NEW YORK – Janice Wolfe (pictured) is waiting for her late lunch of lobster and scallop ravioli at the Affinia Hotel. Her Rhodesian ridgeback, Wyatt (pictured), is lying beside her.
He stands up, arches his back and rests his head on the linen tablecloth next to Wolfe's fork. His back is as high as the table. His head is larger than a dinner plate.
"He won't settle down until he knows I've had something to eat," says Wolfe, adding that she hasn't eaten all day. Wyatt, who is allowed in restaurants because he is a service dog, lies back down. Wolfe's meal arrives. Wyatt sleeps.
Wyatt is one of 2,500 dogs entered in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which wraps up tonight at Madison Square Garden. He did not win his breed event, so his time here is over. Wolfe is fiercely proud of him, though, for the work he does outside the show ring.
The American Kennel Club acknowledged Wyatt's unique qualities by awarding him one of its prestigious American Canine Excellence (ACE) awards last year. He won top service dog.
Wolfe and Wyatt work with hundreds of autistic and developmentally disabled children.
"I have people say to me, 'It's one thing to win Best in Show at Westminster, but it's another to win an ACE award,' " Wolfe says. "He is the youngest dog to ever win the award."
Wyatt is 2. He is part dog, part Zen master and part healer, Wolfe says. She is the founder of Merlin's Kids, a non-profit foundation that provides free therapy and free service dogs to families with special-needs kids and to veterans.
She lives with her husband, a retired police officer, and their dogs in Wyckoff, N.J.
"I go to a family's home with Wyatt and watch how a child interacts with him," she say. "He understands children. It's the coolest thing. He's a natural."
By studying how the child interacts with Wyatt, Wolfe says she can determine whether the child would benefit from having a therapy dog. Then she goes to shelters, finds dogs and spends her time and money to train them.
"I call it saving two lives," she says. "A dog's life and a child's."
Wolfe was a 21-year-old newlywed and a recent graduate of Columbia University when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. "You never know how hard it is until you go through it," she says. She wants to help others who have it rough.
One autistic boy they work with is Robbie McNaughton, 10. His family lives in Palestine, Texas. Robbie's mother, Mary, says her son was "so petrified of animals, he couldn't walk across parking lots for fear a bird might make a noise."
"When Wyatt first visited us, Robbie would scream and try to get out of the room," she says. "When Robbie is freaking out, Wyatt just looks to Janice, stays calm and quiet, seeming to know he can't react because that would send Robbie over the edge."
McNaughton met Wolfe and autism advocate/author Temple Grandin at an autism conference. Wolfe and Grandin are collaborating on a book about how dogs can help autistic children.
Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State, was the subject of last year's Emmy-winning documentary Temple Grandin, which shows how people with the disorder can lead successful lives. "I say to parents, 'Your child can be just as successful as Temple,' " Wolfe says.
Wolfe is on a mission to build camps where special-needs kids and their families can stay and get help. She has purchased the first property in New Jersey; she needs funding to build the structures.
The first farm will have a Western theme. No linen tablecloths at that rustic location for Wyatt to rest his head on, but there will be plenty of people to help.
"It will happen," Wolfe says.