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While still just a pup, Demeroto works with Winnie, who will become a breeder dog for the assistance dog program. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Many North Forkers are familiar with Cathy Demeroto as executive director of the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation (CAST), which helps feed families in need and assists them in finding employment and educational opportunities. Far fewer know that at home, at her office and everywhere else she goes, Demeroto works a second job — one that helps people far beyond the North Fork.

As an advisory board member and an assistance dog handler for Paws4people, a foundation based in Castle Hayne, N.C., Demeroto helps raise golden retrievers and golden mixes that grow up to serve veterans, as well as children and adults with disabilities.

For eight weeks at a time, Demeroto takes a new puppy — up to five months old — everywhere she goes so it develops social skills and learns to remain calm and focused as it encounters new sights, scents and sounds. Her most recent four-legged companion, Cosmo, from whom she recently parted so he can complete his training, marked the 22nd dog she and her family helped raise over the past nine years.

Demeroto also helped the organization launch a puppy development center in Maryland, where Paws4people recruits and trains families that, like hers, will train future service dogs.

Nine years ago, while living in Annapolis, Md., Demeroto worked at humanitarian organizations similar to CAST. Before that, she made her living as an attorney.

“I represented people with disabilities,” she says of her previous career. “I have seen service dogs in my work, and I love golden retrievers. I always had golden retrievers. So I was interested in the intersection between dogs and helping people with disabilities.”

Training days

Demeroto and Winnie explore the world. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Demeroto and each Paws4people golden retriever, pure or mixed, are joined at the hip for the requisite training period. 

“I take the puppies to work with me, I take them wherever I go,” she says. “So if I leave to go to the post office, or grab some lunch, or stop at the IGA, go to church or movie theaters, I take the puppies. They just become a natural part of my everyday life.”

Some dogs are more skittish than others when they begin training. She recalls one pup that was particularly afraid at a bowling alley. Rather than coddle the canine or take him home, instead she helped him power through his fear.

“You have to be very positive and encouraging,” she says. “You have to get them really excited about it, with a high-pitched voice like, ‘Come on, this is fine!’ By the end of that day, that puppy wanted to visit all the people who were bowling, but it took me about 45 minutes to work with the dog to get that comfort level.”

At CAST’s Southold office, Demeroto’s co-workers describe all her furry friends who have come and gone over the years as well-behaved compared to untrained dogs.

“You never hear them bark,” says CAST administrative assistant Maureen Rogers. “They don’t create a commotion of any kind. When little kids from downstairs would come up, they’d get so excited, and the puppies are just so well behaved and comfortable.”

A new leash on life

“I take the puppies to work with me, I take them wherever I go,” Demeroto says. “They just become a natural part of my everyday life.” (Photo credit: David Benthal)

After their time with Demeroto and her family, the pups get shipped off to — ruh-roh! — a maximum security prison.

No, they’re not in trouble. At the Saint Mary’s Correctional Center for men or the Lakin Correctional Center for women, both in West Virginia, the dogs work with prisoners and staff to learn more advanced commands and behaviors they’ll need to care for whoever they work with in the future.

But it’s not just the dogs who grow. This segment of the program, known as Paws4prisons, helps inmates cope with post-traumatic stress disorder related to experiences before and during incarceration. The program requires inmates who participate “to complete a series of leadership classes and essays designed to encourage [them] to work toward acceptance of their crimes, seek forgiveness where appropriate and move forward with their lives on a more positive and productive path,” according to the Paws4people website.

Typically, the dogs work with inmates for nine to 12 months, Demeroto explains, depending on when the staff determines they are trained and mature. Once they are ready, it is time for their “bump” ceremony. Candidates for the Paws4people program visit the prison, where they are greeted by a roomful of dogs. 

The dogs—not the humans—then choose their companions.

Photo credit: David Benthal

“They brought several dogs around me to see how I interacted with them and how they interacted with me,” says Jim Hoover, a veteran who was paired with a paws4people pup in April 2021. “That’s when they said Noble chose me. And then I started going down and training with Noble for a couple days each month, and then, after five, six months of training … brought him home with me.”

Since Hoover was injured in a training accident in 2012, the Spotsylvania, Va., resident has lived with chronic reactive airway dysfunction syndrome. When a particular scent or airborne pollutant, such as burning toast or pollen, enters his airway, the condition inhibits his ability to breathe.

“When I had problems breathing, if I was home alone, I couldn’t notify anybody,” he says. “When I can’t breathe, I can’t talk because my esophagus closes. And then I get real anxious because I can’t breathe and my hands start shaking. And then I can’t text anybody. So it was a little nerve wracking.”

Noble, Hoover’s service dog, does not prevent his breathing episodes from occurring, but rather mitigates their duration and severity and notifies help.

“Noble has been great, he’s made a huge difference for me and my family,” Hoover says. “He helps if I start to have problems breathing … he nudges me and helps me calm down with anxiety so I can try and catch my breathing before it gets worse. And then we have buttons in our house, one downstairs right outside my office and one in our bedroom, and he’ll press [either of] the buttons if I give him the command.”

When Hoover’s family is home and he is well, he says his dedicated and disciplined pooch behaves like any other.

“I could probably throw the ball all day and he won’t quit. He loves going on our boat … he goes in my neighbor’s pool and loves swimming, he’ll swim in our lake,” he says. “And he’s a mama’s boy when he’s not working… If [my wife, Cheri,] is upset or had a rough day at work, he’ll just go up and cuddle with her and make her feel better.”

Demeroto says her dogs also change once they get home and their vests come off.

“We play at the beach, we go for walks, we cuddle on the couch,” she says. “You know, they’re just like a family dog that’s very well trained.”

While the veterans, children and their families can love their dogs as long-term members of the family, this is impossible for Demeroto and hers.

“Each time I agree to take a puppy, I have to consciously remind myself that this is a service and you’re doing it for a greater good,” she explains. “You try not to get too emotionally attached to the puppy.”

Still, humans and dogs being how they are, that’s not always the easiest track to follow.

“There have been times when I have to give back the puppy and there are tears,” she says. “But I know that the dog has a much greater purpose. My sadness is minor compared to the great things that the dogs do.”