The Price of Being a Hero

Cali had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

It all started in the evening, when, as Cali sees it, her mom attacked her with a machete, leaving her paw a bloody stump. It’s true that, for the first time in her life, I nicked a nail, clipping a bit too short. I saw a total of three drops of blood. Cali ran outside and sulked, then came back in and put herself to bed. She soon fell asleep, holding paws with her now disarmed, and very sorry, mom.

Then, in the morning, I faced down the stares of two disbelieving goldens as I failed to serve breakfast on time. Unable to take the pressure, I fled to the relative safety of the gym. On the way home, I got confirmation that Cali’s annual appointment for the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study would take place as scheduled.

Cali’s day was going downhill, fast.

Cali was initially delighted by the impromptu ball game when I got home … until she realized that she was being played (with). While big-sis Jana was getting breakfast.

Then, in Cali’s mind, her mom truly went nuts. She started chasing poor, hungry Cali around the yard wielding a paper plate. Every time Cali squatted, Mom shoved that darn plate in places that really shouldn’t be mentioned in a family-friendly blog. No way was Cali going to pee on that thing! They then walked up and down the street, with Mom still carrying the plate, and Cali thoroughly sniffed everything. She even faked Mom out a few times. Cali sure showed Mom, though: No pee.

Finally, things started looking up. Cali was excited that she got to go in the car with me, and Jana had to stay home with her super-duper treat toy. Hey, wait a minute …

At the vet’s office, Cali danced in, eager to see all those nice people who would ply her with cookies and tell her what a good girl she is. She got her wish: lots of attention, but … no cookies. Instead, they stuck her with needles and drained some of her blood. They cut some of her hair. And they tried to suck out some pee with a syringe, but she fixed them, too. No pee. Then she got some cookies. Finally!

Next, we got to go out for lunch. At last; something fun for Cali! Cali finally got her breakfast and a big bowl of water, and she got to say HI! to about 20 people on that patio. They all told Cali that she was a good girl. Except the one lady who said she was a good boy. A boy? With those long blonde eyelashes?

Then … oh, no! Back to the vet! Poor Cali got poked and prodded some more; the vet techs scraped off the edges of her toenails (no blood this time), gave her a shot, and finally got some pee, and the vet looked into her eyes with a very uncomfortable bright light, examined her teeth and her ears, took her temperature (she didn’t like that part at all), filled out an endless questionnaire … and pronounced her perfect. And they all gave her cookies, of course. Lots of cookies. She didn’t plan to tell Jana that part.

When we left, we took two huge packages — which smelled very much like Cali — and raced to the FedEx dropoff. Just in time. Off the samples went, to join those of 2,999 other golden retrievers who go through this exhaustive exam every year as part of the study.

Cali, along with two of her brothers, is one of the Morris Foundation’s golden retriever “heroes,” hero #608, to be exact. They’ll each give up a day every year, throughout their entire lives, as well as copious amounts of samples, so that the study researchers can try to figure out what causes cancer in golden retrievers. And other dogs. And what can be done to prevent it. From there, who knows who else Cali and the other heroes will help.

Best of all, we got home in time for dinner (and a trip to the park)!

My Dog is a Research Subject

Cali 6 mos
Cali at 6 months. (Photo by Chaz)

Usually, when I hear about dogs being used as research subjects, I get very upset. I imagine rows of caged dogs, suffering and lonely. But not this time.

This time, we volunteered our new golden retriever puppy to be a research subject: We’ve signed Cali up to participate in the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This study is an effort to learn how to prevent cancer and other diseases in dogs.

Half of all golden retrievers die of cancer. According to the Morris Animal Foundation, cancer is the leading cause of death for all dogs over age 2.

This study will look at genetics, diet, lifestyle, and environment in an attempt to identify risk factors or causes of cancer. It could identify risk factors for other diseases as well. It could help researchers learn how to prevent or treat cancer in dogs. Ultimately, some of what is learned might even lead to better understanding of cancer prevention and treatment in humans.

Each participating golden must have a three-generation pedigree and be at least six months old but less than 2 years old at the time of the intake exam.

All of this comes at a cost, of course. And poor Cali is the one paying. Us, too. Anyone who would like to participate must complete a fairly rigorous application process. The annual questionnaire is long and comprehensive. The questionnaire asks for a detailed description of the dog’s diet — primary and secondary foods, treats, supplements. It asks about exercise habits, medications, illnesses or diseases. Temperament and behavior. Cleaning products and pesticides used in the home. Even whether a member of the household is a smoker.

Oh, yeah, then comes the intake exam. Cali, who turned 6 months old a few weeks ago, had her intake exam last week. We’d prepared her carefully to meet her new doctor. We’d brushed her, trimmed the fuzz on her feet — and filed her nails. Oops. Among myriad other samples, the veterinary nurse had to collect ten nail clippings! A hair sample, too. And large quantities of blood and other bodily fluids, etc. The vet took a detailed family medical history—of Cali’s canine family.

The exam took more than an hour. Poor Cali was poked, prodded, and drained. She was quite a trouper, though, not only bravely enduring the needles, but quite cheerfully allowing the veterinary nurses to handle, move, restrain, and otherwise manipulate her as needed.

Our best guess is that the hair and nail clippings will be analyzed for chemicals — anything Cali is exposed to, whether from her diet or her environment, is likely to show up in hair and nails. In fact, one of the nurses said it was like  doing a drug test.

Participating vets must also register with the Foundation. The annual visit generates quite a bit of work for them, but our vet team was eager to participate and learn more about the study.

Cali will submit to this thorough exam once a year, throughout her life. The Foundation sent us a sample collection kit ahead of the visit, and I expect that this, too will be an annual ritual. The owner questionnaire is to be filled out each year as well. This way, the researchers can collect volumes of data over the lifetime of each participant. Up to 3,000 goldens will be accepted into the study.

If you are fortunate enough to share your life with a golden who meets the criteria — under age 2 and with a three-generation pedigree — consider participating. The annual visit and questionnaire are comprehensive, but certainly doable. The Foundation will reimburse part of the cost of the visit and testing. As someone who has seen too many wonderful dogs die of cancer, I am happy that Cali is such a cheerful participant in a study that could make a huge difference for future dogs. Click here for more information.