Meet the heroic canine participants

With a three-legged jump and a grab, 6-year-old Ari, aka Hero No. 1651, knows how to work a crowd. Giving his amputated limb a cold shoulder, the soft, friendly-eyed Golden Retriever is eager to cheer up anyone in need of a dose of happiness.

His speciality ? Palliative care patients, non-verbal people, children in wheelchairs and people with special needs.

Ari’s owner, Sue Cowan, says he has a knack for knowing who needs him. “A few minutes before we go to a group home, his tail starts wagging and I know he’s excited. But two years ago, Ari did something unusual,” she recalled. “I opened the car door to get him out and he walked towards the facility.”

What made this certified therapy tripod run like lightning that day?

A girl in crisis.

“No one could calm her down, but when Ari pressed her head to her chest, she calmed down,” says Cowan, of Carver, Massachusetts. “I never trained him to cuddle with the right amount of comfort, but it worked.”

The child reached out to touch Ari’s lustrous fur but lacked coordination.

“When I put her palms gently on her head, she smiled,” Cowan recalled.

For the past five years, Cowan and Ari, an AKC Good Canine Citizen and excellent therapy dog, have been in nursing homes. They recently added elementary schools to open conversations about bullying.

“I’ll say to the kids, ‘Look at Ari. He was born with a badly twisted leg that required amputation,’” Cowan says. “Ari looks different from other four-legged dogs, but he’s found a way to walk and run that works for him.”

She tells the children not to pity him. “He’s loving and kind, and that’s what’s important.”

Cowan says she can’t pinpoint who needs the golden touch more, but this dog with a 14-karat heart does.

“He focused on the kids who were hurting and knew that a goodbye hug for them could mean the world,” Cowan said.

happy hearts

Such is the healing power of a Golden Retriever.

The gold standard of therapy, sporting, and companion dogs, the breed is well known for its go-anywhere personality.

Mary Margaret Callahan is the Mission Director of Pet Partners, which registers therapy dogs for animal-assisted interventions. She notes that 1,400 Goldens are the number one registered breed on their list of 12,200 dog teams.

With a double coat ranging from liquid amber to light red, these caramel beauties project a smart, understanding, and ready for anything attitude.

They serve as guide dogs, search and rescue workers, and four-legged comfort responders for communities in crisis.

They tick the box as avid hikers and swimmers and avid dog sports competitors. In the field, they stand out among other retrievers for their soft mouths. Their valuable trait of picking up and carrying game without tearing it to pieces makes them dear as hunting companions.

Come home at night, they’ll demand the sofa and monopolize the bed.

It’s no wonder that out of 195 recognized breeds, Goldens rank third in popularity among AKC breeds and have been in the top 10 rankings since 1976.

Today, they play a leading role at the forefront of scientific research.

golden globes

When it comes to celebrity breeds, Ari and 3,043 other Golden Retrievers deserve Oscar-worthy consideration. They belong to an exclusive club: the Morris Animal Foundation’s $32 million Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

These dogs, known as heroes who are given a number when they enter the study, could one day unravel the mystery of why Goldens are at high risk for cancer.

“Fifty-four percent of breed deaths are due to one of four types of cancer: lymphoma, high-grade mast cell tumor, hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma,” says Kelly Diehl, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM).

Of those, 90 to 95 percent are due to hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma, says Diehl, senior director of science programs and communications at the Morris Animal Foundation.

The idea for the study came about after a conversation between Bette Morris, a founding member of Morris, and Rodney Page, an oncologist and director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University. They were talking about high cancer rates in the breed.

It is inspired by the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which began evaluating residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1948. Framingham established risk factors for coronary heart disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking .

By collecting nutritional, environmental, lifestyle and genetic data from Golden owners and their veterinarians, the researchers hope the results will provide answers for future generations.

In 2012, the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) contacted the Golden Retriever Club of America to recruit Goldens aged 6 months to 2 years for the study. Three years later, the study reached its enrollment limit of 3,000 Goldens, with an additional 44 dogs as a safety net. No additional dogs will join.

AKC-registered Goldens with a three-generation pedigree living in the continental United States were eligible.

Cathy Blimline, of Shillington, Pa., offered her show dogs – Gideon, #2048, and Callie, #243, a therapy, obedience and rally competitor.

“If I could make a difference, why not?” said Blimline.

After losing two Goldens to hemangiosarcoma, Paul and Shari Walliker, of Galva, Illinois, purchased two Golden puppies – Boomer, #2717, and Oliver, #2818. When Boomer developed lymphoma, the Wallikers spent $10,000 to save him.

“I did not hesitate to participate in the study,” says Paul Walliker. “It will be transformative for the breed.”

Once a year, owners complete a lengthy questionnaire about their dogs and bring them to their participating veterinarian for lab testing.

Diehl says 91% of the original dogs remain in the study. A few died or moved to Hawaii or Alaska.

Numbers game

Cowan heard about the study from his veterinarian, Mike Lappin, in Buzzards Bay, Mass., whose 8-year-old Isaac is No. 64. Lappin performs lifelong required annual exams for 17 Goldens and donates the cost of the ‘study.

“It takes about an hour and a half to examine each dog, but one day I hope we will have some answers,” says Lappin. “In 1972, the average lifespan of Goldens in my practice was 15 to 17 years, but now it’s 10 or 10 and a half years.”

Lappin and the study’s participating veterinarians collect two sets of data, which include fecal and urine samples, blood panels, and hair and nail clippings. A set is stored for future discovery.

“We call these dogs heroes because they won’t benefit from all the beatings and beatings they endure,” says Beth Bernstein of Carolina Beach, NC, who has owned 13 Goldens. Eleven died of hemangiosarcoma. “We may never know how much these dogs will give to future generations of Golden Retrievers and other breeds.”

One of the study’s first volunteers, Bernstein coordinates a parade of heroes in each national specialty of the Golden Retriever Club of America. Hero owners wear medallions for the 158 deceased Angel Goldens.

“Participants in this study are incredibly dedicated to their dogs and fellow heroes,” says Annie Li, MAF Liaison Officer for Golden Volunteers.

A private online community of hero dog owners developed with two Facebook pages to keep everyone connected.

If an owner is diagnosed with cancer and needs to undergo chemotherapy, study participants send hair clippings from their dog to the Magical Golden Fibers Project to help with treatment. A few members make a purple blanket, embroider a Golden Retriever on the front, and sew the hair into a pocket.

“These owners believe that their Goldens possess healing powers, not only for the body but also for the soul,” Li says.

Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of AKC Family Dog.

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