The golden years

The golden years

Here’s a peek into the bond between the pet owners and veterinarians contributing to the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, supported by Morris Animal Foundation.
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Jun 20, 2018

Photo by Greg KindredI am awake at 3:23 a.m., listening to the sleeping-baby sounds of my 11-week-old golden retriever in the kennel next to my bed and thinking about the lifetime of a dog. Last year our home was a hospice for our beloved 17-year-old arthritic Samoyed. This year, life is puppy pads, teething and housetraining. In the three short weeks he’s lived with us, our golden has grown longer and taller. His brain and body are expanding exponentially. We’re keenly aware he’s in a prime socialization period, where his exposure to other animals, people and experiences will shape the dog he becomes.

Watching a pet’s lifetime—from cradle to grave—is a privilege pet owners and veterinary professionals share. It’s an indelible bond forged from puppy visits to geriatric exams to that final, sacred goodbye when euthanasia is needed. And a group of special golden retriever owners and veterinarians are taking this journey together. Their purpose? To further scientific research and understanding in order to protect one of the most popular dog breeds in the United States.

In the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS), all of the 3,000-plus contributing dogs are called heroes, and their numbers indicate when they were registered into the study. Here are a few of their stories—and what researchers are just beginning to learn from these canine pioneers.

Meet Hugo, hero No. 1,003: A golden ambassador

Hugo and owner Brian Berge before a hospital visit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas. Many dogs enrolled in GRLS have roles beyond their lives as family pets. Photo by Portia StewartHugo stands in the reception area of Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas, still as a statue except for his breathing and the blinking of his eyes. This is a familiar space for him. He’s a therapy dog with Pet Partners, and hospital and nursing home visits are part of his weekly routine.

He and owner Brian Berge of Overland Park, Kansas, are completely tuned to each other. Berge scans the lobby, looking for visitors who might need the comfort of his furry friend, who stoically welcomes even the most enthusiastic hugs and petting. Sighting a little girl, the two are off. Berge offers Hugo’s “card,” which gives his stats—what he likes (including treats, kids and playing with his sister) as well as his credentials as a therapy dog.

Berge has owned golden retrievers since 1975, usually two at a time, and their names have always started with the letter “h.” Berge can list every one: Harley, Hogan, Heather, Hazel, Hannah, Hector, Harry, Hutch, Howard and Hugo. 

Berge’s involvement in the study started with Howard. When this beloved golden was 7 years old, Berge took him to the veterinarian for routine care.

“The vet took a look at him and said, ‘This dog’s in better shape than most 3-year-old dogs I see,’” Berge says. “We took him home, and that night he went out in the backyard and he just started losing his balance and wobbling.”

Initially, the veterinarian thought Howard was experiencing a reaction to his vaccinations, but Howard didn’t improve.

“They did the CT [computed tomography] scan and it turned out to be a brain tumor. And we lost him two weeks later,” Berge says. “We’ve always lost our dogs to old age, and most of them from cancer. But when you lose a dog like that at 7, when the vet says he’s in better shape than most 3-year-olds, you just don’t have time to prepare.”

Berge says he and his wife were so stricken by the loss they considered not getting another dog. But as time passed, Berge’s wife began to research golden retriever breeders, looking for the right fit.

A circuitous search led them to a responsible breeder of English cream golden retrievers. The breeder had 12 puppies—born on Christmas day. Berge took his granddaughter to visit the pups, and the family fell in love with Hugo, who kept returning to play with them long after the other puppies tired.

Hugo’s veterinarian encouraged the family to enroll him in the GRLS, and Hugo has been a participant since puppyhood.

