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“One cannot consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar,” Helen Keller once said. Tara, at 2½ years old, puts on a display of power, form and heart in Air Retrieve at King George Diving Dogs event in King George, Virginia. Photo courtesy Ariel Peldunas Photography.

Each year, the AKC Humane Fund pays tribute to five dedicated, hardworking dogs for making significant contributions to an individual or entire community. One award is given in each of the following categories: Uniformed Service K-9Service, TherapySearch and Rescue, and Exemplary Companion Dog.

Falling in love at first sight has that fairytale-esque feeling sometimes accented with seeds of doubt.

For Mary Pat Corrigan, of Flint Hill, Virginia, it occurred 10 days before the 2016 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show when she picked up a phone message from her friend and professional dog handler, Angela Lloyd, informing her of an eight-puppy Flat-Coated Retriever litter whelped a month earlier in nearby Amissville, Virginia.

That phone message went something like this, Corrigan recalls: “I know you may not be ready for this, but I just wanted to tell you about this very special puppy and I keep hearing your name. If you are not ready yet (Corrigan’s Carolina Dog mix Nadia, 14, passed seven months earlier) I totally understand.”

Because of the deep connection with Nadia, Corrigan was left devastated. She was not looking for a puppy at that point and felt a soul mate would find her, but not that quickly.

“But something told me I had to go look, even though I could not afford a Macy (the mother) puppy,”’ she says.

But Lloyd convinced her that was not an issue and to “just come if you want, there is no obligation.” However, there was an immediacy to Lloyd’s plea because she was leaving for Westminster within a couple days.

“I called Angie and we set a time the next day. She said nothing about the puppy, other than repeating it was ‘special.’ ”

Tara adjusts to her first night home at 8 weeks old – ready to start her own incredible journey.

One Special Puppy

Upon arriving, Corrigan went inside and sat in the middle of the pen with eight active offspring crawling all over her.

“I played and cuddled with them. And waited. If one was meant to be with me, or with someone else, I would know. There would be a sign. Suddenly one of them screeched loudly. I looked around to find who was angry with a too-tough sibling. My eyes focused on this little one, sitting a bit away from me and the others. She had squealed, but no one was around her. Looking straight at me, she squealed again.”

As their eyes locked, Tara held up her right front foot and waved it at herself. Except there was no foot. Instead, there was a raw, healing stump, prompting tears to flow down Corrigan’s cheeks.

Two nights earlier she had a vision. “I was walking along with a dark dog hopping along beside me. A three-legged dog with a missing right front foot, the same leg this little puppy was waving at me.  Surprised at the intensity of the vision, I thought sure this was a new client (Corrigan is an animal massage therapist) I would be getting.”

No, this little Flat-Coated princess was not a client. “She was Courage. She was Love. She was my girl,” Corrigan beams. “Tears flowing again, I picked her up and held her close. I looked up at Angie, who by now was crying with joy.

“Yes, I said, I will take her. It had that feeling of a union of soul mates.”

And that launched a tender, affecting journey for Corrigan and now 4-year-old, 3-legged Tara, an inspiration to all and the AKC Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence (ACE) Sponsored by Eukanuba Exemplary Companion winners.

Joy radiates in the face of Veteran Army Lt. Col. Veronica Ko upon meeting Tara at a rest stop during the 2019 Face of America Gettysburg cycling challenge for wounded warriors. Gently cradling Tara’s little “fist’ in her hand, Ko forms an instant and lasting bond with Tara.

Exemplary Companion

In the beginning, Corrigan was her “mom,” therapist, and teacher. Now they are partners. “On so many levels, this partnership is deeper than the ocean,” Corrigan smiles. “She is my little girl, my love, my teacher and my partner. We have grown to be a team and the very best of friends.”

Born into an elite family – Tara’s mom won her breed at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the AKC National Dog Show presented by Royal Canin and the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America National Specialty  – “No Limits Tri-Paw,” has cast aside any thoughts of being disabled with her “Yes, I can” persona.

With confidence and verve, Tara is right at home in her two favorite environments – a farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Rappahannock County Virginia or a Dock Diving venue anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic states.

On the farm, she has hundreds of acres to run, plus a pond about 40 yards from the house, where she dives, swims, and chases frogs. And there is a small river that runs along one border of the property that prompts her to stand in the water for an hour or so and fish – no, she has caught any yet!

