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Surfin’ Sato Executive Director Aimee Goodwin Puts Passion to Work

  • Aimee Goodwin, executive director of Surfin' Sato, walks dogs belonging to clients of her dog-walking business, including Rico, right, who was brought back from Puerto Rico on a previous visit, on Friday, December 15, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Aimee Goodwin, executive director of Surfin' Sato, leads an informational session with Hanover High School students on Thursday, December 14, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Aimee Goodwin, executive director of Surfin' Sato, prepares to walk dogs belonging to clients of her dog-walking business, including Rico, right, who was brought back from Puerto Rico on a previous visit, on Friday, December 15, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Aimee Goodwin administers antibiotics to her dog and several Puerto Rican rescue puppies potentially infected with leptospirosis at her home in Norwich, Vt., Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Aimee Goodwin relaxes with rescue puppies from Puerto Rico at her home in Norwich, Vt., Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/30/2017 11:49:49 PM
Modified: 1/2/2018 12:28:30 PM

Norwich — Shortly before 2 p.m. one recent afternoon, a silver SUV pulled into the Norwich Farms parking lot, off Turnpike Road, and crunched to a stop at the head of the Brookmead Conservation Area trail.

Aimee Goodwin opened the car door, and five canine passengers exploded from the vehicle. With the frantic energy of dogs unwalked, they charged this way and that, sniffed at interesting shrubs and squatted to make steaming deliveries to the pristine snow.

“Addie!” she shouted, trying to control a particularly rambunctious golden retriever. “Addie! Addie!”

After wrestling a neon vest onto each wriggling pet, Goodwin, a 46-year-old lover of dogs who has made that passion her profession, set off down the wooded trail with her pack trotting close by.

Unlike most other area dog walkers, Goodwin markets her outings as “adventures” — off-the-leash excursions that give dogs room to roam. Hence the name of the business she runs from her Norwich home: Canine Mountain Adventures.

But she is perhaps best known for the nonprofit she dreamed up in 2016 that rescues stray dogs from Rincon, Puerto Rico, a surf town on the west coast of the U.S. territorial island.

Known as Surfin’ Sato, a reference to the town and to the local term for a stray pup, Goodwin’s group brings animals to the Upper Valley and pairs them with local families. She also brings volunteers, many of them from Hanover High School, to the island.

After more than a year of hard work, community-building and a public health scare that became a teachable moment, Goodwin is ready to expand Surfin’ Sato’s reach to help more pets and more families — and maybe someday even more than just one island.

“What began as a personal project in response to my kids’ heartbreak over seeing so many strays when we travel has grown into Surfin’ Sato, a nonprofit organization dedicated to animal welfare education through service learning and adventure,” she said in a recent letter to her volunteers. “It’s been amazing to watch both students and adults respond so enthusiastically to our mission.”

By heartbreak, Goodwin was referring to her son Azor, who during family trips to developing countries had noticed aloud the number of stray dogs roaming the streets looking unwashed, unfed and unloved.

But one might also say that Surfin’ Sato’s genesis stretches back to Goodwin’s childhood in Marblehead, Mass. A few things haven’t changed since then, namely her adoration of dogs and her enterprising nature.

As the 9-year-old founder of her own dog care business, she persuaded local veterinarians to hand out her cards to clients. She still remembers what the cards looked like: white, with a hand holding a magnifying glass and her outfit’s name, Pet Watch, emblazoned in bold letters.

She went on to attend Colorado State University and earn a master’s in forestry at Northern Arizona University; later, she shied away from desk jobs in favor of a more active lifestyle as a personal trainer.

Now, Goodwin shares her animal ventures with her business partner, Michelle Gottlieb, a former videographer and physical therapist who also lives in Norwich.

In an interview last week, Gottlieb described herself as the efficient one and Goodwin as the “vision girl.”

“I’m really organized and I have everything in a row,” she said, whereas with Goodwin, “when she has her sights on something, there’s no stopping her.”

That resolve was tested last month when an imported sato from the latest batch of 10 tested positive for leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that is transmissible to humans through infected dog urine.

Goodwin noticed the symptoms after having distributed several puppies to foster owners around the Upper Valley, and also after the sickened dog came into contact with people at a promotional event in Hanover.

She spent a day in a frantic rush around the region, delivering prophylactic doses of antibiotics to families and fielding inquiries from New Hampshire health officials about potential exposure to the public.

No human cases were reported, and foster families at the time praised Goodwin for her quick reaction. Two dogs died.

