How my ailing dog has inspired me

You may remember the story of my Brittany girl dog Thistle. She became part of my family as an 8-week-old pup just months after my husband Jim died from pancreatic cancer. She brought me so much love and joy and true distraction from my grief.

At 3, Thistle had a beautiful litter of 11 puppies, and a few months later, we — her co-owners/breeders/dear friends — found ourselves fighting for her life. She had developed a uterine infection that would have killed her had I not been so in tune with her and detected her distress.

Thistle was spayed in emergency surgery, which saved her life from a terrible infection, but her liver continued to have problems. Two and a half years later, we still are trying to regulate Thistle’s liver enzymes and stabilize her liver function, and we find ourselves yet again in the position of trying to save her life.

Thistle’s liver function is decreasing and her enzymes remain erratic.

She seems to feel well most of the time and she runs and plays and is vocal. I hunt with her in bird season, she’s learning flyball (dog relay racing) and we often play fetch with her squeaky tennis ball, but it is obvious the times when she doesn’t feel well.

Thistle (center) is ready for me to throw the squeaky tennis ball last summer. Quincy is in the back, hoping she will miss, and Bullet is on the side.


Her beautiful eyes go from sparkling to dull, like coming upon a deep pool of water in the middle of a babbling brook. She also will quietly go into her crate unbidden and take a rest away from my other three dogs.

I have observed her behavior closely. It’s what saved her life the first time — my observation and some very competent animal doctors. And although we have some of the same doctors in this fight, we have brought in some new ones, too.

All of us are perplexed by this little Brittany girl’s condition. I know Thistle’s ancestry — an advantage of having gone through a reputable breeder — and there is no history of similar illnesses in her lines. Since it’s not genetic, it must be environmental, which narrows it down only a little. It doesn’t seem to be cancer. Whatever it is, it’s making it difficult for Thistle’s liver to function properly.

That’s what we know.

The good thing about doctors of any kind is that as scientists they tend to focus on the practical and the facts of a situation. That approach helps me keep my feet on the ground, and my crazy thoughts in check.

You see, Thistle is a “heart dog.” She is very special to me because she saved me from giving up after Jim died. She gave me new purpose and made me laugh every day. I fell head over heels for this funny, intelligent, beautiful, capable, strong and loving creature that earned the nickname Thistle the Pistol. And if I think with my heart, I will be lost.

But I cannot give up on her. It’s the least I can do because she never gave up on me.

And we are not alone.

I am a woman of strong faith. I don’t believe that God lets bad things happen. I don’t believe this is his fault at all. But I do believe in his faithfulness and that my trust in him will help me through whatever comes. Just as I always have. Just as it did when Jim died.

I also have the awesome support of family and friends and a huge Brittany community.

It has to be enough because it’s what I have at the moment. No answers, but faith, love, support, prayers, and modern science.

Thistle, resting in an exercise pen I have set up in the kitchen, two days after her surgery.

The doctors say we still have a good chance to give Thistle a long life if the liver biopsy yields some answers about the root of the problem. Once we know what is wrong, we can find a solution. Or if we at least know what it isn’t, we can adjust her treatment plan to give her as much quality of life as we can.

But without answers, it could be a much shorter life. She’s only 5.

I can do no less for Thistle than guard her quality of life. She has so much zest for living, and we decided more than two years ago when her illness became apparent that we would let Thistle live her life to its fullest and not treat her like an invalid.

Watching her handle her own illness has inspired me to push through some of my personal obstacles. Thistle loves the moment she is in and lives it with purpose and intensity. What an incredible example for the rest of us.

Thistle’s surgery was a week ago, and pieces of her liver have been sent to labs around the United States that have different areas of expertise. We expect results soon.

In the meantime, we wait, with hopeful hearts and with prayers of thanksgiving for this little canine that can make a room come alive, just by walking into it.

Thistle, with Bullet in the background, keeping vigil.

Right now, I know in my heart I have done all I am humanly capable of doing. I trust in my God to hold me up, and I — along with my other three Brittanys, one of which is Thistle’s son — guard over Thistle as she heals from her surgery.

And I will love her to my fullest every day of her life, however long that is.


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.