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I may have rescued Bernie…but he rescued me right back


Before I tell the tale of my yellow Labrador retriever Bernie, a little background is in order.  Before there was Bernie, there was Tiffany, an amazing yellow lab I adopted while I was still in college.  I had just come off a very rough break-up; split up with my high school sweetheart of nearly 6 years, and I was not in the best emotional state.  One day as my roommate at the time was perusing the classifieds at a time when we still read newspapers, he noticed that there were lab puppies for sale.  I had always wanted a lab, and since I had already been accepted to Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in the British West Indies (was headed there in the fall – at the time it was early winter), I wanted the responsibility that woulld come with a dog as part of my transition from college boy to veterinary student.  I also could have very much used the distraction to take my mind off my ex, while giving me a companion to take to a very unfamiliar place and institution.

As I arrived at the breeder’s house with my roommate to check out the puppies, I was attacked by playful puppies, licking every inch of me, each desperately vying for my attention.  There were 12 week old lab puppies of all colors, yellows, chocolates, and blacks, each beautiful with great personalities in their own respective ways.  But out of 12 puppies, one struck me far and above the rest.  Rather then cover me with puppy kisses, she was just patiently sitting in a back corner of the room looking at me, and only walked over to me when I called her over.  She was gorgeous, a light yellow that was almost blond, with bright hazel green eyes, and rather than lick me head to toe, she just calmly laid in my lap and darn near fell asleep as I pet her.  I looked at my roommate and he nodded in agreement without saying a word, that this was my dog, and the name that instantly came to me for her was Tiffany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I could gush on a on about Tiffany (eventually to be dubbed Tiffdog), I will just say that she was the smartest dog I ever had, potty trained within 2 days, and did not need a leash, as she always was glued to my side unless I threw something for her to fetch.  As a college bachelor, I did not have the knowledge to train her, nor the patience, but luckily for me, Tiffdog just virtually trained herself.

She became my most constant companion, ran at the park with me, went on errands, and loved to travel my parents’ house (my childhood home) when I went home some weekends to visit them (and also get some laundry done).  They fell in love with her too, in fact, everyone who knew her fell in love with her…even people that were not necessarily dog people.

TiffodogIn NJ, it was popular to throw in money with a bunch of friends to rent a shore house for the summer, and guess who our house dog was?  Oh, the hours I spent drinking beer while submerged in a baby pool with my dog on the front lawn of our house, and we would venture to splash in the wave at the dog friendly beach any chance we could (like many labs, Tiffdog was addicted to being in water).  She very my very best friend and most cherished companion.Roger & Tiff

Fast forward 8 1/2 years to June 2006, I had been a practicing veterinary for 4 years, owned my own practice on the Florida Space Coast, and married for 3 years to my wife Melissa.  We had no kids yet, so we had our “furry family” of three dogs and 2 cats, none more special than Tiffdog.  My wife had come to love Tiffdog dearly as well, as Tiffdog was a prominent participant of every step of our courtship and our lives together.

One day at work, a yellow lab puppy came in screaming in pain.  He was only 5 months old and had sustained a severe fracture across his growth plate, with the lower part of his humerus (upper arm bone) fractured into three fragments.  The puppy had never had any veterinary care, no vaccines, no deworming, never even an exam.  He was also covered in fleas.

The severity and complexity of the fracture required the expertise of a specialist, but the owners could not even afford the fee to splint the arm to stabilize the fracture for transport to the referral hospital.  This was not surprising given that the puppy had never even had basic wellness care…a classic case of people adopting a dog with no consideration for the cost of caring for it properly.

The puppy, named Duke, was absolutely gorgeous, with huge feet and big ears, indicating that was going to be a very large dog one day, thus not surgically stabilizing this fracture properly would leave him lame for life, not to mention in severe chronic pain.  I decided to have the owners sign the puppy over to my hospital, with the intention to have the hospital pay for the orthopedic specialist to surgically repair the limb, foster the puppy while we oversaw his post-operative rehabilitation, then find him a good home.

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Bernie (Duke) post-op in his spica splint

He had surgery the next morning, a 6 hour procedure that included 2 pins, a screw, and a bone plate to stabilize, and fixated with a Spica splint (a splint that immobilizes the front limb and kind of resembles a body cast).  My wife came with me the next day to take Duke home, as he barked and carried on as if I had been his owner all along, although I had only met him for one hour 48 hours earlier.  The technicians told us that he had not reacted to anyone walking into the ICU like that, and that I must be fated to be his new Daddy…even though that was not the plan.  My wife and I already had 5 pets in a 3 bedroom house, and we were not looking for more.  But the techs were right, and at that moment I had no intention of ever finding Duke a home other than my own, and my wife read my face and knew it as well.  Being big NY Yankees fans, we decided to give him a new name after the great Yankee, Bernie Williams, and Bernie was born.

But as graceful, intelligent and trainable as Tiffdog was, although he was innocent, sweet and loving as could be, he was goofy, not very smart, and not nearly as trainable.  Even potty training came slowly.  Thankfully we had Tiffdog to guide him and he emulated her as best he could.  Puppies in a “pack” benefit from learning from the older members, and Tiffdog was a model example.   But rather than feel annoyed by Bernie’s less than stellar intelligence, he was so loving, cuddly, and innocent, we found his goofiness was kind of endearing.