Goodwin took the incident as an opportunity to spread the message about the dire situation in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, telling the Valley News at the time, “The message that I would like for people to consider is that this is just a little snapshot of what people’s lives are like every day in Puerto Rico right now.”

“They don’t have a health department calling them and telling them what to do in the face of leptospirosis,” she said. “They don’t have doxycycline to treat themselves and their pets prophylactically. (These) U.S. citizens don’t have the resources that we do every day.”

New Hampshire health officials earlier this month confirmed that they had closed their investigation and that they believed any public health risk had passed.

Jake Leon, director of communications at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that anyone with health concerns stemming from contact with Puerto Rican puppies contact their health care provider. He added that health authorities do not expect new leptospirosis cases to arise from this batch of dogs, because symptoms usually emerge between five and 14 days after contact with infected urine.

After the incident, Surfin’ Sato announced a pause to dog rescues while it updated its safety measures.

The Norwich-based nonprofit now will work primarily with established organizations such as Animal Rescue Foundation, which has the resources to fully screen dogs, unlike some of the backyard rescuers who gave puppies to Surfin’ Sato following the devastating storm.

Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, knocking out power and cutting off access to essential services and clean water for months. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the official government death toll of 62 likely was low by roughly 1,000 fatalities.

Goodwin is headed down to Puerto Rico in January to drop off supplies and volunteers, and when she comes back, she said, she intends to bring more puppies with her.

Cleo Roback and Liam Gurman, seniors at Hanover High, are going with Goodwin, who will drop them off for an expense-paid volunteer fellowship in Rincon.

Roback, who plans to stay for four months before attending Hampshire College, said she grew interested in the fellowship after visiting the island with fellow Hanover students through Surfin’ Sato last spring.

Roback met Puerto Rican schoolchildren on that visit, including some who participate in local dog rescue efforts. She said she looked forward to reconnecting with them after hearing their accounts of the storm and its aftermath through social media.

“Although it was hectic,” she said, “they’ve been able to pick up the pieces.”

As Surfin’ Sato fellows, Roback and Gurman will help ferry dogs to veterinary visits and to the airport, and otherwise they largely will be free to pursue their own projects, she said.

Also on the trip will be Chris Brien of Riverlight Builders, a Norwich-based design-build firm that he co-owns with his wife, Deb, a friend of Goodwin’s.

Brien said he planned to build between four and eight new kennels for dog owners and rescuers over the weeklong visit.

Organizers say they’re planning to provide roofed sheds to keep out bacteria-filled water of the kind that likely infected the latest batch of puppies, and Goodwin is beating the bushes for donations of low-cost motion-sensitive lights than can scare away infectious rats.

“The pictures of the kennels I’ve seen there are pretty rough,” Brien said, adding of the replacements he plans to build, “hopefully it will stand up to a storm, and be even better than what was there before.”

Among many things occupying Goodwin before Tuesday’s departure date is fundraising — the morning of her Brookmead walk had been spent making appeals to donors by phone and through Facebook.

Many shelters put down infected dogs due to a lack of treatment resources, and so Goodwin has been collecting money to bring down leptospirosis test kits and doxycycline doses to distribute.

“We are behind, behind, behind,” she said, her breath coming shorter as she followed the dogs up a hill.

Expanding the services that Surfin’ Sato offers in Puerto Rico is only part of her vision for the future, Goodwin said. Someday — maybe not that long from now — the nonprofit might open branches in other U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands, she said.

A few minutes later, she stopped midsentence and looked back along the trail.

Max, an aging, slightly rotund terrier mix, had been bringing up the rear, either too shy or too tired to leap and growl with the others. Now he had vanished. But Goodwin didn’t seem concerned; Max was her dog, and she knew his ways.

“He probably got tired and headed back to the car,” she said after calling his name a few times.

On the way to the parking lot, Goodwin made a stab at explaining her connection to dogs.

“It’s the unconditional friendship that you have with them,” she said. “You get what you give, which is not always the case with humans.”

Pressed on that passing shot against her own species, she added, “There’s no games. There’s no B.S. There’s no ulterior motives.”

“You know what they’re about,” Goodwin said, scanning the trail for Max’s bright blue bib. “They’re in it for a walk and a nap, and then, maybe, a treat afterward.”

As Goodwin and her pack emerged from the woods, she caught sight of a small white shape at the bottom of the hill, near the parking lot.

“Maxie!” she shouted.

The little figure perked up and began trotting her way, his mouth open and his tongue lolling out. It didn’t take an Aimee Goodwin to see that he was smiling.

 Rob Wolfe can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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