National Pet Cancer Awareness Month

Written in loving memory of “Timberdoodle”…

May is National Canine Cancer Awareness MonthMay is also the month I am painfully aware of the horrific effects that cancer can have upon our beloved animals.  I am going to do my part today by introducing you to a very special Brittany dog named Timberdoodle, a dog whose precious life was cut short by cancer at the age of 2.

On New Years Day 2005 while most people were celebrating or recovering, my husband and I were on the phone with a New England Brittany Breeder.  We’d been waiting for the arrival of a litter of puppies in anticipation of the birth of a liver and white male puppy.  This particular breeding was strong for hunting and especially for field trialing with the sire a well known AKC and American Field Champion. But this story isn’t about our breeding program at all. This story is about a very special bird dog and the cancer that took him from us.

About 10 weeks after the pups were born, John and I drove several hours to a small New Hampshire town nestled within the White Mountains Range to bring our new puppy home.  We had previously visited the breeders home to meet with him and interact with his dogs and, most important of all, to see the environment in which our puppy would be raised.  We had already been introduced to all the puppies in the litter.  There was a consistency to be seen among the pups and probably any one of them would have worked out for us. But we knew we wanted a liver and white male. There were only two in the litter.

One of the liver and white males had a face that was perfectly marked. He had a white blaze that came down in a very balanced pattern from his forehead, over his muzzle, mouth, and chin. The rest of his head was liver. He was more white than liver which is often a requirement fo the upland bird hunter interested in the Brittany.  It makes it easier to see the dog. Even so, we have successfully hunted with Brittanys of color. It’s just a personal thing.

This little guy with the perfect markings however was a total spaz!! While this breed is high energy and needs to be with very active families, we knew that the pup was a little over the top for what we wanted. We looked to see if he had a wind up mechanism hidden. He reminded us of the TV rabbit that promotes a particular battery.

The other guy, had the sweetest temperament.  His markings however made me think that God had run out of white paint when it came to finishing the blaze we love to typically see on a Brittany.  He just needed one more brush stroke.  The same thing happened to his butt.  The markings there showed an unbalanced liver and an unbalanced white.  A mark referred to as a doodle.  I’ll never forget that as we considered changing our mind about this puppy, who was our first choice, he climbed up on the side of his pen and looked up at us with pleading eyes.  They seemed to tell us we were not being fair, we had picked him out before, and he’d been waiting just for us to come back and bring him home.  And he was right.

Poor Timberdoodle! The ride home on winding, snow covered road through the White Mountains was pretty tough on him.  I sat holding a brown lunch bag to his mouth for most of the distance he was just so sick.  When we arrived home the first thing we did was set him down on the ground.  All 4 legs went out from underneath him. This little guy was totally overwhelmed and my heart suddenly filled with so much love and compassion for this sweet little liver and white puppy.  When we went into the house, he was unsure of us and his new surroundings. John and I lay down on the floor and didn’t move. We let him explore at his own comfort level. This paid off.   Soon he was climbing over us both, kissing us and wagging his tail.

Spring turned into Summer and what a glorious, fun time it was. John had not yet retired and I was responsible for most of the field training. Working with young puppies and introducing them to birds is something I love to do.  And Timber was like a brand new chapter with so much potential.  I thought I might like to begin to learn about field trialing.  Timber and I were both new to this sport.  With guidance and tips from friends who trained and trialed, he and I learned together.  It was a very special summer. He showed promise.  We entered a field trial together.  Placed 4th out of 5 but that white AKC ribbon felt like a gold metal.

Another year came and went and our puppy developed and matured nicely.  That spring and early summer was an amazing and special time for me with Timber. Daily we would go to a local field and he would run like the wind.  I learned by watching Timber as he reacted instinctively to the beautiful world around him, a world that brings great joy to any Brittany dog.  My favorite part of each training was when I would hide in the tall, golden grasses of the field and lay there perfectly still.  I’d wait in anticipation as the sound of his training bell drew closer and closer.  When he found me he’d bounce around with so much joy and plant slurpy dog kisses on my face. Then we’d lay in the field together resting before returning home. I can still imagine the warmth of the sun and hear the rustling of the tall grass as the wind blew around us.

During that summer Timber was evaluated by a professional field trialer and trainer who said  Timber had great potential to do well in the sport of field trialing. We had a handler offer to trial him for us.  This would require making  a decision to give him training opportunities which we could not provide.  I spoke with other owners of dogs who were on the campaign trail. This was all so very new to us. We were encouraged to send Timber to a training camp but I knew I was not quite ready even if he was.  Later that we learned there was room with a pro trainer friend of ours to take him to South Carolina for the winter. We’d never sent a dog away before for more than a few days at a time. Timberdoodle had easily and unquestionably become my heart dog.  But we realized that going south also meant that he could continue to learn, to be in the field every day, that he’d be exposed to more birds in 4 months there than he probably had been ever since he was born.  The breeder of Timbers sire and dam also assured us he’d be ready to handle Timber for us when he returned in the spring. The best laid plans…

Two days before Thanksgiving 2006 I kissed my doodly boy goodbye and watched with tears in my eyes as John pulled out of the driveway with him to deliver him to our friend who was leaving the day after Thanksgiving.  He would be gone through March.  On New Years Day I called the trainer and asked if I could tell Timber happy birthday (silly woman).  He obliged me, or perhaps he just humored me because he said ‘OK! Go ahead, I’m holding the phone out for them all to hear!!”  That’s what friends are for, even the most unlikely ones.

