Sam is one smart dog. At 12 weeks old, the puppy with a shiny coat of black fur is already house-trained and has mastered more than 25 skills. Some are more than cute, they're essential for any service dog in training.
In Truro and learning to become a working dog for someone in need is a far cry from fighting for puppy survival in Indian Brook.
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That's what Sam's life might've been, according to Darlene Grady-Lunn. She runs Marley's Hope, the non-profit dog rescue contracted by the Sipekne'katik First Nation to help control the reserve's stray dog population.
Sam's mother, Maude, a Lab-Rottweiler mix, was surrendered to the rescue in October. She's one of more than 120 neglected or roaming dogs seized or handed over last year. Most of them have been adopted. Another 20 have been returned to their owners after receiving veterinary care. Two were euthanized because of aggression issues, Grady-Lunn says.
Sam may not have survived
Maude gave birth to a litter of eight puppies at her foster home in early December. When Maude was on the reserve, she lived tethered on a chain to a dog house and had anxiety issues being indoors.
Had Maude still been outside when she delivered, Grady-Lunn says it's likely the entire litter would not have survived.
It wasn't long after that Grady-Lunn says she was approached by Whitney Shaver, a fourth-year animal science student at Dalhousie University's Faculty of Agriculture. She was looking for her second dog to train as a service dog. And an option — other than adoption — opened up for Sam.
"I thought it would be amazing for a dog that was once unwanted to be somebody's whole life," said Grady-Lunn.
"These dogs have so much value, it makes the work worth it."
He was 'the one'
Sam was one of eight rescues from Indian Brook put through Shaver's behavioural tests and she knew very quickly that Sam was "the one."
"A lot of them were whining and crying at the kennel to get out whereas he was up on the gate, but just looking at me and watching where I was going," said Shaver.
Sam showed he wasn't a scared puppy.
"He was calm and confident and excited to work. He wanted to see what was going on and not just avoid it," she said.
Sam is a little more than a month into his training and has excelled in every way, says Shaver while making a clicking sound and giving him a treat, his reward for twirling around in a circle.
Advanced puppy skills
The 'circus elephant' behaviour requires Sam to rest his front paws on a stool and use his hind legs to spin his body around the stool. This is advanced puppy co-ordination and necessary to build up to a skill called 'cover me.' Service dogs cover their handlers by backing up behind them to help them feel protected and safe. It's a skill that's needed for handlers who have PTSD or an anxiety disorder and are experiencing stress, says Shaver.
Sam is still too early in his training to determine what he's best suited for, whether it's assisting someone with PTSD, autism, or diabetes, for example.
Shaver anticipates his training will take a year and a half and estimates training, veterinary care, food and other costs will add up to $38,000.
She's crowdfunding the expense and intends to give Sam away for free to the person who's most deserving and in need.
'He's changing someone's life'
For Anna Paul, an Sipekne'katik band member, and the woman who led the charge to have a rescue group come onto the reserve to help control the stray dog population, Sam's story is a dream come true.
"This dog has a chance to be someone's helper other than a roamer up here," she said. "He would [possibly] be fighting for his food, fighting other dogs, no, not having a good life. It's just a blessing that one of our rescue dogs has a chance to do this," she said.
Shaver says she knows she'll be sad when the time comes to say goodbye to Sam.
"It's gonna be hard," said Shaver.
"But wherever he ends up, we'll have constant contact and I'll be able to see him, and know that he's changing someone's life, that's what's really important to me."