From Whimsical to Psychological Crutches, These Westminster Teams All Have Their Special Stories


You probably didn’t see them while watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on nationwide TV last month or on streaming video from your home computer. But each of these earthy vignettes of owners and dogs epitomize the deep-rooted, heart and soul of the human-animal bond.

With staggering intimacy and true grit, they showcase commitment and connection along with a resilient can-do spirit designed to put the big picture in a rich cultural context. And within this colorful mosaic is the duality of angst and hope and the weather imagery of dark clouds giving way to bright sunshine.

Some even have a little built-in humor.

Here are several special stories outside the ring you probably haven’t read elsewhere, culled from hundreds of Media Information Forms and interviews with the owners.


Sandra Towne and Sam

Sandra Town and Sam at Duke Cancer Center
Sandra Towne, right, and Sam at Duke Cancer Center. On left, is Kristy Everette, coordinator Oncology Recreation Therapy, Duke Cancer Center

Towne, of Randolph, Va., who has been successfully treated at Duke University Cancer Center twice for thyroid cancer decided to give back and make a difference in the lives of others. Part of that process involved training Sam, then 8 weeks old, for therapy work.

Now 2, Sam, a Gordon setter, is a show dog and hunting companion but also an integral member of the center’s Pets at Duke therapy team that provides comfort to patients, families and staff.

“He is a true country bird dog,” says Towne, “who is just as at home at the cancer center interacting with everyone. The most important influence on his stable temperament is the rural country life he leads. A sporting dog living a real sporting life. We run through the fields every morning rain or shine.”

Conversely, dog shows have helped prepare Sam for interactions with patients, Towne emphasizes. “The same skills are required of the dog – confidence, accustomed to noises, crowds, strangers handling and lots of patience.”

“An hour with a small child with no hair or a woman, terrified, waiting for treatment advice, is not only a reward for me, says Towne, “but a reminder to remember what is important and what really is not. It’s a time to put life in proper perspective.”

And two Duke patients reflect that.

“It gives one such a lift to be around an animal,” said Wilma Stubbs, who was diagnosed three years ago with lung cancer. “Patients undergoing long-term treatment often miss their dogs at home; they light up at the opportunity to visit with a therapy dog, like Sam.”

“Cancer treatment by nature can be very clinical,” said Elizabeth “Beth” Heinzelmann, 35, diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. “Therapy dogs add something sweet to the challenging journey. These dogs have no agenda, except to make us feel better.”


Deborah Davidson Harpur and Rickie Roo

rickie roo used with permission
Rickie Roo

Rickie Roo, a rat terrier, is a testament to the benefits of genetic testing. When she was bred, a test for the genetic disorder, Primary Lens Luxation – where the lens of the eye suddenly detaches and if not treated immediately leads to the loss of vision, resulting in blindness and in some cases the loss of the eye itself – was not offered.

After her birth, the test became available for breeders and dog owners. It revealed that she was at risk for the disorder. Consequently, Harpur, of Harbor City, Calif., was able to rush the dog in for emergency surgery just before the left eye luxated and save her vision. A similar scenario was followed two weeks later with the right eye.
“Her joy in life is agility,” says Harpur, “and it was doubtful she would be able to compete again at the top levels as she is now had we not caught the problem early.”

Rickie Roo is Harpur’s medical service dog, alerting when the owner is about to experience an asthma attack. Add to that the she is a doggie calendar model and has been featured in commercials and print advertising.

Brittany Schaezler and Ticket

Brittany Schaezler and Ticket
Brittany Schaezler and Ticket

Schaezler, a Houston area veterinarian, treats others’ animals for a wide mix of illnesses and injuries. But when it came to Ticket, her jet-quick Shetland sheepdog, she was off-the-charts frustrated when the 5-year-old, 21-pounder was forced to undergo eight leg surgeries – seven on one leg – and was out of agility for more than two years.

She suffered a partial tear of her cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) on her left leg, underwent surgery and returned to competition. This was followed by the same injury to her right rear leg, resulting in seven operations at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists.

“There was no specific accident,” Schaezler said. “It’s a very common injury in dogs, both pets and performance. We had trained that night, came home, and when she stood up after napping a couple of hours later, she was on three legs. The next day was fine, but having been through it before I was very suspicious.”

The surgery, known as Tibial Plateau Osteotomy (TPLO) involves changing the geometry of the stifle (knee) joint in order that the CCL is no longer needed for the stifle to be stable. That was followed by rehabilitation conducted under the watchful eyes of a physical therapist at Gulf Coast hospital.

Ticket’s bone never healed properly, however, forcing a series of six subsequent surgeries. “The surgeons have no idea why she didn’t heal,” says Schaezler. “We never found evidence of infection or any other reason. She had the same surgery on the other leg previously and recovered perfectly.”

fear when she was suddenly faced with the possibility of either fusing Ticket’s joint or amputating her leg.

