watching his mom at her easel, he started nudging her, says Yvonne Dagger. She presented him with an 11-by-14 canvas, the makeshift brush and a tabletop easel, placed at dog height on the floor of her — now their — studio. And, of course, what’s become his signature artist’s beret.

While other dogs may be enticed by the treat rewards, not all are visited by the Muse. One of Dagger’s housemates, Miss Yaya, a Lab-golden cross, who was closely observing his work, was asked if she would like to paint, too, but turned around and hopped back on the couch. “I guess that’s her answer,” their mom said.

Dagger is certainly the master, but mom assists in choosing colors of the nontoxic, acrylic paint she puts on his brush. She’ll also turn the canvas so his strokes reach different sections. As for doing any finessing or touch-ups, she says, “every stroke on the canvas is Dagger’s stroke. I am just his helper and director.”

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