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Learning to paint from canine master of abstract brushwork

Children get lesson from renaissance dog

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At first glance, 6-year-old Dagger DogVinci looks like any other black Labrador-golden retriever mix. He has a unique hobby for a canine, however: He loves to paint.

“He’s got a wonderful temperament,” Dagger’s owner, Yvonne Dagger, of Massapequa, said. “A very laid-back, caring temperament. Almost Zen.”

Yvonne and Dagger visited the Wantagh Public Library on April 25 for an hour of painting with more than a dozen children. Yvonne, 68, attended the event with a coworker, Ann Barile, of Amityville, who helps her on events like this. The DogVinci team has given roughly 160 workshops at Long Island schools and libraries since 2016, according to Yvonne.

Barile said this was the DogVinci team’s first session at the Wantagh Library. She addressed the children before they went into the community room at roughly 11 a.m. DogVinci is unique, she told them, compared with other dogs, or cats, because of his painting skills. “Dagger is special because he’s a dog and he knows how to paint,” she said.

Yvonne told the children about Dagger’s history, and how he learned to paint. He demonstrated his brushwork, and then the children each sat down at painting stations, were given brushes, canvases, paints and smocks, and were encouraged to “be creative.”

“They’re able to do anything that they want,” Yvonne said. “They’re the artists, and there’s no wrong way of doing anything.”

Yvonne said that Dagger uses nontoxic acrylic paints, and described his canine technique, “the DogVinci style,” as pure and true abstract art.

Tricia Hagen said she brought three children whom she babysits —Sophia, Abigail and Jaxon Santopietro, ages 8, 5 and 3 — because they were interested in learning how to paint. Here they would learn how to paint freestyle, she added. “We thought that seeing the dog paint would be a lot of fun,” she said.

Dagger, who was born in Santa Rosa, Calif., was originally intended to become a service dog for Canine Companions for Independence, an organization with offices throughout the U.S. that provides service dogs to people with disabilities, according to its website. Before Dagger’s final training, set to take place in Medford, in Suffolk County, the company asked Yvonne and her husband, Denis, if they would like to raise him as a puppy. They did so for 18 months, starting in December 2012.

Canine Companions employees named Dagger after Yvonne and Denis, who had been volunteers at the Medford office for 10 years. Yvonne had had been on the company’s Northeast board of directors for seven years.

In 2014, Dagger began his advanced training, but after four months, the trainers discovered that he had fear issues, and he was released from the program. Canine Companions asked Yvonne and her family if they would like to adopt him, which they did later that year. “We said in a heartbeat, yes we would,” she recalled.

Yvonne is an artist with a degree in fine arts from Hofstra University, according to DogVinci.com. She has showcased her work in galleries including the Heckscher Museum in Huntington; the Nadejda Gallery in Newport, R.I.; and the Pen and Brush Gallery in New York City.

One afternoon shortly after Dagger’s adoption, Yvonne was painting in her home studio when Dagger, who was nearly 3 at the time, started nudging her. “I joking said to him, ‘Hey, Dagger, what? Do you want to paint like Mommy?’ and his tail wagged,” she said. “I took a tabletop easel, put it on the floor and utilized the command words he had learned in command training and taught him how to paint.”

She dubbed him Dagger DogVinci.

The message of the workshops she, Dagger and Barile put on is two-fold, she said. “Dagger’s message is about education, about creating, about being inspired by good people and never, ever stop learning,” she said. “The second part of his message is community service . . . Dagger’s whole purpose is to give back to the community.”

Yvonne said that Dagger’s life was planned for him. Since birth, he was meant to help one person through Canine Companions. “As disappointed as we were that that didn’t happen,” she said, “we are thrilled that he has been able to help hundreds of people since he started painting.”

Dagger has completed more than 500 works of art, and the DogVinci team has donated more than $100,000 to charity, according to Yvonne. To learn more, visit Dagger’s website at www.dogvinci.com.