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Meet Samson, FGCU’s therapy dog

For Samson, a day at work means being petted, snuggled and adored.

(Photo courtesy of Gary Gambrell)

Samson is a therapy dog and he comes to campus every Wednesday as part of FGCU’s Prevention and Wellness program.

“He loves the attention,” Gary Gambrell, Samson’s owner, said in an interview.

Samson is a Great Pyrenees, a breed that is distinguished by its thick white coat and gentle nature. Samson’s ancestors once lived in the Pyrenees mountains, the location from which the breed takes its name.

During the day, dogs like Samson travel with livestock like sheep, their white coat allowing them to blend into the flock. At night, Great Pyrenees stay awake and protect the livestock from predators.

It is this guardian-like personality that makes Samson an ideal therapy dog.

“Animal therapy has a significant, very positive effect on mental health,” Terrence Leary, Assistant Professor of Psychology, said. “There is historical precedence for this. The ancient city, Cynopolis [City of Dogs] was so named because of the belief that being ‘licked’ by a dog was an inherent healing process both physically and mentally.”

Samson spends most of his time as a therapy animal, traveling with Gambrell to different locations in Florida.

“We make it a point to go and work somewhere together every single day,” Gambrell said.

Beyond FGCU, Samson works in nursing homes and hospitals, at special needs baseball games and Veteran’s honor ceremonies.

“Everybody has a pet they hang out with, but Samson and I actually go to work together,” Gambrell said. “That’s a very special bond.”

Samson didn’t always have such a loving owner.

Gambrell adopted Samson from an animal shelter near Pauline, South Carolina, where Gambrell lived at the time.

Prior to being at the shelter, Samson had been living on the streets, evading the dog catcher for three months and living, as Gambrell put it, off the good graces of other people.

Gambrell visited the shelter looking for his cat that had gone missing. While he was there, he saw Samson for the first time.

“I noticed a Great Pyrenees in one of the cages and I knew that my wife had grown up with a Great Pyrenees.”

After hearing the news, Mary Robin, Gambrell’s wife, went to the shelter the next day and came home with Samson.

“When I was growing up, my dog, Vanessa, was always with me,” Mary Robin said. “We were very close and it was such a good relationship that I knew I wanted more relationships with Great Pyrenees in the future.”

Mary Robin moved around every few months throughout her entire childhood. With her father in the Air Force, there were few constants in her life except for Vanessa.

“I didn’t have any siblings, but Vanessa moved with me every time, so that’s one of the reasons I became so close that dog and that breed.”

When Gambrell and his wife took Samson in around Thanksgiving, Samson was only sixty pounds. A Great Pyrenees should, on average, weigh around one hundred pounds.

“He was so thin and so afraid of almost everything: cars, stairs, garage doors,” Gambrell said. “He wasn’t used to affection.”

After a few months, Samson started to come around, warming up to his family and adjusting to his new life. Yet, Gambrell sensed Samson was still unhappy.

“He didn’t want to play. He didn’t eat much. I started reading online, and I read an article that Samson is in the working class of dogs. I realized that Samson needed a job, so that he felt like he earned his supper.”

Gambrell learned about therapy dog work from his neighbor and the rest is history.

“He took to it like a duck to water,” Gambrell said. “We’ve been doing therapy work for seven full years, going on our eighth.”

Whether he’s working at hospice or greeting the crowds outside one of FGCU’s basketball games, Samson loves the work he does.

“The therapy work is good for Samson and Gary,” Mary Robin said. “I know it gives them a lot of joy.”

Outside therapy work, Samson enjoys eating hot dogs, spending time at the beach, and chasing the ducks that sit on the edge of the pond near his home. He loves running so much that he even runs in his sleep.

“I can’t imagine my life without Samson,” Gambrell said. “The therapy work…it’s a win-win for everybody.”

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