Spencer, a golden retriever who became the Boston Marathon’s official race dog, died at home in Holliston, Mass., on Feb. 17. He was 13 years and 6 ½ months old.
Rich Powers, his owner, said the cause was an inoperable cancer.
Spencer gained worldwide fame as an enthusiastic spectator along the Boston Marathon course. Rain, shine, or “freezing deluge,” Spencer dutifully held a “Boston Strong” flag as tens of thousands of runners streamed by, and hordes of fans stopped midrace for pets and photos. In 2022, he was honored by the Boston Athletic Association, the race’s organizer, as the official dog, the “Grand Barkshal” and a “V.I.P., Very Important Pup.”
Spencer was born on Aug. 8, 2009, in Upton, Mass. on a breeder’s farm. The Powers had two older goldens, Mandy and Misty, and no plans to add another. But Mandy had died on the same day that Spencer, then unknown to the family, was born. Misty was depressed without Mandy, and Rich thought getting another older dog could help.
Powers told his wife, Dorrey, they were going pumpkin picking and surprised her instead with a trip to the breeder’s farm. It turned into puppy picking. Dorrey gathered up Spencer, just eight weeks old and said, “I want this one.”
Once home, Rich Powers recognized that Spencer was very, very smart. He did some research about how to put those smarts to use. “I didn’t realize a therapy dog was a thing and I thought this dog is too good not to share,” he said.
Spencer went to work at local schools, colleges, assisted living facilities and hospitals. Powers wanted to make sure that Spencer wasn’t only there to help ease bad news — a tragedy, a death, dreaded final exams — so they began making regular visits. “Just to celebrate a Tuesday,” he said.
“He just walked up to people and sized them up, looked them up and down, and knew what you needed,” Powers said. “He had an energy and light that would come out of him. Anyone who met him could attest to that.”
A handyman working on a skylight at their home one day found himself looking back and forth between the dog and the job at hand. Eventually he turned to Powers to say, “Hey, this dog really has an aura about him, huh?”
Spencer loved Frisbees and swimming, dehydrated sweet potatoes and carrots, getting the mail and following Rich like a shadow.
He also loved Penny, the other golden retriever in the Powers household who was his niece and three years his junior. While Spencer took the role of the older, wiser uncle who was occasionally annoyed with Penny’s antics, he was fiercely protective.
When Penny needed surgery, he went to the animal hospital and looked at Dorrey as if to say, “Are you really OK with this?” He joined Penny for her physical therapy, and comforted her when she was anxious, pressing his nose against hers.
In 2015, two years after the Boston Marathon bombing, Powers gave a “Boston Strong” flag to Spencer, who loved to hold things. Together they cheered for runners passing by, about two and a half miles into the 26.2 mile race.
Spencer’s brush with fame began in 2018 when runners were treated to a 20-to-30-mile-per-hour headwind and freezing rain. Penny and Dorrey, to their credit, decided to stay home. Powers looked at Spencer and said, “You know what, let’s do this.”
Powers dressed Spencer in his own navy rain jacket — it just fit the retriever — walked to their cheering spot near Ashland State Park, and in the brutal conditions they cheered on the runners. Spencer, perched on a wooden crate with two flags tucked in his mouth flapping in the wind, squinted as rain pelted his face for more than four hours. Powers posted a video of Spencer before his phone succumbed to the conditions. When he later turned it back on, he was floored to see his video had gone viral.
Runners from around the world began emailing Powers. Would Spencer be cheering again in 2019?
Of course he would, Powers responded. He was too good not to share.
Spencer went to the course in 2020 with his flag even though no one was there. He went in 2021 too, on what would have been Boston Marathon Monday, despite the race having been postponed because of the pandemic. He returned for the race’s triumphant running on Oct. 11, 2021.
By 2022 he had become so popular that Powers had a friend hold a sign saying “Spencer coming up on the right” so runners wouldn’t miss him. Packs of runners would then form lines on the right side of the course. They wanted to pet him, hug him, get a photo with him. And Spencer wanted to properly greet (and lick) everyone. The runners were willing to wait, adding minutes to their marathon finish time.
Every once in a while, Spencer would take a water break and Penny would step in. The understudy, as Powers calls her, was not as excited by the whole thing.
By then, each day with Spencer was a gift. In 2020, Spencer had a three and a half pound benign tumor removed. He was diagnosed with cancer the following year, right after the fall running of the marathon. He underwent chemotherapy and was expected to live only another few months, but by the time the 2022 Boston Marathon came around, he was in remission.
On April 13, 2022, days before the marathon, the B.A.A. held a ceremony to honor Spencer’s years of service alongside the course. He arrived in a limousine and received an official race bib.
In July 2022, Powers had a birthday party for both dogs. Spencer made it to 13, an age that once seemed out of reach. More than 700 people showed up. “It was a four-hour event and people kept coming and coming and coming and coming,” Powers said. “For perspective, we had 80 people at our wedding,” he added, laughing.
In the fall of 2022 Spencer’s cancer returned but treatment was no longer an option. Rich and Dorrey monitored him diligently, letting him set the pace. He was never in pain, Rich Powers said. Spencer’s final days were filled with visitors and treats, Frisbees and naps on the couch.
On Feb. 15, Spencer became noticeably weaker, and the following day Powers knew the call he had to make. The veterinarian was scheduled to come to their home on Feb. 17 to euthanize the dog. Ten minutes before the doctor arrived, Spencer began shutting down.
“I feel like that was a gift he gave to me so I wouldn’t second guess for the rest of my life, ‘Did I do the right thing?’” Powers said. “He lived his life to the fullest until the last 10 minutes.”
Spencer is survived by Rich and Dorrey Powers, Penny, and two cats, Gabby and Tawney.
“Everyone claims to have the best dog and no one is wrong,” Powers said. “Spencer did not know he was as special as he was.”