How a puppy named Thistle saved my life

In the first few weeks after my husband Jim died, my grief counselor thought I might follow him to the grave. She wasn’t worried about suicide; she was worried that my broken heart was in too many pieces to reassemble. It wasn’t even that I had given up. It was that life had done its worst to me, and I felt too beaten to make the effort to rise again. I watched my body go through the motions of a life that was totally unfamiliar to me, almost like an out-of-body experience. Days turned into weeks and then into months in this sort of monotone of just getting by.

You can imagine my counselor’s surprise when I announced one week in June, about six months after Jim’s death, that I was going to get a Brittany puppy, bringing my canine charges to three.  

At that point, she thought it was possible I’d lost my rational mind.

But my dear friend Ann who, with her husband, is the breeder of my Brittany dogs, had a beautiful litter of puppies. She wanted to keep two of them for her breeding program but didn’t want to deal with raising two puppies at once. She would keep the male named Hemi. She asked me to co-own the little girl puppy whose litter name was Holly, and to raise her and love her as my own.

Thistle at about 7 weeks old.

Thistle at about 7 weeks old.

I thought it might be too much, but I was intrigued by the idea and co-owning gave me an out, so I promised to come meet the puppy. It was love at first sight — on both sides. I spent hours after visiting her, trying to choose the perfect call name. Her American Kennel Club name, which is her official formal name for breeding and title purposes, was easy: J&A’s Sisters of the Heart, in honor of Ann’s and my close friendship.

At first, I thought the pup’s call name would be Crispin. However, the next time I visited, I tried it out and it didn’t fit, so I went back to the drawing board. The puppies were outside playing, and as I watched, I saw how fearless “Holly” was. She would jump on the other pups and fling herself into long grass or dig holes or bite the other pup’s ears. She had this kind of “RAH” thing she did where she lept into the air with her front legs splayed wide, ready to pounce on whatever her target of the moment was. Then she would run to me and want to snuggle. She was thorny like the leaves, beautiful and soft and nurturing like the flower, and her wild spirit appealed to my Scottish Highland heritage. It suddenly was obvious; her name was — Thistle!

Thistle's brother Hemi dug most of this hole in the side of an embankment. Thistle gave it some finishing touches and moved in, claiming it for her own.

Thistle’s brother Hemi dug most of this hole in the side of an embankment. Thistle gave it some finishing touches and moved in, claiming it for her own.

Thistle opened a door I thought was rusted shut forever. She floated in and took root in my heart, just as her namesake colonizes inhospitable soil. I loved my other two dogs of course, but Sassy was independent and Bullet was Jim’s dog. Neither needed me like a new puppy would. Thistle was mine, and she made no bones about it! She demanded a certain standard of emotional investment. She was structurally beautiful, and loving and clownish and playful and mischievous and intelligent. She made me laugh.

And she saved my life.

Thistle at 6-7 weeks old had definite feelings about me.

Thistle at 6-7 weeks old had definite feelings about me.

Jim and I were nearly 13 years apart in age. During our marriage, he always talked about how he wanted me to marry again if something happened to him first. I’d always answer that I’d done the “married” thing; if something happened to him, I’d simply get another dog instead. Though it sounds harsh in hindsight, it was one of those running jokes between two people who loved with all their hearts. While he freed me to pursue other relationships if he died first, I made it clear he was the only one I wanted.

During Thistle’s early puppyhood, I thought of this often repeated exchange, marveling at how prophetic it really was. I also was really only dealing with two dogs at first when Thistle came home, because Bullet was with his co-owner having some field time during Thistle’s first few months with me. It was as if the whole situation were orchestrated to fit my need at the time.

Bullet was at Ann's and John's doing field work, so Ann took a family portrait for me one weekend when Sassy, Thistle and I were visiting.

Bullet was at Ann’s and John’s doing field work, so Ann took a family portrait for me one weekend when Sassy, Thistle and I were visiting.

