Caring Canines

Dogs may be considered man’s best friend, but the bond humans form with animals can also serve a therapeutic purpose.

In Chautauqua County, there are a variety of programs dedicated to strengthening the relationship between person and pet.

One such individual is Maggie Irwin, MSW, a board member of the Chautauqua County Humane Society who fosters golden retrievers for Golden Retriever Rescue Operated With Love Statewide. Irwin and her dogs spend time at a variety of locations, such as Chautauqua Adult Day Care and WCA Hospital. At Chautauqua Adult Day Care, Irwin and her dog, Cody, spend time with area seniors on a weekly basis. While at WCA Hospital, Cody works with individuals in the inpatient chemical dependency program as well as those in the medical rehabilitation program.

According to Irwin, not only does she like working with older people, but research shows that animals have a positive impact on people and so she wants to share the love of her dogs with area residents.

“I love seeing all the pleasure that the dogs bring to people,” Irwin said. “Not only are golden retrievers beautiful, but they are very friendly. They can only take about an hour of the work, but they love the attention – so they get a lot out of it too. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Frank Bercik, executive director for the Chautauqua Adult Day Care Centers, Inc., said he believes that music and pets are programming that take people out of their shell.

“They really light up -it’s amazing how people bond,” Bercik said. “We’re glad that she comes, because folks enjoy it a lot.”

Diane Samuelson, Chautauqua Adult Day Care program coordinator, agreed with Bercik, adding that she feels the clients get a lot out of the visits, especially since a lot of them have probably had pets in the past, and because they are a big responsibility its unlikely that they still do.

“Man’s best friend can certainly be spoken for here because of all the smiles it brings out,” Samuelson said.

For more information about Chautauqua Adult Day Care, call 665-4899 or visit

In addition to her work with seniors, Irwin also works with children. With the support of Cathy Panebianco, Jamestown Public Schools communications coordinator, Irwin is currently piloting a program at Bush Elementary School called the Canine Assistance in Reading Education, or C.A.R.E.

“We each have three first-graders reading to us once a week for an hour in the guidance counselor’s office,” Irwin said. “We say it’s piloting because we’re still working out the kinks on measuring how the kids are progressing in their reading. But, each child gets 20 minutes with the dog, and the whole idea is that if they are having trouble reading they need to practice. While reading out loud, a dog is not going to judge the children. It can also help with behavioral issues.”


According to Roberta Thompson, MSW, Pet Companionship coordinator for Hospice Chautauqua County, the dogs who participate in the program are far more than just a tool. For many dogs, the experience revolves around attention and treats, but after working, the dogs need time to relax and decompress too.

“With the Hospice program we only involve dogs that are American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen or Therapy Dogs International certified,” Thompson said. “There are qualifications that the dog has to meet before it can be certified, and not every dog can become a therapy dog – it takes a certain type.”

Connie LaForest, of Ellington, and her dog Dante, are the newest volunteers with Hospice Chautauqua County. Dante is certified via Therapy Dogs International. LaForest first became interested in volunteering when her son, who has Aspberger’s syndrome, was attending a charter school that had two therapy dogs.

“I could always tell when the therapy dog had been in his room,” LaForest said. “He would come home and he would be much calmer, more collected and focused. So, when I saw Dante’s picture at the SPCA I had to take my boys in for the meet and greet. My oldest, who has Aspberger’s, draped himself right over the top of Dante, who just stood there – that’s when I knew he was coming home with us.”

The initial motivation for adopting Dante may have been for her sons, but eventually she realized she wanted to share Dante’s amazing ability to connect with people. According to LaForest, Dante understands the word “work,” and gets incredibly excited when he hears it.

“The reactions we get from the people we visit are why I do this – we get the biggest grins- I love it,” LaForest said.

In addition to dogs, Hospice Chautauqua County also utilizes animals such as cats and rabbits for pet therapy. The organization is currently seeking an individual and their cat to serve as pet therapy volunteers.

For more information, call 338-0035 or visit


According to Linda Johnson, WCA Hospital public relations and marketing, the WCA Hospital pet therapy program offers many physical and emotional benefits for patients, including those admitted to the medical rehabilitation program, inpatient adult mental health program, inpatient adolescent mental health program and inpatient chemical dependency program.

Community volunteers dedicate their time, as well as their dog’s, for the benefit of the patients. The therapy brings happiness and comfort to patients who experience a range of medical conditions or physical and emotion limitations that affect their lives. Many of the patients of the Medical Rehabilitation Program have reported that they are able to walk better when they have the guidance and comfort of a dog walking alongside them. Pet therapy also exudes positive emotions, resulting in reduced blood pressure and stress. Plus, it also helps reduce the physical or emotional anxiety a patient may be experiencing in their life.

These four-legged friends are teachers and healers because human-animal interactions provide a multitude of benefits for patients of all ages, Johnson said.

Those interested in learning more about the WCA Hospital pet therapy program may contact Terri K. Stalmach, CTRS, pet therapy program supervisor at 664-8521.