Oh how I missed him.  We received updates and photos on a regular basis and enjoyed conversations with the trainer over the winter months. One morning the call came that I’d been waiting for telling me that Timber was back in Maine! Wild horses couldn’t have stopped me as I jumped into the care and drove over to pick up my Timberdoodle.  I was worried he wouldn’t remember me so I brought his favorite treat along, a peanut butter stuffed Kong toy!   Our friend said go on down to the kennel and let Timber out.  I ran to do this. He looked at me, and began to bark and woof and dance and jump. And me?  I just stood there with tears streaming down my face. This was March 25th, 2007.

That week we went down to the field together and Timber just couldn’t wait to show what he’d learned! He was obviously very full of himself and extremely proud, as he should be. Little did I know these moments together in the fields were to be among the last.

About a week after being home I noticed Timberdoodle was limping. Having seen Lyme Disease symptoms before we quickly took him to our vet to have blood tests run. We were not surprised to learn he tested positive and immediately began a treatment of Doxycycline which usually causes symptoms to cease within 72 hours or less. This was not the case. Each day Timber continued to decline. Eventually his appetite dwindled and we could not get him to eat. His gait was staggered. Timber fell over while running to me. Of course we were frantic with worry and we made many trips to our team of veteranairns in both Maine and in New Hampshire.  Many various combinations of medication were prescribed including Prednisone. Nothing helped. He sometimes whined softly in pain. Pain meds were prescribed. Some medication made him nauseaus so we had to treat him for that.  We tried special prescribed diets for him. He just would not eat. With every passing day Timberdoodle declined. Rapidly, noticeably, and painfully.  It was absolutely heart wrenching to see our beloved dog go through this despite the best efforts of all concerned.  It was so frustrating because no one could tell us for sure what was really going on!

I began to review each handwritten note made by our vets and went over every single detail of the test results thinking there must be a clue to what was going on. Daily we were given reports which were inconclusive. For some reason I keyed in on his platelet levels.  Comparing the levels from his first office visit to the most recent I saw there had been a drop. Not drastic, not noticeable. And on the list of objectives the word cancer was found to be penciled in on the bottom.  That had been considered and then ruled out. I brought my findings to our team of vets.

On April 30th, 2007 I carried Timber out of the house after a long night.  The sun was coming up.  A beautiful spring day on the rise. I tried to stabilize him, so that he could remain balanced enough to stand on his legs and relieve himself.  He tipped over and lay there looking at me helplessly, his legs flailing.  This was not how any animal should live regardless of species or age. We brought him to our vets once again where he remained for 24 hours.

On May 1, 2007 we transported a heavily sedated Timberdoodle hooked up to an IV from our specialists in NH to a neurosurgeon in Portland Maine.  I lay on the floor with him in the back of our van during the entire hour long trip.  As we carried Timber into the examining room he could not contain his own urine or bowels.  If dogs get embarrassed I saw humiliation in my boys eyes at how his body was betraying him. We lay him down gently on his dog bed which we’d brought into the exam room. Once again I lay on the floor next to him.  I told the doctor he is only 2 years old. I begged him to please get to the bottom of things.  I’ll always remember kissing my Timberdoodle, looking into his eyes and telling him I loved him just before turning and walking away.

The rest of the story is painful, tinged with anger and disbelief even to this day. While there is no one to blame, I still struggle within my heart that things were overlooked that should not have been.

On the morning of May 2, 2007 the neurologist called at 6 a.m. The news he gave me caused me to drop the phone and fall to the floor weeping and sobbing. He told me Timber had died on the operating table of a heart attack, shortly after being opened up. I was told his spine and tissue surrounding it had been severely attacked by cancer.  Questions arose that could not be answered. Dismayed and shocked we went through the process of cremation and final disposal of his cremains. I was very upset that his collar was not returned to us. Seems like such a little thing. But it remains a very big thing.

A lot of people keep the cremains of their beloved companion in a box.  To me that was an inhumane thing to do with Timber whose love and zest for life astounded me.  So John and I went on a windy afternoon, with puppies he had sired running at our side, to the places he most enjoyed.  The gusts of wind lifted his ashes high and blew them around to fall where they will. And he is everywhere now. Absolutely everywhere. But always and forever Timberdoodle will be in my heart.

My prayer is that with May being National Canine Cancer Awareness Month that my story will touch hearts and perhaps motivate people to donate specifically to canine cancer research.  Timbers tests were looked over by the oncologists at U.C. Davis . His tissues were examined. The final diagnosis of my heart dog was malignant fibrous histiocytoma which I learned is a type of cancer extremely rare in Brittanys.

Got dogs? Give yours a hug for me today in honor of Timberdoodle.