Berge discovered Hugo's aptitude as a therapy dog accidentally, when his then-18-month-old grandson first met Hugo as a 3- or 4-month-old puppy. "You've got a puppy and a toddler--what can go wrong, right?" Berge asks. "The toddler sees the puppy and gets up and starts running toward him. And Hugo sees the toddler and starts running towards him. And of course all the adults in the room are in slow motion jumping out of their chairs going, 'No!' As the toddler gets to Hugo, Hugo sits down and wags his tail. The toddler grabs him by the jowls, and we're like, 'Oh no. This can't be good.' And Hugo just wags his tail and licks him. And we thought, you know what, we've got a winner." Photo by Portia Stewart

“The Morris study is so comprehensive. Every year we fill out probably a 50- or 60-page questionnaire. And the questionnaire takes into account every single aspect that you could imagine, including what kind of floors do the dogs walk on, where do they sleep, do they play outdoors, do they go to dog parks? So from that standpoint you become much more aware of what you’re doing with the dogs,” Berge says. “This is also a way of giving you positive experience for the things that you are doing well with the dog. I think that benefits the dog and the owner.”

Hugo also makes an annual trip to his veterinarian for an extended visit. During this visit the veterinarian collects samples from Hugo and completes an extensive survey on the dog’s health. While Berge says he misses Hugo during these lengthy visits, he appreciates the veterinarian’s investment of time and expertise.

Right now, Berge says, the gifts his dog provides to science don’t really affect his family’s daily life. But Berge sees these contributions ultimately as a blessing and hopes they’ll advance the health of dogs in the future.

A closer look at the study

Today the GRLS is six years into what’s expected to be a 15-year journey. And some of the results are already surprising researchers. Missy Simpson, DVM, PhD, is a staff scientist with Morris Animal Foundation and a veterinary epidemiologist who works on the GRLS. Her biggest surprise so far?

“I guess I’m surprised that we don’t have any osteosarcoma diagnoses yet,” Dr. Simpson tells dvm360. In fact, she says investigators had expected to find much more cancer by now than they actually have. The study is focusing on lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma and high-grade mast cell tumors.

“At this point in the study we predicted that we would have about 100 of our four primary cancer outcomes, and we’re at about 40,” Dr. Simpson says. “That’s great news … but it’s also an interesting finding scientifically that maybe they aren’t getting cancer as young or as quickly as we had predicted.”

Dr. Simpson says the researchers do have some ancillary findings that aren’t related to cancer, so that’s where they’re focusing their energy now while they wait on the oncology data to accumulate. Dr. Simpson will offer a preliminary look at some of these at the Fetch dvm360 conference Aug. 17-20 in Kansas City.

“We’re just in the early phases of looking at some other outcomes like cruciate ligament ruptures and clinically evident osteoarthritis,” Dr. Simpson says. “We’re also looking a lot at overweight and obesity in our dogs, so those are all research-in-progress things that we’ll have shaped up enough to present in August.”

The team is also examining changes in behavior parameters over time using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), a validated measurement tool. “We give that survey to our dog owners every year,” Dr. Simpson says. “So we have longitudinal data that we’ll be able to analyze and describe how those behavior concepts change over time, if they do at all.”

Finally, researchers are looking at mortality causes in dogs under 3 years of age. Right now, the literature on this topic tends to be based on information from shelters or teaching hospitals. “So those populations aren’t necessarily representative of what goes on in the bigger world of dogs,” she says. “We’re working on getting a descriptive paper together about the dogs that were younger than 3, what did they die from.”

“The study is a labor of love,” Dr. Simpson says. “There are a lot of moving parts, but we have really engaged and committed owners and veterinarians. There is some handholding, but it’s surprisingly less than you’d think. Most people are just so committed to doing what they need to do for the study.”

So far, Dr. Simpson says, the team can’t say whether the study will help other dog breeds beyond goldens. “Any time you do a cohort study with a selective population such as ours, one of the biggest questions is, can we generalize the findings to other breeds?” she says. “The answer is always ‘we hope so.’ But the truth is, we don’t know.”

Another concern: Do dogs in the study receive better healthcare, and are their pet parents more attentive to their pets’ needs?

