From Garbage Eater to Golf Pro

How a homeless canine scored a hole-in-one career as a service dog.

Dogs don’t play golf. But Toby, a 4-year-old Labrador Retriever, carries a gold club, retrieves golf balls, and can remove a golf tee from the ground and give it to James Miller, a golfer and military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Toby with a golf club. Photo courtesy Jan A. Igoe, Canine Angels

It’s hard to imagine that this dog once survived by jostling for scraps with a pack of strays around a bog in Loris, S.C.

How did a homeless canine score this hole-in-one career as a service dog? Toby’s story begins with a woman who dumped out a sack of leftovers for Toby and some other stray dogs every week. The strays would gobble the goodies and run off.

But one evening Toby didn’t leave with the pack, and hung around his benefactor’s porch. Gradually, the woman gained the dog’s confidence and took him to a groomer, who asked Rick Kaplan of North Myrtle Beach if he wanted the Labrador Retriever.

Kaplan’s nonprofit organization, Canine Angels, rescues dogs from shelters and trains about 25 dogs a year to perform tasks for disabled American veterans and first responders in his community. “I don’t ship dogs and I don’t charge anything,” Kaplan says. “This is my gift to our heroes.”

A lifelong dog trainer, Kaplan uses positive methods to teach basic skills and tasks a disabled veteran may need, such as easing depression or detecting anxiety. “Many people like to play golf here, and we’ve trained five dogs to buddy up with their veteran owners,” Kaplan says.

To assist with training, Kaplan recruits people to foster the dogs. “I volunteered, and the first thing Toby did when he walked into my house was pee on the potted plant,” says Miller, who served six years in the United States Air Force and 25 years with the Federal Aviation Administration as a federal air traffic controller. “After that he chewed two remote controls, a 10-inche hole in the wall, and a couch arm.”

For nine months Kaplan trained Toby at Miller’s house, until the dog was ready for placement. When the new home didn’t work out, Kaplan let Miller keep Toby. “I was ecstatic because the dog calms me down,” Miller says.

Toby and James Miller. Photo courtesy Jan A. Igoe, Canine Angels

An avid golfer, Kaplan invited Miller to play and suggested that he bring Toby. “I’m competitive, and before Toby I lost a threesome I played with because of my temper,” Miller says. “With Toby I’m not stressed out when I play, and it’s a lot more fun.”

When Miller putts, Toby lays down and waits for an assignment. “He knows how to get the rake for the sand trap,” Miller says. “Between watching me, walking four-and-a-half hours on the course, and retrieving a pencil or scorecard so I don’t bend over and lose my balance, Toby gets a workout.”

What doesn’t this duffer dog do? “He doesn’t bark, caddy, or relieve himself on the fairway, but nothing is quite as joyful as a dog that’s working on a golf course and fulfilling a purpose.”

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