Away from water, Tara finds joy in chasing rabbits, squirrels, fox, possum, raccoon, and groundhogs under Corrigan’s steady vigilance. “It’s a fine line to balance,” she admits, “since I don’t want her to hurt herself. I have tried to simply allow her to figure out her body as it is.”

Please note there is no mention of birds. This Flat-Coated Retriever is apparently a bit confused about her heritage and considers birds boring. Hmm!

Teamwork and partnership. Mary Pat Corrigan and Tara scope the Air Retrieve bumper during a 30-second rest while competing at a 2018 North America Diving Dogs Nationals qualifier at WestWind Diving Dogs in Biglerville, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Koontz.

No Limits For This Tri-Paw

This finely-tuned character gets in at least two off-leash walks daily on the property, a good portion of which are fast-paced. “She has no fear nor limits,” says Corrigan, “charging through every underbrush to flush rabbits. This time of the year spells more work for me untangling her feathers and removing burrs.”

These field follies and conditioning nicely complement Tara’s competitive Dock Diving skills, where she has a distance best of 19 feet 9 inches, 18 feet in Air Retrieve and Hydro Dash 19.375 seconds. In 2018 and 2019, she was the only tri-paw in all Air Retrieve divisions at the North American Diving Dogs Nationals in Orlando, Florida.

Tara launched into Dock Diving at only 6 months of age. Corrigan was headed to shows in Richmond, Virginia, where she met up with her friend, Lloyd. By then the young Flat-Coat was already “water-obsessed.”

Corrigan had considered Dock Diving as a fun endeavor for Tara so this seemed like an opportune time. For a small fee, she let Tara get her feet wet several times during the day between competition jumps for the entrants.

“I accompanied her on to the dock,” Corrigan recalls. “I took her to the ramp to see if she would go in the water. Oh, yes, no hesitation. She leaped right after a toy I had thrown. Over and over again, swimming like a champ. She now had the attention of the diving judges.

“She was one happy dog, so we returned five days later and she dragged me to the pool. After a few throws and retrieves, she was in heaven. The judges then told me to bring her back at the end of the day to see if she would go off the dock. She hesitated for about 10 seconds and leaped.”

A few more jumps and a bit more distance and the rest is history. “People say she has the heart of a lion,” Corrigan adds. “I call her my little Seabiscuit.”

Cheers and Tears

On her ACE entry description, Corrigan says, “Tara moves people to cheers and tears. On the dock she is an intense competitor. Off the dock, she is sweet and ready to play. Adults bring their children to meet her. One Mom with a 5-year-old daughter told me they were cheering for Tara. The Mom pointed to Tara and said to the young girl, “See, you can be anything you want to be!”

At one event a small girl, about 8, came up to the pair before they reached the dock and asked about Tara’s short leg. Corrigan explained it all to her and Tara allowed her to hold her little “fist” to touch and explore. The girl responded, “Isn’t that a disability?” Corrigan suggested she watch Tara dive and then see if she still considered it a disability. After Tara jumped twice, Corrigan peered down from the dock and asked the youngster if she still felt Tara was disabled. “No way,” she smiled.

In 2019, the engaging Tara became an honorary Adaptive Athlete member of a cycling team, Pedallers for the Wounded. The unit, with more than 400 other cyclists participated in a two-day, 112-mile biking challenge from Crystal City, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The event is organized by a nonprofit, World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports with each participant charged with fund-raising for wounded warriors. Tara was the No. 3 fund-raiser of 450.

Covering hundreds of acres, chasing rabbits, and jumping into the pond is hard work. Tara relaxes, in a typical Flat-Coated Retriever pose, on the back deck at home.

So, What’s Ahead?

Plans call for the pair to work toward a Therapy Dog certification soon. Future priorities include involvement with wounded warriors and adaptive athletes of all ages.

A particularly poignant moment and eventual friendship involved a Vietnam veteran at a rehabilitation center in Burke, Virginia, where Corrigan’s handicapped sister, Terry, was staying for treatment of a broken pelvis.

The veteran was an above-the-knee amputee and in a wheelchair. “One day when Tara and I left my sister’s room, we turned the corner and came face-to-face with this warrior,” Corrigan says. “His eyes lit up when he saw her. He tapped his knee, inviting her over. He could not get enough of Tara, even letting her put her front end in his lap to serve up more kisses and examined her little ‘fist’ gently. A few seconds later he burst into laughter when she grabbed his military baseball cap off his head. He hugged her close.”

It was Tara’s intrepid spirit and unflinching emotional richness at its best.

Related article: 10 Science-Based Benefits of Having a Dog
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