By Ranny Green
Seven-year-old Bailey and I have something in common. We were both born on May 24 – albeit a few decades apart – but that’s where our likeness ends.
A 140-pound certified therapy dog, the affable teddy bear – she’s really a mastiff — is the most popular and anticipated visitor to eight Louisiana nursing homes, plus area hospitals, libraries and schools each week and was one of five animal survivor stories featured at this year’s American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum in New Orleans. Next year’s big event is scheduled for Seattle June 12-15.
Bailey, owned by Martha and Pete Rawls, of Winnsboro, La., a rural community in Northeast Louisiana, earned his therapy-dog certification at age 1 and has made an estimated 490 visits since then.
But Bailey isn’t your typical therapy dog. While she has been making quite an impression on her audiences from young children to the elderly for years, she’s left them in awe the past year since losing her front left leg to osteosarcoma (bone cancer), followed by six chemotherapy treatments and quickly returned to the focus of her life – making others smile.
“She didn’t miss a beat. She’s an incredible dog,” explains Martha Rawls, “and has brought so much happiness to many others. While she is our dog, there is a feeling that she belongs to the whole community, too.”
The Rawls have owned mastiffs for 12 years. “I love big dogs,” she says, “and I wanted a breed that was very loving and calm. We had grown kids and I knew that grandkids were in the future, so I researched breeds for their ‘love of kids’ and friendliness to everyone. I wanted a ‘laid-back’ breed and something a bit unique. I stumbled on to the movie, ‘Turner and Hooch,’ and it got us to looking into the mastiff. It has been the perfect breed for us.” (“Turner & Hooch” featured a Dogue de Bordeaux or French mastiff; Bailey is an English mastiff.)
Bailey is the couple’s second therapy dog, following in the footsteps of Abby, which died at age 8 but served up 472 “visits of love” beforehand. “I was showing Abby and she kept licking the judges,” laughs Rawls. “When I took her to obedience schools, the teacher told me to stop showing her because she was a natural therapy dog. Being a school counselor, this interested me, and the rest is history.”
Bailey has 3-year-old mastiff housemate, Eve, also a therapy dog.
Wherever Bailey goes, she elicits smiles and plenty of conversation. Owner of Therapy Dog International’s prestigious Exceptional Volunteer Achievement title, Bailey is just as at home in a library sprawled out on her Scooby Doo blanket surrounded by children eager to read her stories as in a nursing home with her head cradled in the hands of a smiling 90-year-old resident remembering early dogs in his/her life with a dog.
“Bailey seems to know when to watch the children and they are amazed as she looks at the pictures in the books with them,” says Rawls. “Several times a young boy would come to read about dinosaurs. His mother had been in a car wreck and was left unable to walk and speak. The grandmother would help position the mother on the blanket and Bailey would snuggle in around her. As the mother rubbed on Bailey, her son would read book after book to the pair. The grandmother would often sit smiling with tears running down her cheeks.”
Each December Bailey gives Christmas presents to all of her nursing-home friends. Special business cards with her picture and a Christmas love message brighten the faces and warm the hearts of all the recipients. Each is attached to a candy cane. For many residents these cards occupy a prominent place on their room’s bulletin board for years.
In August 2010, Bailey developed a slight limp during a nursing-home visit. When the problem persisted for a couple of days, Rawls took her to Dr. Brent White, a Monroe, La., veterinarian, for X-rays. After receiving a radiologist’s report and viewing the X-rays extensively, White called the Rawls and urged them to bring Bailey in immediately for a bone biopsy.
The biopsy revealed bone cancer, prompting White to refer Bailey and the Rawls to Dr. Liz Kergosien, a veterinary oncologist in Mandeville, La.
Due to Bailey’s size, other specialists were called in to evaluate the dog and determine if she would be a suitable candidate for amputation. All agreed she would be able to function readily with three healthy limbs, not simply due to the medical tests but Bailey’s “sweet spirit and zest for life.”
The surgery was performed by a veterinary orthopedic surgeon in the same specialty practice as Kergosien. “Amputation generally takes 1 to 1½ hours,” explains Kergosien. “Bleeding is the primary risk but they are very diligent about hemostasis. We are also very carefully monitoring and managing the dog’s post op, especially in the first 24-48 hours. And all went well.”
From a veterinarian’s perspective, adds Kergosien, in opting to perform amputation, the dog’s attitude is very important, but not as key as the owner’s attitude and willingness.”
Following surgery, Kergosien saw Bailey every three weeks for six chemotherapy treatments. Since then she has examined the gentle giant every three months for re-evaluation and lung X-rays, monitoring for lung metatastasis. The last checkup showed no evidence of cancer.
Upon beginning her nursing-home revisits, Bailey needed a few accessories to cope with the slick floor surfaces. Those included a vest with a handle and boots with nonslip grips. She wore these two to three months to maintain her balance. Eventually they began to bother her more than help; now she simply moves about on a regular leash and collar and without boots.
Following the amputation, Bailey’s outings have been shortened. Big facility visits which formerly could be handled with one stop, now require two to three. “The key here,” concludes Rawls, “is to continue to allow her to show her love to everyone while maintaining her quality of life and not exhausting her. It’s a fine line sometime, but everyone understands.”
Bailey lives for the nursing-home visits, in particular. On her first outing following amputation, she met a bed-ridden resident who asked Rawls what was wrong with Bailey and why was she limping. She had seen the dog many times and was worried she was hurt. After Rawls explained Bailey’s bout with bone cancer and the subsequent amputation, the woman replied,”That’s OK. I lost both of my legs to cancer.”
While Bailey was serving up comforting love to her, the woman turned and told Bailey to maintain a positive attitude and not give up, no matter what comes her way. The elderly resident died several weeks later, but the common bond they shared of determination and the desire to live each day to its fullest lives on in Bailey.
Residents thrive on the hands-on therapy of petting Bailey and receiving kisses in return. “They are all amazed at her determination to keep going. She may turn a corner too fast and fall down or lose her footing on the slick floors,” adds Rawls. But Bailey ignores it, never acting like it makes a difference. She simply maneuvers her way back up and proceeds to the next stop.
Bailey took the Christmas-card offerings another step this year, handing out Valentine’s cards showing her lying down with the remaining front limb and foot boot outstretched. The inspiring cards said it all: “Every step I make is because I love you.”