“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget.” – G. Randolf
By Ranny Green
He had his own distinctive logo, was known by many names to a fan club that extended far beyond his hometown Denver neighborhood and he will always be remembered as the dog that made a difference.
He was Gryphon (pronounced Griffin), The Mayor, Gritty and Grits. His logo: “Gryphon: Lived Life at Full Throttle” captured his charisma and verve from puppyhood to his final days in April 2010.
This always-upbeat Labrador retriever, owned by Heather Raynski and John Van Soest, was an ambassador for the K-9 cancer awareness movement and a participant in the Youth and Pet Survivors, a pen-pal program that pairs children and dogs suffering from cancer. Plus, he was a highly visible figure in DockDog competition nationwide from age 11½ to 13.
“I don’t think he ever met someone he didn’t like,” recalls Ratynski. “His body language, his facial expressions said it all: ‘I am your friend’ everywhere we went.”
Gritty’s life was celebrated last month at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine annual convention in Denver, along with several other area pets, at a special Animal Survivors event, attended by his owners and his veterinary oncologist, Dr. Robyn Elmslie, of Englewood, Colo.
Gritty was diagnosed with an oral plasma cell tumor (plasmacytoma) in April 2008 at age 11½ years, two weeks after a routine physical exam revealed no medical issues. The aggressive growth began quickly affecting his ability to retrieve and eat without discomfort.
Ratynski, a veterinary hospital administrator, has had two other dogs with the Big C, but admits, “You never get over the shock of being told your dog has cancer, especially when it’s sudden and unexpected. But I had a terrific team with our own veterinarian (Dr. Mike Herman) and Dr. Elmslie for Gryphon, the same ones who treated the other two previously.”
Adding to the angst this time was the difficulty in nailing down a diagnosis. “Usually, it is pretty straightforward,” explains Ratynski. “A tissue sample is taken, sent to a lab, where a pathologist determines what type of tumor it is. In Gritty’s case we had three different diagnoses, all of which mandated a different treatment mode.”
After an MRI lymphoma staging and a round of chemotherapy, researchers at the University of California, Davis, determined Gritty had cancer of the plasma cells.
“John and I made a pact when he was diagnosed,” says Ratynski. “It would not be about us. We would let Gritty show us the way.” And he did for two more years.
The first step of treatment called for Herman to surgically remove as much of the tumor as possible, which would cut the impending radiation treatment to some degree. “Because I had worked at the hospital, I was allowed to sit in and observe. Gryphon’s toughness and resiliency allowed him to handle the procedure nicely. In fact, he went on a two-mile walk the next day.”
Ratynski described the walk on the Chase Away K 9 Cancer web site: “You’d have never known that he’d just had surgery. The joy he felt that day walking in the park was palpable. I was reminded that he didn’t know that he had cancer and it was my job to try and live as he does – moment to moment with no thought of what may be. “
Once his mouth healed from surgery, Gritty underwent 18 radiation treatments with Elmslie, five days a week over 3½ weeks.
“That was the longest month of my life,” Ratynski says, “and I cried when it was over. But in many ways I don’t know if I would take it back if I could. It solidified our bond. I even created a playlist on my iPod that we listened to each morning as we drove to the clinic, and now when I hear those songs I think of that time with fondness.”
Gryphon was a “fabulous patient,” Elmslie recalls. “You have some memorable cases in your career and his ranks right up there. But much of the credit goes to Heather and John and their commitment to his quality of life.
“Gryphon was always upbeat and had a zest for life. He seemed to like coming here and all the attention the entire staff lavished on him.”
Each of 18 radiation dosages were low enough, Elmslie says, to allow the surrounding normal tissue to recover quickly. “The bottom line,” she concludes, is “always about how can we do the most for him while doing the least to him.”
The treatments forced the tumor into remission, and within three months Gritty completed a six-mile hike in the Colorado Rockies and went on that summer to become a DockDog and pen pal for a 10-year-old girl suffering from cancer.
Ratynski recalls having a “crazy idea” that Gritty could qualify for the DockDogs nationals. Wearing a “Cancer Survivor” vest and jumping five times in one day he did, becoming a huge crowd favorite in the process.
He thrived on the attention. When he jumped 5 feet 11 inches, the crowd cheered. In his mind, he had soared 25 feet. “He was having fun and living life to the fullest. He thought he was a rock star,” she smiles. Gritty continued his DockDog career until he was 13.
It wasn’t always fun and games between Gritty and Ratynski. “I wanted John (the dog was his birthday present) to get a rescue dog,” she says. “But we ended up going to a breeder’s home to look at some pups that would be ready to take home in a few weeks. When we discussed the litter with her, she asked if she could show us an older puppy. She brought out this 4-month-old dog that looked like a basset hound-Lab mix that she needed to find a home for. John fell in love instantly. My heart wasn’t really in it but he was a charmer and soon I was as hooked as John.
“He was stubborn, full of drive and quite independent. You add all of that up and it spells challenge,” Ratynski recalls. Plus, he was more attached to Van Soest. Eventually, he became a momma’s boy. After he got cancer we spent a lot of time together at the vet, but it was our time to bond and be a team. DockDogs only strengthened that connection. “
Ratynski’s plan from the early going was simply to tire out Gritty, mentally and physically. He never chewed furniture, but he found plenty of other ways to get into trouble that resulted in significant vet bills. “He was like a 2-year-old child and he expected you to entertain him all the time.”
Gryphon gave new meaning to patience while producing plenty of laughter and inspiration, says his appreciative owner.
Ironically, after beating the plasma cell tumor, two years later Gryphon succumbed to lymphoma, a form of cancer known to be treatable. “We were convinced he could beat this, too,” says Ratynski.
Following chemotherapy, his strength began to gradually wane. The last few days were an emotional rollercoaster – up and down days. “He showed his ‘true Grit,’ even on the worst days,” recalls Ratynski, “but we were committed to not prolonging his agony and finally decided it was time to let go. Dogs have a way of letting you know when it is time. They’ll show it in their eyes, body language and enthusiasm. Treasure every day and never take them for granted. Our time with them is always too short.”