Rudy the wonder dog helps Grand Forks disabled woman

Rudy is a frizzy, flop-eared, 11.5-pound dog. He is part Papillon, which is French for butterfly and seems entirely appropriate as he flits from lap to floor and back to Francine McClendon's lap.

Rudy the wonder dog
Francine McClendon holds her service dog, Rudy, in her lap on her motorized scooter at her south Grand Forks apartment. Rudy, a Bichon-Papillon mix, has been named top state pet of the year in the "professional" category by the state Veterinary Medical Association. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

Rudy is a frizzy, flop-eared, 11.5-pound dog. He is part Papillon, which is French for butterfly and seems entirely appropriate as he flits from lap to floor and back to Francine McClendon's lap.

"Get slippers," McClendon says, and Rudy dutifully fetches a slipper from another room in McClendon's Grand Forks apartment.

"Get the other slipper, Rudy," she says, and off he goes, returning in seconds, tail wagging, with the second slipper.

McClendon, 47, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis since she was 7, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. The arthritis has crippled her hands and she often drops things -- a book, her cell phone, the TV remote -- and she has trained Rudy to retrieve them all.

At her command, Rudy will call 911, racing to a LifeCall box, pushing a button and waiting until he hears the connect message: "Emergency! Emergency!"


For all of that, Rudy was named North Dakota pet of the year in the "professional" category earlier this month by the state Veterinary Medical Association.

"He's invaluable to me," said McClendon, who got Rudy when he was 3 months old and trained him with the help of a volunteer from a local kennel. "He's saved me from having to call someone for help many times."

Pick up, Rudy

At 6 months, Rudy was picking up his own toys on command, dropping them one by one into his toy box. No complaints, no whining, no delays.

"By 8 months, he was bringing me anything I dropped," McClendon said, and Dave Thornton, a friend and frequent visitor, nodded. "If Rudy hears something hit the floor, he comes running," he said.

Rudy does have a bright, engaged look about him, a cocked-hat Sinatra look augmented by the way his right ear points upward while his left ear hangs down. It may be a matter of breeding -- he is a Bichon-Papillon mix, and Bichons tend to have the ears up while Papillons have them down, McClendon said.

Or it may be that Rudy has learned through many photo sessions that humans seem to appreciate the jaunty pose.

"Is that Rudy?" McClendon asks as a video plays on her TV, a video she and friends put together showing all that Rudy can do, and the dog sat watching ... one wants to say critically ... as on the screen he strode alongside her moving wheelchair with Marine-like precision.


Once a week, to keep the training up, McClendon and Rudy test her LifeCall system.

"Push 911, Rudy," she says, and Rudy runs to the equipment, where McClendon has added a piece of red felt to make the call button easier for him to recognize. He leans a paw into it and waits.

"He didn't like the 'Emergency! Emergency!' response at first," she said, but he came to accept the loud man's voice once he learned a treat would follow.

Rudy has a "working vocabulary" of at least 200 words, Thornton insists. "He knows 'push' from 'shove' and he understands 'other,' as in 'other slipper,'" he said. "She'll tell him to do three things, and he'll do them all, in order."

He'll also growl at a stranger, sleep on his back with all four paws in the air and lick your nose if he likes you. He's a dog, a companion.

"I had a dog when I was a child," McClendon said, gently stroking Rudy, but her disability made it difficult for her to keep and care for pets until she got help finding and training a service dog.

Sarge honored, too

A Grand Forks County social worker who saw the interaction between McClendon and Rudy nominated the dog for the state award, which Rudy shared with a drug-sniffing yellow lab named Bailey from Jamestown.


The state veterinary group also honored a champion companion pet, an American Eskimo dog named Misty from Beulah, and a "hero" dog, a German shepherd named Sarge from Portland. Sarge was honored posthumously for saving a life, McClendon said.

This was Rudy's second big recognition. In 2007, he received a "good citizen" award from the American Kennel Club -- and that was before he learned LifeCall.

"People are surprised to see that such a little dog can do service work," McClendon said. "Last week, he brought me the telephone book, which is pretty big."

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