When Drs. Carole Schuster and Philip Abessinio, of Locust Valley, N.Y., bought their West Highland White Terrier four years ago, the duo set some ambitious goals. They hoped their new canine companion, Max, would be a therapy dog, Canine Good Citizen, and a successful conformation competitor. The dynamic, 20-pound pup hasn’t disappointed.
“I was looking for an even-tempered, people-loving pet for our practice to be a therapy dog with the patients,” recalls Schuster. Previously, they owned a Yorkshire Terrier that played a similar role, but this time they were looking for a breed that was a little bit larger.
Schuster and Abessinio purchased 4-month-old Max from Kathleen Latz, of Somers Point, N.J., and wasted no time searching for a certified dog trainer to get the wheels in motion for their pup’s multi-faceted career. They settled on Michael Schaier, of Freeport, N.Y., emphasizing from the get-go their trifecta plan — conformation, CGC, and therapy-dog accreditation. “I remember telling Carole, ‘You want a lot!’ And she replied, ‘I know,'” says Schaier.
Max and the trainer clicked immediately. “I saw how much he wanted to please and couldn’t wait to learn the next exercise. He had a sweet temperament and loved to be around people, which are huge pluses for becoming both a solid show dog and therapy dog.”
Therapy Dog Training
At the outset, Max’s training regimen included three to four sessions monthly, focusing on basic commands. Next came therapy dog training.
While Max was working for his CGC title, Schaier asked the owners if he could take the plucky dog to The Newham House of United Cerebral Palsy in Brentwood, N.Y., where his son, Dillon, resides.
Smart, spirited, and enthusiastic, Max thrives in the environment — and residents await his monthly visits with eager anticipation.
“I tell Max we are going to see the ‘kids,’ as I fondly refer to the group home, and he has special bandanas for the visit,” says Schuster. “It’s like his engines get revved up when he knows we’re headed there. We park down the street from the facility, waiting for Mike to arrive. When he spots Mike, he begins barking with delight and excitement knowing he will see Dillon and ‘the guys’ in a few minutes.”
The “sweetest moments,” as Schuster characterizes them, are the warm welcomes Max gets from Dillon and the others. “Max understands and recognizes their disabilities and their physical limits,” she says. “He will maneuver up against their wheelchairs and sit patiently, allowing them to reach down from their wheelchairs and pet him gingerly. At that point, Max begins vigorously licking their hands in return, which prompts instant smiles and conversation.”
The visits coincide with the residents’ return to the center following a long day of therapy. When they cast their eyes on Max, it’s the highlight of their day, adds a beaming Schaier. Sometimes, they greet him with treats. And on special occasions, there are treats for everyone. At a Christmas party, residents ate Westie-decorated cupcakes and received small gifts from the pup.
Schaier says Dillon especially loves Max’s visits. “Growing up, Dillon was always around my dogs,” he explains. “While he felt an attachment to them, it is nothing like what I see when Max visits the house.”
A Champion at Therapy Work and Conformation
Recognizing his show qualities, Schuster and Abessinio chose to get him in the ring a mere two months after bringing him into their home. By the time he was 18-months old, he had earned an American Kennel Club Championship and Grand Championship, with the help of handler, Margery Goode, of Cochranville, Pa. At age 3, he earned bronze and silver Grand Championships with handler Chrystal Murray, of Hanover, Pa.
Max has been chiefly a stay-at-home guy, per his owners’ wishes. Hence, he has always traveled with his owners to the venue on show day for grooming and preparation. He has been shown chiefly in the Northeast and competed in such major events as the AKC National Championship, Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and The National Dog Show.
He has an active home life, too, in Locust Valley, a small hamlet on the north shore of Long Island. The family lives about a mile from Long Island Sound. “He loves hunting for chipmunks, practicing for his next earth dog competition, and just being a typical terrier,” concludes Schuster.
Max also has an impressive social media presence, with 15,000 followers on Instagram. You can follow him at @westiethebestie.