Clifford, the Big Black Dog…

I just got a call from my good friend David, Clifford‘s Daddy, today. He told me about the great article that Melissa Gaskill wrote about Clifford in the April issue of The Good Life magazine! I just had to post it below for Clifford’s Fan Club. Enjoy!

clifford and david

David DiTraglia lived an active life for years in Alaska, spending time outdoors, chopping wood, and raising St. Bernard dogs. Today, he is in a wheelchair, the result of inoperable scar tissue that formed following a broken neck. He lives alone in a small house just off the main road in Wimberley, with a garden and fish ponds out back. Well, he doesn’t really live alone. He shares the house, and his life, with Clifford, a shiny, black hundred-pound mostly-Labrador retriever. Clifford is more than good company, although he is certainly that. Clifford is a trained service dog from Texas Hearing and Service Dogs (512-891-9090).

THSD provides service dogs to help those with hearing or mobility challenges. These amazing animals are trained to alert their deaf owners to a telephone, crying baby or smoke alarm, and can open refrigerator doors, push buttons, pick up dropped items, and even tug off clothing for those with mobility impairments. All the dogs are obtained from shelters, and trained for about a year at a cost of roughly eighteen thousand dollars. They are provided to people like Di-Traglia free of charge.

“There’s a long waiting list for dogs and they are very selective,” DiTraglia says. “It is also an exhaustive process to get a dog.” He found out about service dogs through his grown daughter, and although some people wait as long as a year for a dog, DiTraglia got a call about three months after applying. Clifford was too big for the person with which he was originally placed. THSD interviewed two other people besides DiTraglia for the big black dog. “There were about five people interviewing me, and then they watched me with Clifford,” he says. “It was love at first sight. After St. Bernards, he certainly wasn’t big to me.”

Once DiTraglia was selected to receive Clifford, THSD staff visited his home multiple times over the first year. “You have to keep up the dog’s basic skills. Some of his skills I use all the time, and others I don’t use,” he says. “Also, if my needs change and I need something else from him, I just call and they would be out here to train him to do it.” As an Assistance Dog Partner, the official designation of those who have one of these animals, DiTraglia has other responsibilities in addition to maintaining Clifford’s training. These include treating the dog with appreciation and respect, making sure Clifford behaves properly in public, keeping him well-groomed and cared for, and providing preventive healthcare and vaccinations.

DiTraglia has use of his upper body and limited ability to stand, so he can transfer easily in and out of the wheelchair. Clifford leaps up when called, and once leashed to the chair, pays attention to his human’s every move. He won’t cross the threshold of the door to outside until DiTraglia tells him to. He once stood for quite some time with his nose inches from a table laden with Salt Lick barbecue while DiTraglia, unaware of Clifford’s dilemma, visited with friends. Clifford never took so much as a tiny sample. One of his few transgressions involved running off after some deer, and DiTraglia admits to having strayed too far from the dog in the first place. In short, Clifford takes his job seriously.

“Having a service dog is an amazing thing. These dogs do a lot. They are trained to do things you can’t, but more than that, they are a companion. It is like having a goal in life. You get up in the morning and, rather than zero in on your disability or pain or whatever, you zero in on the animal. You have to care for it. You have to take it out or arrange for someone to do it, which makes you get in touch with people around you. The support the dog gives you is amazing. My life changed a lot having him, I feel stronger with him around.”

If DiTraglia drops something, Clifford picks it up in his large but gentle mouth. He can close or open doors in the house, or open and close the refrigerator. He helps DiTraglia get back into his wheelchair, and can pull the manual wheelchair if needed.

“If he could drive, it would be really great,” DiTraglia jokes. “He’s two dogs, a service dog when he has his uniform and his leash on, and a companion dog. When we’re out he’s usually a gentleman, well-behaved. The beauty of these animals is that they love you unconditionally. They can use love, too.”

THSD uses positive training methods, including fun and rewards. Force, punishment or correction are never used. DiTraglia carries an ever-present store of treats in a fanny pack. People who apply for a service dog have to fi rst want a dog, Di-Traglia says. “Do you want a dog? That’s the first question. They are still dogs, not robots. He’s ninety percent obedience, and ten percent like a five year old.” Service dogs can go anywhere with their humans, just as Seeing Eye dogs can, by Texas law. DiTraglia has an ID card with his and Clifford’s photograph on it. He is rarely asked for it, and has only been seriously challenged about bringing the dog once.

People who encounter a service dog and dog partner out in public should always ask if they may pet the dog before doing so, and if the answer is yes, follow the person’s instructions. This shows respect for the person and the working dog. DiTraglia has Clifford lie down for petting. The pair visit the THSD training facility in nearby Dripping Springs often. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate THSD and the people, their mission and the place,” DiTraglia says. “I’m like a Jewish mother with Clifford. They tell me he’s fat and I say, no, he’s fluffy. He’s big-boned.”

THSD has a new program, Assistance Dogs for Military Personnel, created to provide dogs to servicemen and women injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. This and all THSD programs are funded by donations.

People can also help by volunteering, either at the training facility—bathing and playing with dogs, working in the office or at special events, or keeping up the landscaping—or by serving as a foster trainer. Foster trainers keep a dog in their home for three to four months, socializing the dog to living in a home and helping them learn to be comfortable with various public places such as restaurants, offi ces and sporting events. Dogs have already had four to six weeks of training before going to foster homes.

Occasionally, THSD offers for adoption dogs that need a career change—who, in other words, for some reason just don’t cut the mustard as a service dog. The organization also provides speakers who are experts on education and training, and the web site (www.servicedogs.org) includes regular training tips. After all, all dogs are, in a sense, service dogs.

Melissa Gaskill was very impressed with Clifford, and thinks it would be great if every single returning military person could have a service dog. You may e-mail Melissa at mgaskill@goodlifemag.com. Readers may also be interested in San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas (210-366-4081), which provides dogs for Texans who are visually impaired. For more information, visit www.guidedogsoftexas.org.

This article was printed in the April 2008 issue of The Good Life magazine and was written by Melissa Gaskill.
Photo credit: Barton Wilder Custom Images.

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1,659 Responses to Clifford, the Big Black Dog…

  1. lisa April 26, 2008 at 7:43 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing this- Clifford and David are a dynamic duo! THSD really makes heavenly matches here on earth. So lovely! woof!woof! :)

  2. Marianne Mason August 21, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    My teenage son (and of course the rest of the family) were foster trainers for dear, sweet Clifford. It was the most wonderful experience for all of us. I am so happy that he has become a great service dog! I was always worried that we might mess him up somehow, but Clifford’s character, THSD’s amazing training abilities, and David DiTraglia’s strong connection and commitment, have obviously triumphed! Go Clifford and family!

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