Challenged Goldens: A Special Kind of Love

Ed and Golden Kirby

This is Dr. Ed Eames with his first Golden guide dog, Kirby, a Golden who went on to earn an AKC Companion Dog Excellent title. However, his claim to fame occurred when bone cancer necessitated the amputation of his left front leg. The telling of Kirby's courageous story, Kirby, My Miracle Worker, (as follows) earned Dr. Eames a Maxwell award from the Dog Writers Association of America.                                

Kirby, My Miracle Worker
By Dr. Ed Eames

Kirby was nearly three years old when we met. I needed a new guide dog and he needed a partner. He had been trained by Guide Dogs of the Desert, in Palm Springs, and was working with an older blind man. Then the man fell and had to go home without Kirby, but he made the training director promise to keep the marvelous Golden Retriever for him. Just a few weeks before I applied for a new guide dog, Kirby's potential partner decided not to continue with his training. Had I not applied at just that time, Kirby would have been released from the program and placed as a pet in a loving home.
There is a Yiddish word, beshert, which means "fated to be," and that's the way I felt about Kirby from the moment we met. He had waited for me, and I was still deep in mourning at the loss of my previous guide dog, a black Labrador Retriever named Perrier. As Kirby and I took up our lives together under the watchful eyes of the training staff, my admiration and love for this marvelous 78-pound bundle of joy and affection grew day by day.
The culminating event in our bonding process took place one day on the streets of Banning, a nearby town where students regularly trained with their new canine partners. As Kirby guided me across the street, a woman driver, blinded by the afternoon sun, made a left turn directly into our path. My new partner stopped on a dime, and I could feel the rear fender of the car as it brushed my leg. Trainer Kathy Laber said she never saw a closer call in her 20 years of guide dog work.
After graduation, we returned to my home in Fresno, California, where Kirby became part of the family. His siblings were Ivy, my wife Toni's Golden Retriever guide dog, and our cats Kimmel and Disney. Toni and I had a very busy schedule writing and lecturing and as our careers blossomed, we and our partners traveled the country.
Three years later, when Kirby was six, I noticed that he had a slight limp in his left foreleg. I took him to Dr. Helen Hamilton, an internist at a specialty veterinary hospital in Santa Cruz, California, but when she examined him she found no visible cause for a limp and suggested it might be a pulled muscle.
Early the next month I flew to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Federation for he Blind's "Educate Congress Week." Kirby handled the trip with his usual aplomb until a full day of walking the halls of Congress left him sadly limping and in obvious pain. For the first time the source of his discomfort could be located: I felt a bulging of the bone in the lower part of his left front leg.
Realizing Kirby was in pain and couldn't guide effectively, I flew home a day early and took him to our local veterinarian, Dr. Bob Larsen. X rays showed that an aggressive tumor had destroyed most off the ulna bone. Hearing the dreaded word cancer threw Toni and me into the depths of despair. When we asked Dr. Larsen about treatment, and heard the word amputation, I felt as if my world was crumbling.
We took Kirby back to the specialty hospital for a biopsy to determine the type of cancer and the course of treatment. Then we waited for the results. We also consulted Dr. Steve Withro, a Colorado-based expert on limb salvage, and Dr. Ann Jeglum, a Pennsylvania-based research oncologist. We were still reaching for the impossible dream, treatment without amputation. But it was not to be. On February 12, 1993, our friend Michelle Price drove us and Kirby to Santa Cruz for chemotherapy and the subsequent amputation of is left front leg and shoulder.    

All the way to the hospital, Toni and I struggled with the idea that we were subjecting our beautiful, happy-go-lucky Golden Retriever partner in independence to such a radical mutilation of his body. However, deep down we knew we had no other option.
It was extremely sad dealing with Kirby when he returned home. Although I heard many stories about the feats of three-legged dogs, they were hard to believe. He was reluctant to move unless coaxed to do so. The only exception was at feeding time. The day we brought Kirby home from the veterinary hospital, he was so lethargic, we didn't think would be interested in eating. What an underestimation of his Golden Retrieverness!
We always required Kirby and Ivy to maintain a down-stay under the dining-room table while their food was being prepared. Ivy's bowl was placed on the floor to the right of the kitchen counter and Kirby's on the left. They would wait, drooling and quivering, for the signal to eat.
At the first home feeding after the surgery, Ivy waited under the table, as usual, but we left Kirby stretched out in the middle of the living-room floor. To our amazement, at the eat signal, Kirby jumped over Ivy to get to his bowl! We then realized nothing would keep Kirby down for long! Day by day, we saw marked improvement in Kirby's ability to ambulate. He no longer had to be encouraged to join us upstairs in the computer room or to go outdoors for relief.
A month after the amputation, Kirby had regained a great deal of strength and stamina, but still did not roll or play one of his favorite games: chasing Kimmel, our cat. Meanwhile, Kimmel used all of his feline wiles to induce Kirby to chase him. It was painful for us to see Kirby remaining motionless while Kimmel rubbed back and forth across Kirby's face and chest. About two weeks later, we startled a guest when we let out whoops of joy at the sound of Kirby chasing Kimmel throughout the house!
I hated leaving Kirby home during this recuperative period. When Toni harnesses Ivy, Kirby came hopping to the front door expecting to accompany us. Never imagining he could actually guide, I took him with us one day to our favorite Chinese restaurant, Wang's Panda, where the proprietor, Jeffrey Wand, has always been delighted to see our dogs. After getting out of our friend's car, I reflexively picked up the harness handle and to my amazement, Kirby guided me to the restaurant door!
This surprising experience left me confused about Kirby's future. I began to question our assumption that he would have to be retired as my guide. Back in February, when Kirby was diagnoses with bone cancer, I thought his career as a guide was over. I had made arrangements to train with a successor dog at Kansas Specialty Dog Service in Washington, Kansas. Now, I began to dream that our next trip to KSDS would be for a friendly visit and to demonstrate Kirby's new-found skills as a three-legged guide dog!
At a lecture we presented to the veterinary students at the University of California, Davis, we received a great of encouragement to rehabilitate Kirby as a guide. Bolstered by the veterinary students' positive outlook, we began exploring the possibility of starting a rehabilitation program, despite the necessity for three post-surgical chemotherapy treatments.
Before making any firm decision, we consulted several surgical veterinary specialists who advised us to build Kirby's stamina and muscles by taking him for long walks and giving him the opportunity to run. Since these activities would place additional stress on his hips, we had them x rayed. With no signs of dysplasia, we explored ways to initiate an exercise program.    

