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Duke's raisin d'etre

Gazing through the window of Atlanta Bread Company, Duke waits for Marilyn Heitman to purchase her usual cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese.

She opens the door and Duke takes the paper bag and carries it to their home at Bayfront Tower. Aware of the morning ritual, passers-by toot their horns and give him the thumbs-up.

"He truly is a helper and a little character," Heitman said. "There is not a day that goes by that we are not together. He's my best friend."

Duke, part poodle and Shih Tzu, has accompanied Marilyn and Bob Heitman to the Atlanta Bread bakery downtown every morning for four years. The tradition began in their former hometown of New York City, when Duke carried bagels from H&H Bagel.

Jumping up until he gets his way, Heitman says, Duke will carry just about anything for her, from packages to newspapers.

"I was quite taken aback" when his talent first appeared, Heitman said. "He only weighs 25 pounds. The heaviest thing that he's carried is a house plant in a clay pot."

Duke continues to impress those who see him regularly and gives special recognition to those he knows well. Cindy Moriarty, 27, enjoys his visits to the Atlanta Bread Company.

"He puts a smile on your face. He just grabs the bag. It's cute and impressive," said Moriarty, who works at the bakery.

Keeping an updated picture of Duke on the bakery counter also draws the attention of many customers.

"People think he's our little mascot," she said. "He's known as the "ABC' dog."

When he's not carrying sacks of food around, Duke puts his talents to work at more elegant events. At a recent fashion show at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, he strolled down the catwalk clutching two purses. Duke also participated in a wedding for the Heitmans' daughter. When asked if he would carry the satin bag containing a ceremony glass down the aisle, everyone was surprised by his reaction.

"I gave the bag to Duke and down the aisle he went. He just grabbed it," said Heitman. "He stole the show from my daughter."

Duke enjoys attention and poses for anyone who wants to take his picture.

"He's happy to work with people," she said. "People start out their morning with a good attitude when they see Duke."

The Heitmans rescued Duke from a shelter in New York at 8 weeks old. He is now 11, an older gentleman with a childlike personality.

"He thinks he's a little boy in a fur suit," Bob Heitman said. Wanting to give their pet a big name, the couple decided on Duke, though they sometimes call him Chewbacca.

For now, Duke seems content with his daily trips with his owner to Atlanta Bread Company. There's a reward in it for him: part of her bagel.

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