Thistle always just sparkled with energy — it was part of her irresistible charm. She was unpredictable and a little crazy, and she made me laugh every single day with her antics. She did everything with “Thistle intensity.” Even a simple game like fetch the tennis ball wasn’t simple. Thistle, who is not a very big Brittany, would try to catch the ball high in the air and was able to even pivot while up there grabbing the ball. She taught herself dock diving of sorts, and once she learned to do it, kept looking for new heights from which to jump into the water.

Thistle practicing her dock diving moves at camp.

Thistle practicing her dock diving moves at camp.

Once she mastered something, she would change the game so she had a new challenge. I would see her trying to jump higher, farther, quicker, whatever it took to keep it interesting. I was captivated by her and her approach to living, spending hours with her playing with a tennis ball or in the lake or watching her try to grab flies off the side of the garage. She loved to dig holes and did it with gusto. Nothing in her sphere escaped her notice or her touch. She earned her nickname Thistle the Pistol.

Thistle (right) with her littermate and twin Hemi.

Thistle (right) with her littermate and twin Hemi.

When Thistle was 6 months old, she and I entered the world of dog sports. She had already been through basic puppy obedience classes, and I attended show handling classes with her. When we were ready, we plunged into the show ring. Thistle was so much fun there, but highly unpredictable. She sparkled in the ring too and had this little “badda boom” move she did to situate herself to show off her beautiful structure when I held a treat in front of her. She would hop like a kangaroo. She would balk when I tried to place her feet where I wanted them. She would look for treats on the floor. She kept me on my toes every second. But she was beautiful and full of personality, and she made even the most formal, stone-faced judges smile. They didn’t seem to mind her antics, and she finished her AKC champion title in conformation, which is how the dog is structurally built, and then her AKC grand champion title in conformation very quickly and easily.

This was the last time Thistle and I were in an AKC show before she became ill.

This was the last time Thistle and I were in an AKC show before she became ill. We were at Union Fairgrounds.

Brittanys are bird-hunting dogs. Thistle had great speed and bird instinct in the field, and she easily earned her Junior Hunter title, which requires her to pass four “hunting” tests. She began learning flyball, which is a dog relay racing sport that is Sassy’s sport of choice. She was always busy and always with me. At the end of the day, she would wait patiently, sitting on the floor near my chair, asking politely to get in my lap and would curl up there, like one of the little black and orange caterpillars you see curled up next to a building foundation in the fall.

Ann (left) and I were so proud of our girl Thistle when she finished her Junior Hunter title.

Ann (left) and I were so proud of our girl Thistle when she finished her Junior Hunter title.

Thistle took a hiatus from our life together at 3 years old to go live with Ann and John for a few months while she fulfilled her role in their breeding program and had a litter of puppies. Pregnant with 11 healthy babies, Thistle required a C-section, but once she understood her mother role, she loved her pups with the same intensity she gave everything she did.

Thistle with some of her 11 babies.

Thistle with some of her 11 babies.

One of the babies came home with me, and two weeks later, Thistle came home too, bringing my total canine count to four.

However, she never seemed to bounce back from having the pups.

As time passed, I kept an eye on her and she just had no spark. Her appetite was getting bad. Then one day in late October, she began vomiting. Sassy happened to have a regular veterinarian appointment scheduled that day, so the office worked Thistle in too. The recommendation? Take her to her reproduction vet in New Hampshire as soon as possible; there was something suspicious in her uterus. I instantly felt sick to my stomach and suddenly my world was becoming surreal again, like it did with each added doctor appointment in Jim’s and my quest to figure out why he kept getting sicker. I felt the old familiar panic begin to seep in, trying to steal my well-being and sense of balance. But I could not give voice to those fears; I had to make plans to get Thistle to her specialists. Time to make a list of what needed to be done and make it happen.

Beautiful Thistle the Pistol.

Beautiful Thistle the Pistol.