I did not want to take long walks with Kirby in harness because I believed this would put undue pressure on him. An acquaintance suggested her nineteen-year-old brother, Kent Phelps, might be interested in assuming the responsibility for walking Kirby. Kent's Labrador had been in a fatal accident in Oklahoma and, when he moved to Fresno, his landlord enforced a no-dogs policy. Kent was thrilled with the thought of interacting with a large dog and helping with Kirby's rehabilitation.
Twice a week, Kent drove his motor bike the two miles from his home to ours. At first, Kent and Kirby took short walks. Once I felt comfortable with Kent taking Kirby out, we added Ivy to the equation. As these walks increased in length and duration, Ivy, the ten-year-old, benefited as much as three-legged Kirby. The only break in this regiment was when Kirby was hospitalized for his chemo treatments.
As Kirby's stamina improved, we added playtime to Kent's visits. Behind our town house is a small unfenced grass area where the dogs could play fetch. Under Kent's supervision, Kirby and ivy ran, chased and retrieved. It didn't take long for our fun-loving Goldens to associate Kent's arrival with a good time. At the sound of his motor bike, the dog's frenetically raced around the house in anticipation of his arrival. Ivy greeted him with a toy, while Kirby took to emitting high-pitched squeals of delight.    

Another friend, Pat Johnson, was also instrumental in Kirby's rehabilitation. Pat incorporated us into her busy schedule as mother of two school-age children. She drove us twice a week to a nearby park where the dogs could run after tennis balls. At the park Ivy also helped Kirby develop as an agile three-legged athlete. If Kirby retrieved the ball, Ivy would tackle him in an attempt to get it away. Kirby quickly learned to sidestep Ivy, spinning in tight circles to avoid her. This maneuver greatly helped him when he later guided me in restaurants where it was necessary to weave between tightly-packed tables and chairs.
In mid-April, with the chemos behind us and Kirby gaining strength, I began re-asserting the partnership with him as guide. Through consultations with numerous veterinary specialists, I knew Kirby could physically handle his guiding responsibilities. Carefully evaluating Kirby's emotional and mental state of mind, it was clear to me he preferred his role as working partner to that of stay-at-home pet. Kirby, a consummate tail-wagger, showed no stress when working harness. However, his guiding was less than adequate.
It was obvious he remembered his responsibility of guiding me safely around obstacles and stopping at curbs and steps, but he was extremely hesitant and frequently stopped for no apparent reason. Only after a great deal of coaxing would he resume his guide work. Initially, I attributed this hesitation to the lingering effects of the medical ordeal. What puzzled me was that Kirby worked without hesitation when following Toni and Ivy or when guiding me back to the house.
In early June, I turned to Dr. Ian Dunbar, a renowned veterinary behaviorist we met in Bermuda at the World Congress of Kennel Clubs. Diagnosing the problem as "learned helplessness," he suggested several explicit behavioral modifications to solve the problem. He explained that, by feeling sorry for Kirby and always allowing Ivy to take the lead, I had unintentionally taken away his initiative. I compounded the problem by coaxing and cajoling Kirby whenever he hesitate. As Ian pointed out, Kirby had come to enjoy all the positive attention he received by not moving forward at the first command. Suggesting I would have to be my own guide dog during the retraining period, Ian told me to carry a white cane to be used when Kirby refused the forward command. If Kirby did not move on the first command, I was to drop the harness and leash and, using the white cane to safely move along the sidewalk, leave Kirby where he was. Leaving him behind would, according to Ian, deliver a clear message to Kirby: "I would rather be doing this with you, but if you won't guide me, I'll have to do it without you."
Tapping into a Golden's need to be with his partner, Ian predicted this demonstration of my independence would trigger Kirby's need to resume his role as guide and working partner. It worked! Within a few days, Kirby showed phenomenal improvement in his response to the forward command.    

