The Canine Counselor
Therapy dog Mordecai has transformed the practice at Bays Family Law
Published in 2019 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 7, 2019
Updated on July 2, 2019
When Jennifer Bays Beinart graduated from law school, her mother, Donna Bays, gave her a gift: Gideon Wainwright, a rat terrier named for the 1963 Supreme Court case. And when Gideon joined their family law and estate planning firm as its official mascot, Donna decided to adopt a dog of her own. Little did they know how much it would change their practice.
“When I brought Mordecai to work, I realized he had an ability to sense human emotions before it was visible to me,” Donna says. “What he does is he lays on the sofa at the back of my office and, when clients come in, right before they’re about to burst into tears or have a strong emotional reaction, he would walk over to the visitor’s chair, lean in, put his paw up on the chair, and they would cry while petting him. I saw this over and over again. That’s when I decided to get him trained and certified as a therapy dog.”
The 8-year-old bichon frise is now officially the director of morale at Bays Family Law, charged with assisting clients during the grief process.
“A divorce is a death of a relationship, so clients are very fragile and emotional,” Jennifer says. “He is a great distraction when emotions get too high. He reduces conflict, because it’s hard to stay mad when you’re petting a fluffy white dog who’s wagging his tail and smiling. It can get things settled in a less tense, quicker manner.”
Clients comforted by Mordecai have included a cancer patient making hospice plans and a former motorcycle racer going through a custody battle while dealing with the aftermath of his business catching fire. “He was a tough, macho guy in the automotive world dealing with these two major things, and he’s reaching down to pet Mordecai as he talks to me,” Donna recalls. “I just looked at him and said, ‘This must be so emotional for you.’ He says, ‘You have no idea.’ To this day, that client refers me a lot of people and tells them the story of how this dog helped get him through it.”
While Donna is known for child custody litigation, she also serves as a guardian ad litem and handles parent coordinating; Mordecai helps with both. She remembers representing a 19-year-old woman with Down syndrome during an argument over guardianship between the woman’s parents. “Later on, she came to visit me and I asked her how work was going,” Donna recalls. “Mordecai gave me a look that immediately told me she was upset. … Because of his alert, I immediately asked something else and switched angles. After that discussion, I took the parent aside to ask about it. It turned out she had lost her job. They said, ‘How did you know?’”
Since Mordecai’s specialty is intense grief, Donna says, she shares his talents at nursing homes and hospitals, and with Indiana’s Crisis Assistance Response Team. He extends the same service to abused and neglected children through Kids’ Voice of Indiana and even to stressed-out law students during finals week.
The benefits aren’t limited to clients, either. “[The dogs] make it a lot more palatable to work the long hours that we sometimes do, away from our homes,” Jennifer says. “Sometimes you can get burnout, but then you sit with a dog and pet him for a while, and you’re ready to go back.”
Mordecai has had to sit things out—if clients are afraid of dogs or don’t want to upset their own pet—but those times are exceedingly rare. “He just has a way with people that is happy-go-lucky, completely unthreatening and comforting,” Jennifer says. “He’s so soft, it takes you back to when you’re a kid and you took that blanket or teddy bear around with you. When you’re in that moment of emotionality and darkness, it helps to have something that warm and comforting.”