Wareham resident named top dog on service animal board

Jul 31, 2022

When Geoff Worrell was a young child, he wasn’t particularly fond of dogs.

The long-time Wareham resident was bitten by two different beagles within the span of six months when he was about 7 years old, he said, which didn’t exactly encourage him to become dogs’ best friend.

One collie, one Irish setter and several golden retrievers later, Worrell is firmly in the “dog person” category.

He’s recently been appointed chair of the board of directors of NEADS, formerly known as National Education for Assistance Dog Services and Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. NEADS trains service dog teams for people with disabilities, veterans, incarcerated people and workers in care settings, like hospitals or schools.

“We’ve always seen the positive impact that dogs can do,” Worrell said of his family’s experience with dogs in the past few decades.

Worrell joined NEADS’ board in January 2021, but his experience with dogs with jobs goes back farther.

He and his wife, Cindy, owned a few dogs for some time, but then Cindy developed allergies to canines. When the dogs later died, the couple figured they wouldn’t be able to find new furry friends.

In 2004, Cindy was diagnosed with cancer.

While she was in the hospital, the couple found joy in the therapy dogs that would briefly visit her room. Their daughter got a dog in 2006, who the Worrells visited and Cindy grew close to.

Later, the couple realized that Cindy’s dog allergies had disappeared — an occasional side effect of chemotherapy, an oncologist informed them.

“So my daughter realized how close my wife became with that dog,” Worrell said of his daughter’s golden retriever, “so we kept her for a long time.”

She died, Worrell said, in 2016.

He recounted his memories of his wife, their dogs and his journey to working with NEADS while his golden retriever Kai, who turns 3 in August, laid quietly on the ground by his side.

Kai went through training in a different service dog program, Worrell said, but he’s a “furloughed favorite,” meaning he didn’t quite make the cut. That’s not uncommon, as the dropout rate is around 50%, he said.
The fluffy golden retriever was “hypervigilant,” Worrell said — too concerned with the surrounding environment.

Still, Kai is better trained than the average dog — he obeys commands quickly, can turn on a light switch, remains calm and, when the opportunity arises, enjoys a good treat.

“Using a sports analogy, it would be that the dogs who make it, to get matched with a client are in the NBA,” Worrell said. “And Kai is kind of like a professional who’s playing in Europe.”

The board chair has lived in Wareham since 1994, he said, but he’s originally from Montreal, Canada. Worrell has worked as a senior loan officer at a mortgage company for many years.

He’s not sure what first connected him to NEADS — there wasn’t one moment or trigger that brought him to the non-profit, he says.

But years after therapy dogs brought him and his wife comfort at Mass General, he now works to support a nonprofit that trains dogs to help others. Something he’s looking forward to is Wareham School Resource Officer Karl Baptiste being matched with an assistance dog, for use in the school district.

Baptiste spoke highly of Worrell’s character, and said having an assistance dog would help him connect with students and deescalate tense moments.

“He’s been instrumental in getting that going for the town,” Baptiste said of Worrell’s work in helping connect the school district with NEADS. “He just can’t do enough for people.”

The process has been a few years in the making, Baptiste said, but he added that hopefully, he’ll be matched with a dog come fall or winter.

In the meantime, Worrell will be serving his first few months leading NEADS board of directors as chair.

“My goal with NEADS is to help make a difference for others,” Worrell said, “and make it a better life for people who need the help and support.”