Another strategy Ian suggested was to de-emphasize the house. He explained the reason Kirby worked better going back to our house was that it was the source of food and toys. By making the routes interesting and exciting, Kirby's attention would be drawn away from the house. At first, I made the house part of my daily route by going out on short walks, returning home and going out again. To add an element of surprise to the routes, we arranged for our friends to meet us at designated spots. On some walks, our friend, Linda Haymond, greeted Kirby with a biscuit in hand and gave us all a ride home. On other occasions, Pat Johnson met us and the reward was a ride to the park and a game of tennis ball.
When KSDS Executive Director Bill Acree and wife Karen, Training Director, came to visit us in late July, Kirby's rehabilitation had progressed so much that they were delightfully astounded. In fact, accompanied by Bill and Karen, we traveled to Berkeley to meet Ian and show off my three-legged wonder dog. He was impressed with Kirby's spirit, as well as his performance as a guide. At the end of a demonstration walk, Ian brought tears to our eyes when he said, "That Kirby really has heart!"
In contemplating Kirby's rehabilitation and return to guide work, I was not sure how the public would react. Several people warned me my decision might generate public hostility. To the contrary, I heard, "Your dog sure is loyal!" "He certainly loves you!" "That's one brave dog!" I reveled in these words of support for Kirby, my Miracle Worker.
For the next year Kirby and I made history as Toni and I resumed our careers as lecturers, writers and advocates. In April 1994 we did a ten-day tour in which we lectured at the University of Pennsylvania, Bergh Memorial Hospital of the ASPCA, Angell Memorial Hospital of the Massachusetts SPCA and Tufts University. Whether on the streets of Philadelphia, New York or Boston, Kirby's wagging tail and confident stride drew admiration from all who saw him working. He became a symbol for the disability community, showing that, given the opportunity, a disabled individual can perform the job for which he was trained. The adaptations I needed to make in order  to maintain our partnership wee minimal. I changed my gait, gave Kirby a few extra seconds to line up at the curb and refurbished his harness so it fit snugly around his shoulders.
Returning from our triumphant tour of the east coast, we took Kirby in for his six-month checkup. Dr. Larsen was obviously shaken when he told us a tiny spot could be discerned in Kirby's lungs. From the beginning we realized the cancer could return, and that's what had happened. Affirmation of Dr. Larsen's diagnosis was quick in coming. This time the disease spread so quickly through the Golden boy's body we could almost see him dying day by day. Within two weeks he was having trouble walking and we knew the end was near. Toni and I did a lot of crying and a lot of "what if-ing" during those days.
As the end drew near, we sent word to all of Kirby's friends, helpers and admirers that it was time to say goodbye. Many came to hug and whisper soothing words in his ear. Others could not face the emotionally charged atmosphere in the house and did their grieving at a distance.
On the afternoon of the euthanasia, Dr. Larsen came to our house. As Toni, our friend Carol Palmer and I sat around holding him, Dr. Larsen gently inserted the needle in Kirby's leg and my beloved partner quietly slipped away. To my astonishment, this caring veterinarian sat down and delivered a tribute to Kirby and our partnership. He talked about Kirby's bravery, his determination, his happy-go-lucky attitude and the impact he had had on so many people. Finally, Dr. Larsen commended me for having the foresight to let Kirby resume his career as guide. His final comments on how privileged he felt to have known and served us left me feeling considerably more at peace with my loss.
Grieving is a strange and a very personal process. I felt abandoned, I felt cheated, I felt a part of my world had ended, and it had. I began discussing with Toni something I could do to memorialize the life of this wonderful creature who had meant so much to me—and in his disabled state, to many others. We decided to establish a Kirby Memorial Fund for the Newsreel Club, an organization in which approximately 1000 blind members put messages on cassette, ranging from their personal experience with blindness, to songs and puzzles to assessment of current adaptive technology, to cooking techniques and recipes. Toni and I first heard each other before meeting in person on the Newsreel tapes. This seemed an appropriate place to recognize Kirby. Planning the solicitation of contributions to the fund became a vehicle for putting my grief into a constructive activity. Friends, relatives and Newsreel members sent in their donations, and more than $3000 was raised in Kirby's name.
One of the great tributes to Kirby was his induction into the California Veterinary Medical Associations' Animal Hall of Fame in 1995. Toni and I attended the convention in San Diego where Kirby was recognized at the general session. Dr. James Harris, chair of the state veterinary association's human-animal bond committee, and Dr. Jim Sokalofsky, representative of Waltham, introduced me and my guide Jake. We accepted the plaque and the check for $500 which are part of the award. We then gave $250 to the Kirby Newsreel Club Memorial Fund and $250 to Guide Dogs of the Desert, Kirby's alma mater.


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