I called New Hampshire when I got home from my regular vet and her reproduction specialist could see Thistle first thing the next morning. After a restless night of fear and worry, I got up that morning and, with all of the dogs, hit the road long before dawn. Ann and John met me at the vet’s. The vet said Thistle was very sick. She had to be rehydrated, and her bloodwork indicated there could be multiple issues. Thistle looked at us with dull eyes and every time her eyes met mine, my heart gripped in pain. She was slipping away, right before us, and we were helpless to do anything but pray.

The next couple of days were terrible. Tests upon tests. More fluids. Consultations with other veterinarians. Thistle was on IV fluids in a crate. I couldn’t lie down beside her. I could only hold her a few minutes at a time. Tests showed more masses in her uterus. Her liver enzyme numbers were crazy. I thought we were going to lose her. It hit me hard that I could lose the very little being that had so bravely taken on my grief and turned part of it into love. I didn’t think I could bear that kind of loss again so soon. I stayed with Ann and John, and we made Thistle’s medical decisions together.

On Oct. 24, 2014, the vets performed an emergency complete hysterectomy that saved Thistle’s life. Thistle’s uterus was so badly infected and had so much going on in it, the vets sent the whole thing away for pathological tests. Although the most immediate threat was gone, she still wasn’t out of the woods. Her liver was not behaving normally and she continued to have dehydration issues. She was in the hospital for a few days and once she was stabilized, I took her home immediately. The bill was high, but a couple of different friends pitched in some money to reduce the bottom line for me. Cost was not on my mind. Getting Thistle well was.

Thistle working in the field.

Thistle working in the field.

Thistle continued to be on her medication, which is ironically essentially milk thistle, for her liver, plus antibiotics, and stomach medicine, and I also made sure she got plenty of fluids. She was put on prescription food to support her liver. The pathology on her uterus came back to reveal multiple infections, but no cancer. She went for blood tests weekly to monitor her liver enzyme levels. Results varied from week to week. Other liver tests were performed. Her regular vet and her vets in New Hampshire shared information and consulted with each other every week, deciding together the best route for Thistle’s treatment plan. The little nagging dread in the pit of my stomach would not go away. I didn’t trust the good weeks, just waiting for the plunge back into bad. Weeks blended together and finally we started seeing some improvement. Slow but definite improvement.

The vets said I had saved her life by knowing her so well and acting so quickly.

Thistle still has liver problems that may or may not be related to her original infection issues. No one seems to know. One theory is that they are a result of her Lyme Disease, which was diagnosed when she was 6 months old. But medication and diet changes and lots of tender loving care have helped keep Thistle on the road to recovery. Now, a year later, Thistle sparkles again. Her beautiful eyes are bright and happy and looking for her next adventure, her ears perk and her tail waggles and her whole body just hums with anticipation, just as she should be, even though she remains on medication to support her liver.

Thistle and I have a wonderful bond. This was at a field event in Brownfield.

Thistle and I have a wonderful bond. This was at a field event in Brownfield.

One thing Ann, John and I agreed on when Thistle first became ill was that we would let Thistle live her life as fully as she could.

Thistle plays with her puppy Quincy, the one who came home with me after she had her one and only litter. She plays flyball. I may show her again, but this time in United Kennel Club conformation classes that allow spayed dogs. She cannot participate in AKC conformation any more because she was spayed. She placed first in Walking Hunting Dog in a field trial I entered her in in September. I hunted birds with her in October. Holes are not-so-mysteriously appearing throughout the dogs’ fenced area; and there is always a tennis ball ready to be thrown — squeaky ones are the most fun apparently.

Thistle placed first in Walking Hunting Dog at Central Maine Brittany Club's fall field trial in 2015.

Thistle placed first in Walking Hunting Dog at Central Maine Brittany Club’s fall field trial in 2015.


When Thistle came into my life, she saved me. Now, I’ve saved her too. That incredible spirit of hers entered my heart when it was so raw, and filled me with good new memories — both of her existence and of the honest relationship I shared with the man I still call husband. Thistle’s troubles reminded me of an important lesson too: when life is spiraling downward, it doesn’t always hit bottom. It can suddenly change direction, and be okay. Thistle and I are going to be okay.

JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.