Service dogs: Newfoundlands become a Christmas (tree) tradition for many
WALWORTH—It started with a good deed: A friend’s dog was injured and needed surgery.
Fellow owners of Newfoundlands contacted a Christmas tree grower. They offered their dogs as beasts of burden and cheer. The dogs would pull trees from the field to customers' cars and trucks for tips to help pay for the operation.
As Mike Truesdill of Janesville tells it, the Newfoundland survived the surgery, and the Newfie owners continued to haul trees one weekend a year.
Four differences from that first year:
--The event has shifted from the now defunct Paul’s Tree Farm of Brodhead to Country Side Trees, just outside Walworth.
--Tips now go to Newfoundland Rescue, a nationwide group that finds new homes for the web-footed beasts with the shaggy coats.
--The dogs have stopped following the families as they wandered the fields searching for that perfect tree. Instead, the dogs drag the trees from a drop-off point to the cars in the parking lot, saving time and making dogs available to more families.
--The sleds used to carry the trees are still there—scraping over grass, concrete and gravel when there’s no snow—but the group added wheeled wagons for warm days like Friday or for muddy days in the future.
Owners from around the region—mostly members of the North Central Newfoundland Club—bring their dogs to the event. Ten dogs stayed busy Friday.
Becky Feltham, who owns Country Side Trees with her husband, Glen, said the dogs definitely boost business.
The event has loyal followers, including one family that comes from Ohio every year just to have its tree towed, Truesdill said.
“It’s like a Christmas tradition for them,” Truesdill said. “And what’s better than to be a part of someone’s Christmas tradition?”
Newfoundlands are gentle giants, Truesdill said, and they’re bred to be active. They’re able to retrieve boats and rescue people lost in the water. Truesdill is one of several local owners who train their dogs to do so.
One of their original tasks was to pull fishermen’s nets, so pulling trees seems to come naturally to them.
Mary Trauernicht of Delafield brought her young Newfie, Louie, to the event for the first time Friday. At first, he kept looking back at the wagon behind him but quickly figured out what he was supposed to do, she said.
“Once they pull, it’s like the light goes on,” Trauernicht said.
Truesdill’s dog Kicker once pulled a 17-foot-long, 400-pound tree on a sled over snow, he said.
Friday, 10-year-old Kicker towed a tree for a family from Fort Atkinson.
“C’mon, Kick!” Truesdill said, and the dog stepped into his harness with gusto, not stopping till his owner said so.
“It’s a working dog, a working breed, and they need to work,” Truesdill said. “They love pulling the Christmas trees. They really do.”
They also like getting heads and necks scratched, snuggling up and sometimes slobbering on friendly strangers. And they stand patiently as people snap photos.
Those photos are a big deal.
Truesdill said one year, after an article appeared in the Beloit Daily News, a family removed the ornaments from its tree and hauled it out to Paul’s Tree Farm, just to take a photo so they could use it on the family’s Christmas cards.