Four-legged therapy

Irish and Niki McNeil

photo by shannon rooney

Chico resident Irish McNeil and her 18-month-old golden retriever, Niki, bring smiles to the faces of patients at Enloe Cancer Center through Enloe Medical Center’s Paws Program. McNeil and Niki recently completed an animal-assisted-activities dog-certification process, studying online through Pet Partners and receiving training at the Canine Connection, a Chico-based training center. Among Niki’s various skills, she can “shake” and “wave goodbye,” and she’s also learning how to “give a blessing.”

How did you decide to participate in Enloe’s Paws Program?

A couple years ago, I was really sick—so sick I could just lie on the couch, and it came to me I really wanted a dog to pet while I was lying there. The feeling was really strong in me what comfort it would be for me if I had a dog. Eventually, I knew I’d like this dog to become a dog for animal-assisted activities, so now we’re a pet partner team that goes into places where people are ailing, and we try to bring them a little bit of joy and take their minds off their unpleasant situations.

How did you acquire Niki?

On the day of the final pick [at the breeder’s], she’s the dog I chose. I couldn’t have asked for a better dog. She has all the right qualities.

What’s happened when Niki has worked with patients?

When we were leaving after Niki’s first visit [at the Enloe Cancer Center], several patients just started clapping. They were smiling. They were happy. I’ve had people say, “You just made my day,” just because of her loving and doing the things she does. People are just so anxious to see her—I mean, they clearly don’t care about me! It’s all about her! I’m just the person at the end of the leash. Sometimes I ask them if they have a dog or if they’ve had one—and they’ll start talking about their dog or a dog they had as a kid. And I can see that for that period of time, that really transforms them. They’re in a happy place for that time we’re there.

What is Niki’s claim to fame?

She’s one of the youngest dogs in this area to pass the examination for an animal-assisted-activities dog.

What do you see for the future?

I’m hoping that in the new Magnolia Tower there will be an area for pet partners to come in for the kids. I think that would be so helpful for the kids, and they would enjoy it so much.