Writer / Rebecca Wood Photography// Submitted and JJ Kaplan
Spencer, a Golden Retriever, is sprawled out across a front entry rug. He’s tuckered out and seems content to bask in the sunlight filtering in through the windows. On this first impression alone, one would likely call Spencer “docile,” but owner Dani Robinson-Gay says there’s much more to his personality.
When pushed to describe Spencer, Robinson-Gay refers to him as “cocky and confident.” She adds, “He’s not the sort of dog that would back away from a bar fight.” But he won’t likely come to blows as Robinson-Gay also observes that not much seems to rattle Spencer.
What is also apparent is that Spencer is a dog with a few great loves, and food ranks at the top of the list. Yet, he will walk away from a full dish when Robinson-Gay brings out his work uniform.
The uniform, a blue vest that fits snuggly along his torso, signifies that Spencer is a therapy dog. His place of “employment” is primarily at Stonegate Elementary School. He is also part of the Love on the Leash crisis team that provides comfort to children in other difficult situations.
Robinson-Gay and Spencer are a certified therapy pet team. To secure this title, Robinson-Gay and Spencer spent a year participating in obedience training sessions, evaluations and supervised visits with the Love on a Leash organization.
Therapy dogs are often mistaken for service animals, but there are many differences. The primary role of a therapy animal is to provide comfort and stress relief to others. They can be found in schools, nursing homes and hospitals. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not under the protection of federal laws and may only enter public places with permission of the owner.
After Robinson-Gay and Spencer became certified, they became a frequent visitor at Stonegate Elementary School in Zionsville. Initially, the two would primarily visit classrooms and teach kids about therapy dogs, dog etiquette and pet safety. Then, the guidance department incorporated Spencer into conversations with children.
Spencer’s most profound relationship has been with Avery Irwin. In February 2017, Avery was a then-fourth grade student at Stonegate Elementary School. A discussion erupted in her music class about Spencer. Avery raised her hand in class and asked Mr. Joe Budd, her music educator, whether she could pet the dog.
“That moment was very enlightening to me,” recalls Mr. Budd. “I asked Avery to stay behind as class was dismissed. I asked her if she would be interested in spending time with Spencer. She was very interested. I told her that I was going to try to make that happen for her. “
With one phone call from Mr. Budd, Spencer and Avery were connected and became fast friends. Once a week, Avery would meet Spencer in the guidance office. “Spencer would do a doggy hug and lean on her leg,” Robinson-Gay remembers. “I went in with no expectations, but had the privilege to see and witness their bond.”
Avery refers to Spencer as “nice.” She says that he never jumped and gave friendly hugs.
This was a time in Avery’s life where spending time with Spencer was a needed comfort. Avery’s mom was battling stage 4 breast cancer with doctors predicting she had a few more months to live.
On the evening of May 18, 2017, Robinson-Gay received a call from Avery’s dad, Jeff. Avery’s mother had just passed away, and Avery was requesting to see Spencer. Robinson-Gay was on the baseball field, but she rushed home and grabbed Spencer. A few minutes later, the pair arrived at Avery’s door.
For the next hour, Avery walked Spencer around her neighborhood with Robinson-Gay alongside. Avery commented that Spencer wasn’t wearing his vest. Robinson-Gay replied that Spencer wasn’t working that night, but he was there as her friend.
In the following days, Spencer accompanied Avery to her mother’s visitation. At the funeral, he sat in the front row alongside his friend, Avery. Jeff said Spencer provided Avery with an outlet and comfort during that difficult time.
Robinson-Gay admits that through the whole process, she has always been cognizant that she is not a therapist. “I don’t have the answers,” Robinson-Gay acknowledges. “My job is to let the people and the dog do their thing. It gives permission for people to just be.”
Spencer has brightened the lives of other children as a member of the Love on the Leash crisis team. In January 2016, the pair visited the Lawrence elementary school in which the school’s principal had just been killed in a random school bus accident.
Spencer and Robinson-Gay wandered the school halls. Teachers and children would filter out of the classroom and love on Spencer. Robinson-Gay vividly remembers a girl wandering over to Spencer and petting his coat. Robinson-Gay commented on her beautiful smile. “The little girl replied, ‘Then Spencer is helping because I don’t smile a lot.’”
A few weeks ago, at a routine vet visit, a cancerous tumor was found on Spencer’s back. He quickly underwent an operation to remove the tumor. Robinson-Gay is hopeful for a full recovery. He’ll return to Stonegate Elementary School when he is back to good health.
Robinson-Gay is mindful of the fact that Spencer is advancing in years. (She thinks he is 9 years old.) At some point, Spencer will need to retire. She takes comfort in knowing that when Spencer was needed, he was used in great ways, especially for Avery.
Robinson-Gay hopes to be part of a pet therapy team for many years into the future. “My time is not done with this. It is a neat way to be part of something and witness something special in a unique setting.”
For more information on Love on a Leash, visit loveonaleash.org.