I recently spent a marvelous hour being mobbed by four exuberant golden retrievers at the home of Maggie Irwin. I was there because, for the second year, I had donated my column to the Chautauqua County Humane Society "Bark 'n' Brew" fundraiser and Maggie was the high bidder.
Sometimes writing this column is just more fun than anyone should have. Maggie's golden retrievers were delighted to have company, and they wanted to claim all of my attention. They pushed and shoved, each wanting as much ear scratching and side thumping as I was willing to give, tails wagging non-stop. Sitting on the couch was not an option; there was no way to take notes. A golden nose kept getting between pen and paper. The solution was to sit at the dining room table, which offered a partial barrier, and I could take notes with my right hand, and pet dogs with my left.
Introductions were first. Jackson, at 10 years of age, was Maggie's first dog, gotten as a puppy. Next came Jake, now 8. Cody, the 6-year-old came from Golden Retriever Rescue Operated with Love Statewide, or Grrowls (grrowls.org). Finally, there was Spice, who will be 5 in December. Spice is a foster dog from Grrowls. Spice is a bit more reserved than the boys, but still, she's all golden retriever, with a wagging tail and a sweet, gentle personality.
Maggie spent 25 years working in publishing in New York City, and working with the elderly in her church in her spare time. She enjoyed her volunteer work so much that she went back to school and became a geriatric social worker. When she took early retirement and moved to Jamestown, she decided to combine her two passions - the elderly and dogs - and she's done that with a vengeance.
She's on the board of the Chautauqua County Humane Society and is the application coordinator for Grrowls. She facilitates pet therapy with the Alzheimer's Association, and, with Cathy Panebianco, has developed a pilot program at Bush school that allows children to improve their reading skills by reading to a dog. This year, Hospice is also starting to use pet therapy, so that's another outlet for Maggie and her goldens.
Maggie chose the golden retriever because as a breed, they are friendly and easy to train, although Jackson, she says, failed his Canine Good Citizen test because he was too friendly. That doesn't stop him from being a great therapy dog, though, and Maggie and Jackson visit Jones Memorial Health Center every other Monday, spending time in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation wing, where Jackson elevates the mood, and, she says, he is a "natural hazard" during the popular bocce games.
Cody lends his talents in the Alzheimer's unit and will walk with people, helping them get used to their walkers. Patients tend to walk farther when they are with a dog, so Cody and Maggie team up to encourage longer strolls. "No one believes me when I say he's my wild child," said Maggie. "At home, he's always moving, always active. When he goes to work, he's calm and sedate."
Cody and Jackson are also part of the Chautauqua County Humane Society Humane Education program at Jefferson Middle School. Sue Bobek instructs students in how to care for a dog, how to approach a dog and how to properly pet the animal. In the fourth lesson, the students meet a dog.
Besides working with her dogs to help others, Maggie works to help goldens who aren't as fortunate as her trio. Spice is the 17th dog that Maggie has fostered in less than three years. "It's my job to evaluate the dog; to determine what kind of a home would be best for that particular animal, " says Maggie. "For instance, it took me awhile to realize that Spice didn't want dry dog food. She prefers canned." Spice obviously gets along well with other dogs, and she's learning to play with the many toys that are scattered everywhere.
"She's not too fond of carrots, yet," Maggie says, getting her boys to line up in anticipation of a treat. Maggie throws a baby carrot to each of the dogs, and this time, Spice eats hers. Maggie counts that as progress.
She idly plucks dead fur from the nearest golden. "I'm so fortunate. I love the elderly and I love dogs, and I get to work with both." The elderly and the dogs are also fortunate to have Maggie Irwin on their side.