“Chief” a therapy dog owned by Sanford Fire Chief Steve Benotti and his wife Louise, will soon be headed to Colorado for surgery to remove a cancer from his heart. Chief is a well loved dog in York County and beyond and regularly makes stops at nursing homes, schools and other venues. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

SANFORD  — Maybe it is  his soulful eyes — maybe it is his expression, maybe it is that winning combination. When “Chief”  looks into a person’s eyes and tilts his head, just a bit, well, even non-dog  lovers are smitten.

Sanford Fire Chief Steve Benotti poses with “Chief,” who is both a family pet and therapy dog. Chief will be stepping back from his therapy duties for a while, as he undergoes surgery in Colorado next month-TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

Chief, who was named Chief before he was adopted through Labrador Rescue by Sanford Fire Chief Steve Benotti and his wife Louise, is a certified therapy dog. He can help your reading skills if you’re a young person having trouble in that department, like he does at Acton Elementary School, where youngsters can go read, one-on-one, to Chief.

He’s a visitor at nursing homes, at Alzheimer’s units, and brings a calmness to pretty much any situation, said Benotti Tuesday.

Chief is also intuitive, said Benotti, somehow knowing when someone needs his calm presence. That played out earlier this year when a friend, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was in the hospital. Chief went to visit, and greeted everyone in the room and then went to sit at Gary Johnson’s feet — and stayed with the ill man through the entire visit.

“Somehow, he picks up on who is in need,” said Benotti.

These days Chief,  who is 7-years-old, is still his loving self, but has also been diagnosed with cancer, and will be traveling to Colorado soon for surgery. His prognosis is good — the recovery rate is estimated at 80 percent, said Benotti.

His condition –  he has an etopic thyroid tumor – is rare, and stems from a a portion of thyroid tissue that broke away and lodged in the right ventricle of his heart. Veterinarians believe the tumor has been there for some time, but only recently turned cancerous. Testing shows the cancer is localized and has not spread.

Benotti said Chief was diagnosed after he and Louise noticed 4 or 5 weeks ago that he was getting chubby. It turns out he was carrying a large amount of fluid, because the tissue was closing off blood flow. So it was on to  Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts, at the recommendation of University of Colorado Veterinary professor Valerie Johnson — the daughter of Gary Johnson, the cancer patient who had been the recipient of Chief’s calm, gentle companionship.

Vets drained the fluid — 5 1/2 liters in all — and now Chief is on a host of medications, including chemotherapy pills three days a week, with the thought it will shrink the tumor.

But chemotherapy goes only so far, and so again, at the recommendation of Johnson, the Benotti’s  will depart for Colorado early next year, where Dr. Chris Orton, a veterinary cardiologist, will perform the surgery. 

The Benotti’s were prepared to take care of the surgery costs themselves, Steve Benotti said, because Chief is part of the family, but others have stepped in to suggest that  those whose families have benefitted from Chief’s calm therapy, might like to contribute.

Acton firefighter paramedic Sharon Jackson and Acton Fire Chief Steve Johnson approached the Benottis and asked if they could set up a fund to help with Chief’s surgery and care. The Benottis agreed.

“If you feel Chief has done something for you, you can contribute,” said Benotti. He said any left over funds would be turned over to Pet Partners, who provided Chief’s therapy training. 

“Chief  helps everybody, “ said Steve Johnson. “He’s always giving and I know how my Dad (Gary Johnson) felt abut him. He’s a pretty special dog.”

Contributions may be made at: https://www.gofundme.com/chief-benotti-heart-surgery.

Meanwhile, as he awaits his surgery, Chief seems to be doing well.  He  takes a few more naps than in the past, but he still walks over to greet a stranger or a friend.

“I’ve had many wonderful dogs,”  said Benotti, reaching down to give Chief a pat. “None compare to him.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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