RED OAK — One never truly knows someone unless they take the time to get to know them, which is usually a universal social rule of thumb. Of course, from time to time, certain individuals have the element of surprise by personal hobbies they hold.

On the outside, Gail McCraw seems like a typical friendly Tractor Supply employee. But, get to know her, and one might find out that her personal hobby is helping the next generation of families with their special needs children.

“We raise and train Australian Shepherds for all families, but we also train for the autistic and down syndrome or any physical handicaps,” said Gail McCraw, Tractor Supply employee and co-owner of Wild Wings Aussies in Red Oak. “My sister and I do it. We live on a small farm, and we have chickens and horses. We’ve raised Aussies for a long time, and we knew their potential to help some families, they’re just scary smart. We had always raised them for friends and family or anybody who wanted one; then we started getting them into the families."

Raising the shepherd breed for 20 years, over the last three years McCraw and her sister have recently begun placing hand-picked dogs into homes with disabled needs kids.

“We have a dog in Nevada. A little teenage girl was going to be put in a home because she was getting violent and was very unhappy. So the family decided to get a pup, and we flew it to Nevada, and they hadn’t really bought the pup initially for her but the pup bonded with the girl. They said, ‘She didn’t care if she hollered, screamed, or threw things.’ They said the pup stayed by her side and now it’s been four years,” recalled McCraw about her first family placed dog. “They said it changed their life and she’s still at home – and they were within three months of placing her into a home, because of the violence.”

According to Autism Speaks, a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing surveyed parents of children who had autism about the children’s interactions with dogs. Nearly two-thirds of the families owned a dog. Of these, 94 percent said their child bonded deeply with the pet. Even in the families without dogs, 7-in-10 parents said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs.

The study continued to state that children with autism found that those who had a family pet from a young age tended to have greater social skills. Still, other research has shown how social behaviors in children who have autism temporarily improve after even a short play period with a live animal.

Helping those with physical or mental disadvantages, McCraw’s niche grew when another family with two boys, one of which was autistic, wanted one of her puppies.

“Then we had a pup that went to a family that wanted to let them have an experience with a dog because their family didn’t have dogs. They said the pup is rambunctious, rough and tumble with the one nephew, and then comes and sits by the other one and puts his paw on his leg, and just leans on him. He’ll play, but he’s so soft and gentle with him, and they said, ‘We didn’t teach him anything, he just knew.’ They just figure out what’s needed,” she credited the shepherd’s natural temperament.

When looking for a perfect match for those with various handicaps, McCraw describes the ideal pick of the litter.

“We make sure we pick out a pup that is suitable for them because not every pup in the litter is best for that. We get the dogs out, socialize with them in public, and get them ready for their families. Now, our Aussies, most of them are great, but we try to pick the best out of every litter to go to those homes,” McCraw explained the process.

Applauding the breed’s intelligence, the United States Australian Shepherd Association states that the breed diligently carries out their responsibilities, be it herding in the stock or finding the stray one that got tangled in the brush. They are easily trained and housebroken because they are intelligent and eager to please.

Aussies have been used as seeing-eye dogs, as utility dogs to the physically disabled, hearing aid dogs, police and narcotics dogs, and search and rescue dogs. In the northern areas, they have also been used as sled dogs. Many go with their owners as volunteers to children’s homes and nursing homes to do therapy work. Truly, the Australian Shepherd is a highly versatile dog.

“We believe the dog has natural smart thinking and reasoning ability, a lot of people think dogs can’t reason but they can, and then we look for one that is a little more laid back and not as hyper on that end. And every dog we’ve placed has done a wonderful job for them,” McCraw explained. “We make sure each one is out getting handled and called, and we basically raise these dogs just like a kid. You talk to them just like, ‘let’s go out the back door, let’s get in the truck, let’s go,’ they learn fast. They have a vocabulary probably like a third grader. I have one that I take into downtown and knows the elevator floors up to ten. We can send them after a Phillips screwdriver, or straight screwdriver or whatever."

Though many training techniques have proven to work for various trainers, McCraw went on to state that Australian Shepherds respond best to commands when verbal directions are given with clarity.

“A lot of people just holler, ‘No!’ Well, ‘no’ what? What do you mean? So you have to go, ‘Do not go over there, you stay over here by me.’ And they know. You have to be smart enough to convey what you want and with these dogs since their vocabulary is so huge, you have to tell them what you want. I could send one right now and say, ‘Go get in the truck and watch for cars.’ He’ll head towards the truck, look both ways, and get in the truck. You teach them as young pups and they’ll catch on,” she simplified.

Combining her hobby with her full-time career at Tractor Supply, McCraw is thankful for her job with the company that supplies quality brands and community-founded clients.

“Tractor Supply tries to stay community-based. The good local groups come to us, and we say, ‘Yeah, come on up,’ and we’re glad to have them. We have a vet comes up the first Saturday of every month and does low-cost vaccinations. Some of the local stables will come up and show what they’ve got and what they're doing for the community. We support our 4-H NFFA programs, we collect a couple of times a year for them, and all of the money goes to our local clubs. It doesn’t go national; it stays local. That’s a big part of Tractor Supply, we try to stay community-based,” she explained.

Having a working knowledge of farming and ranching, McCraw’s experience and expertise make her a valuable employee.

“I am semi-retired, and I came to work here, and it was very easy for me because I farmed and ranched all my life, and I had animals, so I knew all of the product,” she said, adding that her knowledge in canine care is also vast.

“Knowing the ingredients in all the dog foods so people can feed their dog the best food they can afford, I know it because I use it. Tractor Supply has their own brand, and it’s a great brand,” McCraw stated, using the brand for her own dogs. “It’s ranked in the top five in the country, and since there’s no advertising cost, the sale cost is half of the other national brands. It’s a benefit for us, and that’s absolutely what we feed our dogs.”

Carrying the Tractor Supply banner of excellent customer service, people tend to ask how McCraw knows so much about the products within the store.

“I say, ‘Because I’m old,’” She joked.

Not only is McCraw benefitting at home with the first-rate dog nutrition, but also from the store’s community-focused mindset.

“We’ve brought the dogs out here and shown them in the store. We brought five of them off-leash, and in fact, people decided to get a pup because they saw how they interacted in public. Tractor Supply is really good about letting us do that,” she admired.

“I benefit from bringing them in, Tractor Supply benefits because people look at our dogs and go, ‘Wow, those look good,’ because of the dog food. The customer base here is incredible. It’s so different than any of the other big stores around here. That’s part of what makes it nice to work here,” she finished.

As for this extraordinary individual, McCraw continues to do what she loves – breeding, raising and training Australian Shepherds.

“We strive to do our very best to raise a healthy, quality product with the smartest mind that we can raise. And because of that, you’re going to have a long-lived dog and a family member that is unbelievable to most people. When they come out, people just go, ‘Wow.’ There are a lot of smart breeds, but the herding breeds are right up at the very top — it’s a pretty amazing,” she smiled.

To connect with Wild Wings Aussies, visit wildwingsaussies.com or call (214)-850-0226.

----

Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer

(469)-517-1450