A Man and His Good Dog: Volunteers of the Year


Contributing Writer
Walt Pickut

Lakewood’s John Livingston and his 3-year-old golden retriever, Clifford, were recently honored with the titles of Volunteer of the Year for John and “Mr. July” for Clifford.

Therapy Dogs United of Erie, PA, announced the awards at their annual fundraiser on November 11, showcasing Clifford, one of the 12 dogs selected in a nationwide competition, for their “Top Dog” National 2023 calendar. Clifford is “Mr. July.” Clifford is also a delightful, 94-pound golden retriever “puppy” who loves vanilla ice cream.

Good Dog

“I just can’t tell you how much it changes the atmosphere when Clifford enters a room.” John told the Gazette last week. “It’s remarkable and heartwarming.”

A therapy dog, as John explains it, is a very special animal with a unique ability to bring peace, comfort, and joy to folks who need it most.

“The thing that amazes me most about Clifford,” John said, “is that he seems to know when you’re having a bad day. Dogs understand these things in a way we can’t understand, but we can sure appreciate it. They understand a bad day, and they know what to do about it.”
A New Dog

The non-profit, national organization with its closest office in Erie, PA, is called Therapy Dogs United. Their mission is “to inspire emotional and physical healing…by fostering the unconditional love of a dog to provide solace through difficult moments and enrichment during milestone moments.” Therapy Dogs United is a nationwide non-profit organization with its closest office in Erie, PA.

“Clifford is the first dog I’ve ever had,” John said, “yet I knew there was something special about him. Ever since he was a puppy, he’s been just a laid-back dog, easy going and gentle.”

“I wasn’t planning to ever get a dog, but my daughter Amy’s dog, Nova, had had a litter of eight puppies. She named one Clifford. He was the only one afraid to come down the stairs. I encouraged him as gently as I could to take that first big step. He finally did it! Then he wouldn’t leave my side. He followed me everywhere. And I suddenly had a dog,” John now says with a delighted smile

Training for Therapy

John called Pat Christianson, the executive director at Therapy Dogs United in Erie and asked her how to go about getting Clifford qualified as a therapy dog. “Only dogs over the age of two and trained to standard commands,” Pat explained, “would be eligible for further training,”

“So, I taught Clifford his basics,” John said, “and he passed his tests the first time with flying colors at the home office in Erie. He was ready.” Clifford, as far as John knows, is now one of the only two therapy dogs in Chautauqua County. Therapy dog owners, John added, are not allowed to charge for the dog’s services. “We are all volunteers.”

One of the lessons John learned in his work with Training Dogs United and with Clifford is that dogs are better trained with gentleness and kindness than with punishment and restrictions.

“If you train your dog properly,” John wants Gazette readers to know, “you don’t need any harsh restraints or limitations.”

Therapy Works!

“Clifford and I go to Lincoln School and Southwestern Elementary every week,” John explained, “and we always go to the special-needs classes first. The change in the students’ demeanor is just remarkable,” he said, clearly amazed.

“You gotta be there to see it. I’ve had kids who are really having a bad day, crying and upset, unable to function in the classroom, yet when I bring Clifford into the room their faces just light up. They go from a frown to a smile.”

“One day when Clifford and I had finished our rounds through the school, we returned to the Principal’s office. A little girl was there, crying. She’d had a bad day in class and been sent down to the office. At that point Clifford knew what to do. He just went right over to be with her. She started to pet him, and before we left, which was only 15 minutes later, her attitude had gone from crying to laughing.

Making Friends

Another child, one who had previously been bitten by a dog, was terrified when he first saw Clifford. He wouldn’t even approach him.

But a half-hour later, when it was time to leave the classroom, John recalled, the boy had become comfortable enough to at least get close. Then, at the next classroom visit a week later, that boy actually petted Clifford.

Clifford had made him feel safe enough to look past his previous drastic experience. Clifford is friendly in a way children can understand, and never aggressive in any way.

Many Invitations

“I have so many different requests to bring Clifford to places all around the community,” John said. “I enjoy doing it and it’s fun. I think the people I come in contact with benefit from it.”

Among the groups, organizations, and events where Clifford has brought his healing ways are grief management classes, doctors’ offices, hospital and clinic-based cancer care units, Alzheimer’s care facilities, adult day care in nursing homes, physical therapy departments, funeral homes, and almost anywhere else that people are having a really rough time.

“There is such a need for therapy dogs and people are just coming to understand how important it is,” John added.

Making the Rounds

John Livingston is no stranger to local schools. He taught for 34 years in the Jamestown school system, in metal shop and woodshop, and in computer technology. He enjoys going back now with Clifford.

“When Clifford and I go to school—two days every week—kids going to class make a big fuss over him,” John said. “They play with his ears, they rub his belly and pet him and he just loves it. He’s never been aggressive with anybody, but he is protective of our house. He just lets me know if somebody’s there who he doesn’t think should be.”

“For me, the payoff is the look on the kids’ faces, their smiles,” John says, patting Clifford as he speaks. “When we come into a school building, the kids see Clifford and I always hear at least one kid yell loud enough for everybody to hear, ‘Clifford’s here today! Clifford’s here!’ That’s my reward.”

And at nursing homes, John recalls, Clifford revives many precious memories among folks who really need to reconnect with that part of their life. He especially remembers one frail elderly lady who let John know “Clifford made my day!”

Join In Please

“If someone thinks their dog would make a good therapy dog,” John explained, “they should contact Therapy Dogs United. Any breed of dog, whether mixed or purebred, can make an excellent therapy dog.

“I’d love to encourage other people to work with a therapy dog,” he added. “It’s very much needed, there are people in need of help all the time, and giving that kind of help is a truly heartwarming experience. So many organizations would love to have people come with a therapy dog.”

A number of people, after meeting Clifford, decided they should really get a dog of their own. But that’s a serious commitment, according to John, because dogs need companionship as much as people do, and dog ownership comes with a responsibility not too different from the responsibility of parenting.

Whenever John and Clifford travel, Clifford has his vest on, clearly indicating he is a registered therapy dog. He and every other therapy dog is accepted almost anywhere, any business, any school, library, funeral home, and more.

Friends and Sponsors

The awards presented to John, Clifford, and others on November 11 were made possible by many local sponsors who included Century 21, Southern Tier Credit Union, Lakeshore Savings Bank, Jamestown Federal Credit Union, Jamestown Kitchens, Robo Enterprises, and Lisa Schmidtfrerick-Miller.

A Clarification

In concluding his conversation with the Gazette, John offered a simple clarification. “People often confuse therapy dogs with service dogs. They’re both wonderful, but very different.

A service dog is trained to respond to one person’s needs and commands only. There intensively trained—together with their master—over a period of many months. No one else is supposed to touch them or feed them or interact with them in any way. They have work to do helping their masters.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, expect and hope to be interacted with by everybody, both emotionally and physically.

Learn more

The Jamestown Gazette encourages our readers to visit www.therapydogsunited.org/ and be inspired by their work across our region and across the nation.

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Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.