Fido offers helping paw for charity

Claudio Cuna’s colleagues at Dogtopia, a pooch day care in Rockville, call him the dog whisperer — and not because of his soft voice.

Cuna worked his magic on Parker, calming the 100-pound chocolate-brown Rhodesian ridgeback who wanted no part of getting into a bathtub. Parker didn’t put up a fuss when Cuna lifted his paw, allowing Cuna’s associate to apply blue paint to it. Cuna then plopped Parker’s paw onto a black canvas to create a masterpiece to be sold for charity.

“He’s absolutely amazing with dogs,” said Jakob Hunt, Dogtopia’s vice president of operations.

The project was inspired by Cuna; a fundraiser allowing him to simultaneously support all of his favorite causes — dogs, art and AIDS prevention.

Born and raised in a poor family in Mozambique, Cuna was troubled by the high HIV/AIDS rates in his village of Chicumbane.

In 2009, he and a few others worked with the Peace Corps and built an arts school for orphaned children, called by the Portuguese acronym CACHES, to educate them about the AIDS epidemic.

Years later, after moving to the United States for education, he landed a job as a playroom attendant at Dogtopia, where he divided his paychecks among himself, his family in Mozambique and the school.

His boss knew nothing of his heroism back home.

“Then one day out of the blue he says he wanted to share something with me,” Hunt recalled. “He showed me a nonprofit that he started … When he showed me this, it broke my heart. I thought, how in the world are we going to help?”

He decided to have the dogs create art with a blank canvas and a painted paw. The company publicized the project to clients, which are mostly medical professionals, lawyers and federal officials who order their dog’s small or large masterpiece for $20 or $40.

The company has raised more than $1,000 since last fall, which CACHES will use for basic operating costs and art supplies.

The paw paintings are one of a handful of the canine day care’s philanthropic programs. The company’s own charity, K9 Support, raises money to provide service dogs overseas with dog toys and equipment, such as doggles (goggles for dogs). Since 2005, it has raised $80,000. It also houses the overflow of dogs from local shelters free of charge and works to find them permanent homes.

Cuna, who is now studying to become a licensed dog trainer, said he hopes to raise enough to make the art school self-sustaining.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.

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