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Delightfully goofy!

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Tiffany sharing her mat with Bernie.

As fate would have it, within 2 weeks of Bernie moving in with us, Tiffdog started leaving some of her food it the bowl, something that was very unlike her, as she was typically a ravenous dog.  She also started to show weight loss and was not as playful as she typically was, so I decided to give her an examination…and that was when I discovered that all of Tiffdog’s lymph nodes were grossly enlarged.  My princess had lymphoma.

While at first I was devastated, this presentation of lymphoma in dogs was the most treatable, with remission rates with chemotherapy of 18 plus months at that time.  It was not a death sentence yet, and we use chemotherapy doses in dogs that are far more tolerable than we use in people, so side effects are in most cases minimal.  Tiffdog’s initial response was remarkable, 100% remission only 4 weeks into her treatment course.  Her appetite was back again, and she was even swimming and playful again.

Then week 5 came, and  the cumulative effects of her treatment lead to ulcerative colitis, a severe complication involving the large bowel.  I tried everything in my arsenal of medicine to treat it, to reduce her pain to no avail.  And one evening at 11 PM she was in so much unrelenting discomfort and she looked at me with such pleading desperation in her eyes, that I could not put her through it any longer.  My whole family who adored her as much as I, met me at my clinic at that late hour, and we all said goodbye  to my rock, my most cherish companion, my Tiffdog.

For those of you who have lost human friends and family, it may sound silly how hard I took the loss of Tiffdog.  I had lost a dear grandmother before that, another grandmother and 3 uncles since; but losing Tiffdog was the deepest level of grief I had ever experienced.  I felt like I’d lost a piece of myself, my fearless companion who was always my reliable constant through a period of my life that I had loved and lost, had friends come and go, was engrossed in study and learning, was embarking in a new career, and lived in many different places including an island in the British West Indies, all the while becoming a man.

I was married 3 years when Tiffdog passed, been a vet for 4 years, and a practice owner for 2 years.  I was comfortably settled with roots for the first time in my life, with talk between my wife and I of starting a family.  It seemed as if the Lord had put Tiffodg in my life to be my rock through all those years of constant change and emotional roller coaster, and now that she fulfilled her roll in my life, the time had come for her to go…but I was not ready to let her go.

I recall looking at Bernie a few days after Tiffdog had passed and feeling sad for him, because  although I loved him, he could never fill the shoes that Tiffdog had vacated, could never fill the void the loss of Tiffdog left in my heart.  As I looked away, he slowly army crawled to me on the couch and gently rested his head on my leg, as he looked up with the most sympathetic eyes I had ever seen since…Tiffdog and the way would look at me during times of sadness; and suddenly, everything changed.

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Bernie’s compassionate, loving gaze.

I realized that my time with Tiffdog was a blessing bestowed on my life and I should celebrate those years rather than dwell on her loss.  I realized that although Bernie was not her, was nothing like her, he was beautiful inside and out in his own way.  He did not need to fill a place in my heart that Tiffdog left behind, because Tiffdog would always keep that place…Bernie would find a different place in my heart that was all his own.

Bernie fecthing his Jollyball.

Bernie loving his Jolly Ball!

From that moment on, Bernie was my constant companion and went with me everywhere, just as Tiffdog had done before.  He helped me through one of the toughest moments of my life, and has been at my side as I have welcomed my little son and daughter to our home.  A gentle giant so tolerant of and gentle with the children, he and the kids go hand in hand in the joy in my home.  When we have family swim time, Bernie is out there enjoying it with us as my son throws his Jolley Ball to fetch time and again.  The life I live with Bernie and my family at my side is very different from the life I had with Tiffdog, no more or less special, just different.  I am just as grateful to have my Bernie for this part of my life, as I am to have had Tiffdog for the part of my journey that she was at my side.

One of my favorite comedians and insightful speakers was the late George Carlin, a huge dog lover in his own right.  He once said that for those of us that love dogs, reflecting on one’s life as one approaches the twilight of one’s time on this earth, life really little more than a series of dogs, each one representing versions of you on the respective stretch of life’s journey that they were with you.

My first dog at 4 years old was Waldo, a cocker spaniel, who taught me the wonder and unconditional love of canines, and that they truly are man’s best friend  Then there was Stanley, another cocker spaniel who showed me the same, but taught me responsibility for another life during the otherwise generally self centered teenage years.  Tiffdog was my companion as I broke away from my childhood home, pursued higher learning, took on an exciting new career, became a man, and transitioned to marriage and a more settled life.

Bernie is in the part of my life of large responsibility, growing my business as I provide for my family, secure college funds, coach youth sports, and remain engaged with the community.  While I used to take long walks with Tiffdog just she and I, Bernie’s walks are accompanied by my 4 year old son, Austin walking our other smaller dog Lulu, me walking Bernie (Lulu is a whole other story fit for another blog post).

Life is different indeed, but it is all the better with Bernie walking this part of my journey with me.  In the end, we rescued each other.  Don’t pass up the opportunity to rescue an animals, for the one you may be rescuing ultimately is yourself.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL and founder/CEO of Web-DVM.net.

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