She’s one of the most loved team members

The playful inquisitive Golden Retriever, “Avery” is one of the most loved team members at IU Health West.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J Banes,

She waddles down the hallway like a fashion model strutting on the runway. She turns three in May and already this Golden Retriever exudes the confidence of a 30-year-old. At home, Avery is playful and inquisitive but when she is on duty at IU Health West, she is meek and loving.

“I love that dog. She makes me happy and reminds me of my big German shepherd,” said patient Margaret “Maggie” Raub. With a little coaxing by Raub, Avery climbs onto her hospital bed and relaxes like she’s in no hurry to leave.

For the past year, Avery has made regular hospital visits with her owner Lesley Lautenschlager, an occupational therapist at IU Health West.

“Goldens are such great therapy dogs because they are people oriented and are a mild, gentle breed,” says Lautenschlager who has been with IU Health for 15 years and has been an occupational therapist for 31 years.

Lautenschlager first introduced “Moose” to the hospital patients in 2004. He went on to become a companion dog to a young girl with cerebral palsy. Then came “Chama” who joined Lautenschlager for 10 years.

When Chama passed in 2016, Lautenschlager vowed she wouldn’t take on another dog. The loss was too hard. But a veterinary that works with the Indiana Canine Assistance Network (ICAN) introduced her to Avery, a cousin of Chama. It was love at first site.

And it’s easy to see why.

Avery is a natural at interacting with the patients and staff. She makes everyone feel comfortable and at home. When her volunteer handler Lee McKnight enters the room, Avery nudges her and rolls over for tummy rubs.

“Patients just smile, lighten up and lose focus on themselves even momentarily,” said Lautenschlager.

Married 26 years to John Lautenschlager, a physical therapist, the couple has three children, Riley, 20, who is studying pre-veterinary science at Purdue, Jacob, a pre- med student at IU, and Dan, 23, an exercise science major at IUPUI.

It wasn’t always a Golden-haired dog that captured Lautenschlager’s attention.

In her youth, Lautenschlager was an active 4-H member who showed sheep, cattle and pigs. She had an early love of horses and began riding when she was in college.

“I think I came out of the womb loving horses,” said Lautenschlager. “My parents thought I’d grow out of it but it never happened.” Her daughter followed in her footsteps participating in 4-H and after her first year of showing dogs, Riley Lautenschlager decided she wanted to do more. She went on to become a nationally ranked junior handler – qualified for the prestigious Westminster Dog Show, and was a finalist at the Eukanuba National Championship.

“If you go to dog shows there are a lot of horse people and if you go to horse shows there are a lot of dog people,” said Lautenschlager. “The people are similar. Horse people are usually dog people.”

So she switched gears and along came her first Golden. At home, Avery hangs out with two Australian Shepherds – national show dogs.

With a canine good citizen certificate, Avery is trained to offer comfort but she also helps Lautenschlager with occupational therapy.

“I’ve used her to help patients with grooming. I had a patient who was blind and loved to brush her. It helped with hand mobility and range of motion,” said Lautenschlager. Some patients like to walk Avery. It gives them more purpose to their activity, said Lautenschlager.

And some patients like Margaret Raub just feel more at home in Avery’s presence.

“If she could stay on my bed all day, I wouldn’t mind being in the hospital so much,” said Raub.