Most mornings, Daniel Clarke and his 10-year-old service dog, Dakota, are up long before the sun rises in Pierce County. The drive from their home in Tacoma to Puyallup is a quiet one along sleepy streets that won’t see your average nine-to-fiver for a few hours yet. When the first commuters arrive at Pierce Transit’s Puyallup Sounder Station platform, they might find the station agent patrolling the perimeter sporting a hood to shield his face from the rain. More often than not, Dakota will be padding along right beside him, the good-natured dog’s coat glistening from a light drizzle.
Daniel broke his back when he was 15, fracturing his T3 thoracic vertebrae in a high-impact fall. He has used a wheelchair for nearly 25 years. As an incomplete paraplegic, Daniel is unable to walk but has some feeling in his lower extremities. Nearly a decade ago, Daniel trained and certified Dakota as a service dog. Since that time, the black Labrador mix has accompanied him semi-regularly to work.
What makes this pair remarkable — besides their service to Sound Transit for going on ten years now — is the work that Daniel and Dakota do outside of work. Inspired by his faithful companion and a desire to help others make strides in their personal development, Daniel has also enlisted Dakota’s help to operate a mobile service dog training business.
Working Like a Dog
“My uncle used to train attack dogs for the military,” Daniel explains, “and after my injury, he showed me what his dog was capable of. His Doberman was amazing, and he had been trained to do all kinds of stuff, so I asked him to show me how I could do something similar.”
With a little practice, Daniel had his dogs doing remarkable things. Daniel was born and raised on the beautiful island of Hawaii, so he speaks quite a bit of the local language. He trained his animals — Dakota included — to respond to commands in English, Hawaiian and sign language, and to do things as complex as opening doors, pushing the chair up slick surfaces, retrieving articles, and turning on lights to things as simple as giving hugs on command.
Daniel has worked with twelve dogs and their families in the Pacific Northwest, and what’s unique about his training is that he has created a program that puts the dog’s owner in charge of shaping his or her own service animal to their specific needs. “If you have a dog, I’ll teach you to how to train him,” says Daniel. “I’m like your advisor and you become the dog trainer, so I don’t make the bond with the dog, you do.” Because Daniel understands the expenses that might deter someone from investing in a service dog, he developed his curriculum for a fraction of the cost that would normally be charged to train a working service animal.
His method is so effective because, like everything Daniel does in regard to personal training, he not only explains but demonstrates what it takes to build a rapport with and reward and correct the behaviors that make a service dog so invaluable.
Meeting at times that are convenient for owners in need, Daniel and Dakota demonstrate the relationship, temperament and commands that make for a successful partnership between disabled owners and their service dogs. He knows that transportation can be another barrier, so as an added bonus, he will come to his clients in many cases.
Running Like Clockwork
Daniel began his career at Sound Transit working as a dispatcher and doing security detail, but when the role of station agent came available in 2009, he was happy for the change.
“I’d much rather be out and talking with people,” he says with a grin, “then to be stuck behind a desk all day.” He seems to genuinely enjoy his job, and it seems to like him right back. The work of a train station agent can be a dirty job — and a wet one, and sometimes a snowy one, too — but Daniel does it all every day with a smile.
Travelers who ride the Sounder line from Lakewood to Seattle and back agree that he’s the best part of their morning commute. Chris, who commutes on the Puyallup Sounder to Seattle routinely for more than eight years, looks forward to seeing Daniel each day. “He started this job the same time that I started commuting, and in all that time he has been kind to everyone every day! He’s helpful, professional and always positive in any weather! It is always a pleasure to see him.”
Since moving to the South Sound in the early 90s, Daniel has been very involved in advocating for adaptive therapy and recreation in the state. For example, he is the founder, long-time player and 15-year coach of the Tacoma Titans. This team of community members, veterans and wounded warriors is a local wheelchair basketball team sponsored by Metro Parks Tacoma. Daniel is extremely proud of his players and his team, but his work extends beyond the basketball court and into the community, too.
His enthusiasm for working alongside people with disabilities of all kinds is a passion he’s pursued since his accident so many years ago. “I want to make a difference and to educate people about what they’re capable of. I was a personal trainer at Bally’s before I came to Sound Transit. I also worked at the YMCA as an adaptive programs coordinator, where I developed programs for people with disabilities. I want to share the positive things that have come out of my injury with others.”
In 2015, Daniel earned a certificate from Pierce College as a personal trainer and adaptive recreational therapy specialist. His passion for working with people one-on-one to make a difference in their personal development is something he hopes to makes an even greater impact on those who are still learning to cope with their disability.
Full Steam Ahead
Daniel’s accident, among other things, demonstrated to him the incredible difference that the right, caring instructor can make in adapting to difficult circumstances. The transition wasn’t easy for him as an active boy of 15, and some days seemed much darker than others along the way. Thanks to the help of one particularly supportive mentor during his stay at rehab in Hawaii, however, Daniel began to find his way.
“His name was Frankie and he was a recreation counselor,” Daniel recalls. “What he did for me was amazing. He understood all of my concerns, and I could trust him to show me how to move and be in a chair, not just tell me what I should be doing or how it should feel. He was doing everything I wanted to do: he could drive, he was in a great relationship with a beautiful woman, they were getting married, he had a job, and he played competitive sports like tennis, basketball, pool, and even went bodysurfing in Hawaii. He did all the things that I wanted to do.”
Frankie worked with Daniel closely, hands-on, in a way that revolutionized the teen’s difficult journey to recovery. His techniques, Daniel recalls warmly, made all the difference in the world. This patient counselor also told Daniel something that really stuck with him, a word of advice that has become a credo that defines everything Daniel does today. “He told me that you live by example and that you don’t ask someone to do anything you’re not willing or able to do yourself. And that’s what I want to do for others: I want to work with them, to offer an example of all the ways that life can still be full and rich regardless of their circumstance.”
Today, Daniel has realized the life he always knew he wanted. He keeps a busy, active schedule alongside his wife of 12 years. His calendar is always full: he plays competitive sports, holds a full-time job, teaches and mentors, writes, belongs to a local billiard league, makes time for the shooting and archery range, and is even looking forward to his first solo sky-diving adventure — when he can find the time, of course. And there’s so much more that Daniel hopes to accomplish, particularly in the way of campaigning for more growth in adaptive recreation.
He says that his ultimate goal, down the road some ways, is to open a rehabilitation center aimed at teaching more than the fundamentals of physical therapy. Daniel has become a vital figure in the progress of a more well-rounded and accessible community in Tacoma and hopes to eventually bring even more enhancements to the region.
If you find yourself taking the Sounder train to or from Seattle, look out for Daniel and Dakota, rain or shine. You can stop by to say hi in person, or, if you’re interested in learning more about training service dogs, you can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also always interested in speaking with organizations about exploring ways to develop adaptive programs and sports opportunities.