After the blue merle’s seventh surgery, Schaezler resigned herself to Ticket’s retirement from agility but was happy that she might simply recover full function of the leg.

Slowly, with months of physical therapy, Ticket began training – and eventually – competing again before reaching the second annual Masters Agility Championship at Westminster Feb. 14 and placing third in the 16-inch division.

“Despite everything, she still gives me 100 percent every time we run,” adds Schaezler. “She is full of such joyful exuberance, which she never lost despite two years of surgeries, crate rest and physical therapy. Every time I step to the line with Ticket, I know it’s a gift.”


Andrea and David Martin and Whiskey

Andrea and David Martin, Beth Kirven and Whiskey
Andrea and David Martin and Whiskey.

Think about it for minute: What can happen when you have 8-months-old Vizsla in the home of a jeweler who occasionally brings her work home?

If you’re thinking probably nothing good, you’re right in the case Andrea and David Martin, of Raleigh, N.C.

“One evening,” Andrea Martin recalls, “I had a bag of small diamonds (10 carats worth) on the kitchen counter. I exited the kitchen for a few minutes and I heard my kids say, ‘No Whiskey.’ So I walked into the den with everyone to see Whiskey chewing the bag. By the time I got to him, he had swallowed half the bag.

“My husband followed Whiskey around the yard for a week scooping up poop and sifting through it to retrieve what diamonds he could. We were able to get about 8 carats back, leaving us with a total loss of around 2 carats ($5,000) and a husband for a week while he slept in the guest bedroom. So when we say Whiskey is priceless, that is understatement!”


Robyn Haskin and Cooper

Robyn Haskin and Cooper
Robyn Haskin and Cooper

Haskin, of Bainbridge, N.Y., did her homework on picking Cooper, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever, and boy did it pay off.

She spent five years researching the breed and another three before finding a breeder she wanted to work with.

“I wanted a dog to show and just have fun with,” she says. “My attitude was if he finished, fine. If not, he would be just a pet. I was blessed with Cooper when he was 8 weeks old.” In addition to his conformation credentials, Cooper owns titles in the working, rally and companion-dog arenas.

Cooper personifies Velcro dog with Haskin, a veterinary technician.

But when it comes to biggest accomplishment, none rivals Cooper’s potential life-saving role of alerting Haskin to breast cancer. “The reason I found my lump so early was he continued to sniff the area of my right breast annoyingly, so unlike him,” she recalls. “When I started to push him away he started to jump up and nip, which he would never do. It was the nip that made me bend forward and feel the area and discover the lump.”

Once removed, he has never bothered the area again, she adds. “He rested with me after every chemo treatment, has become a little protective and will get between me and people and just watch. I guess in his eyes I am a little weaker, which I am.

“People said we were bonded and now they know how much.”


Allison Vicuna and Molly

Allison Vicuna and Molly
Allison Vicuna and Molly

Molly is a top-ranking boxer agility performer but she is Vicuna’s steady teammate both on and off the field. By the time she was 2 years old, Molly earned obedience and rally obedience titles prior to seguing into agility.

But in March 2009 Vicuna’s life took a dramatic change when, just prior to a business trip to India, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and what was soon scheduled to be outpatient surgery resulted in an eight-hour procedure.

A former college athlete, lifelong runner and vegetarian, Vicuna, of East Granby, Conn., says, “I have always been a fighter and was not about to let my diagnosis of Stage 4 ovarian cancer be my death sentence.

“While we only dabbled in agility before my diagnosis once I got home and began treatment I dove headfirst into it with Molly, earning four MACH titles since 2009. Vicuna’s cancer has recurred twice, resulting in lengthy rounds of chemotherapy. During the regimens she still worked, trained and competed with Molly.

“Competing with Molly brings joy and a much-needed respite from the seriousness of dealing with the disease,” emphasizes Vicuna. “She can read how I am feeling and is always there to give me a boxer face wash if I am feeling tired or frustrated. It’s as if she is licking my worry and anxiety away and bringing me back to the present moment.”


Jessica Gavin and Nova

Jessica Gavin and Nova
Jessica Gavin and Nova

Four years ago after the 12-year-old Gavin’s family dog, a Great Pyrenees, died she went with her mother, father and younger brother to meet a Leonberger breeder about obtaining a puppy. The breeder had no puppies but there was a striking 6-months-old red-gold girl there called Nova.

“I asked the breeder about her and she said she was so beautiful and special that she had to go to a show home. I was a member of 4-H and told her I had shown cows.” She smiled and said, ‘Well, if you can show a cow you can show a Leonberger.’ “

Gavin, of Lancaster, Maine, and her family took Nova home and the youngster has been showing her since.

Gavin, 16, says, “Nova was a very mischievous puppy and we did not get along very well at the start. Since our rocky start Nova has earned a championship and grand championship, Canine Good Citizen title and competed in obedience and rally.”

Nova, 4, weighs 128 pounds, probably not too much less than the “petite, amicable Oreo cow named Shirley” Gavin exhibited years ago in 4-H.