On a recent sunny Sunday, Dagger II painted colorful brush strokes on a canvas in front of Merrick’s family-operated Mutts & Butts. Underneath the shade cast by a tarp, Dagger — who sported his signature red beret — picked up his makeshift brush with his mouth, wagged his tail and waited for his owner to say the word.
“Paint,” Yvonne Dagger said. He complied.
Dagger II is a 3-year-old black lab mix and Massapequa’s hottest sensation. Known affectionately around the world as DogVinci, Dagger showcased his artistic talents for a crowd in Merrick. Jodi Turk-Goldberg, creator of MerrickMoms.com and administrator for the Facebook group, said Merrick Moms set up the fund-raising event to kick off Mutts & Butts’ 40th anniversary celebration.
“I saw Dagger on ‘Rachel Ray’ and realized [Yvonne] lived in Massapequa, so I called Long Island Picture Frame & Art Gallery, where they display Dagger’s work, and they put me in contact with Yvonne,” Turk-Goldberg said. “I found it fascinating that the dog learned to paint from his artist mom.”
Dagger was born in California and was originally training to become an advanced assistant dog. “My husband and I puppy-trained him when he was very little,” Yvonne said. “We found out Canine Companions named him in our honor, after our last name, so we felt very honored. We had him for 18 months, and he was later sent to train at Canine Companions for Independence, based in Medford, to become an assistant dog. But the program director at the time later noticed he was stressed and nervous in his kennel, so he was released from the program.”
Already a certified therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International, Dagger’s abilities only continued to thrive after being released from the program. “The director advised us to continue giving him commands,” Yvonne recalled. “She said he really responded well to commands, and he actually enjoyed doing basic training activities like closing doors, opening drawers, picking things off the floor.”
Yvonne, who is a fine artist, was working on a commission in her home studio one day when Dagger playfully nudged her.
“Dagger, what do you want?” Yvonne asked. Jokingly, she wondered, “Do you want to paint?”
His tail began to wag. Yvonne grabbed “anything I could find to make him a makeshift brush so he could paint with his mouth. Once I set everything up — the paint and canvas — I utilized command words he had learned in advanced training like ‘push’ so he could push the brush against the canvas. One thing led to another, and now he just loves to paint.”
Dagger’s talents flourished, and Yvonne saw an opportunity to help change as many lives as possible. During Dagger’s first artistic debut at a paint-and-sit event at Forgotten Friends of Long Island last November, a crowd of 107 people were stunned by Dagger’s abilities. “That was the day everything changed for us,” Yvonne said. “He did three paintings that night, and they were auctioned off. It was their largest fundraising event.”
Since then, Dagger’s paintings have been in high demand. Orders have poured in from Mexico, Canada, the Philippines and England. Yvonne said that part of the proceeds is donated to organizations that help animals, including Forgotten Friends of Long Island and Canine Companions. After going viral earlier this year, Dagger has received an impressive 150 painting orders, racking up 170 paintings in total.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten so many commissions in my life as him,” Yvonne laughed. “He just loves it, he really loves it. But he also lets me know when it’s time for us to put the paintbrushes away. We put an hour aside to paint each day. Sometimes he paints for the full hour and sometimes he paints for 10 minutes, takes a break and then resumes.”
Although Dagger has become a sensation because of his artistic abilities, Yvonne said he shines best when he’s around children with special needs. “Everyone knows how special Dagger is, and I think he knows his level of celebrity. He’s a smart boy, but I think that his therapy work is very important,” she said. “He just bonds so well with children, and he makes them feel so comfortable and loved, it’s amazing to watch.”
Now that Merrick got a taste of DogVinci’s natural talent, Merrick Moms will continue to support furry friends across Long Island. Turk-Goldberg said Dagger sold four paintings at the event, with proceeds going to Canine Companions’ annual DogFest Walk ’n’ Roll. Additionally, Yvonne said Mutts & Butts donated $200 to Canine Companions for Independence in Dagger’s honor.
“That was incredibly kind of them to do,” she said. “My philosophy is that he couldn’t just be a trained assistant dog and help one person but through his art and ability to help people, he’s not only helping one person, he’s helping many people along with his four-legged furry friends. He’s special.”