“That is something that researchers always struggle with,” Dr. Simpson says. “In human health research we call it the ‘healthy participant bias.’ It’s basically the concept that people who engage in research are systematically healthier than people who don’t. And that could very much be the case with our dogs as well.”

Dr. Simpson says it’s a huge honor to be on this project, and she feels as if the job description were written for her. “Research is incremental, and nothing happens quickly,” she says. “You have to learn to find edification in the process and celebrate results when they happen, but the beauty is in the details.”

Truman, hero No. 2,874: Golden strong

Valerie Partch, DVM, examines her patient, Truman, who is one of the more than 3,000 golden retrievers enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. "I was excited to hear there was a study for the goldens, because they do tend to have cancer a lot more than the other breeds," Dr. Partch says. Photo by Portia StewartValerie Partch, DVM, recognizes Truman’s leash as he steps into the door of the exam room at Jackson Animal Clinic in Platte City, Missouri. “Is that the leash you wore to the wedding?” she asks him.

Owner Andrea Cole, a vibrant young professional with a contagious smile, answers in the affirmative as she enters the room behind Truman. Dr. Partch recognizes the leash because she attended Cole’s wedding, where Truman served as ringbearer. The bond between patient, doctor and pet owner is close—it originated with Cole’s previous golden retriever, Raleigh, and grew stronger along a difficult path.

You see, Cole’s commitment to GRLS began when Raleigh was diagnosed with bone cancer just before his third birthday. Cole and her then boyfriend (now her husband) were devastated.

“As first-time dog parents, we were like, ‘Cancer?’ We didn’t even know dogs could get cancer, let alone bone cancer. So we’re frantically doing tons of research, and we came across Morris Animal Foundation,” Cole says. “We saw the study, and at that point they were still enrolling dogs, and unfortunately you couldn’t enroll dogs that already had cancer.”

Cole was intrigued by the study, so she followed the research. After Raleigh passed and when she and her partner reached the point that they were ready for a new dog, she decided she wanted a dog she could enroll in GRLS.

“We’d invested so much time and emotion crying and researching and trying to figure out why this had happened to Raleigh. So we specifically wanted a dog that met all of the requirements,” she says.

Study participants were required to be younger than 2 at the beginning of the study, and they needed to be in possession of a three-generation pedigree. Then the pet owner and the veterinarian had to commit to participation in the study.

Cole enrolled Truman as soon as she could. “At that time it was really exciting because they were starting to pick up a lot of traction,” she says. “I was worried that we hadn’t gotten him in time. He’s number 2,874, so he’s at the very end. If you talk to anyone at Morris, they say the last couple weeks was just a mad rush of all these submissions.”

While participating in the study is a time commitment, a key part of what makes it all work is Cole’s relationship with her veterinarian. The friendship between Cole and Dr. Partch is never more evident than when they share the memory of Raleigh.

“Raleigh, he was unusual to develop cancer so early in life. It was very sad,” Dr. Partch says, looking to Cole. They share a glance, both caught in a moment of remembrance. “I was really hoping it wasn’t going to be cancer.”

Truman completed his third study visit this year, and Dr. Partch says he’s been the picture of health so far.

As she examines him today, Dr. Partch takes careful measure of Truman’s body, evaluating his eyes and teeth and body condition. He’s been on a diet recently, and he looks lean and lovely. When I ask about the device on his collar, Cole explains that Truman wears a Whistle GPS Pet Tracker, which allows her to monitor her dog’s location and activity from her phone.

Dr. Partch says she’s been impressed by the thoroughness of the GRLS program. “If they could have something like this for all dogs, to really monitor them this closely, we’d be able to catch so many more diseases and problems way earlier, and hopefully be able to prolong their quality and quantity of life,” she says.

Information sharing is a key factor in the study, whether it’s the data collected at the annual veterinary visits or the wisdom owners of the study participants share with each other.

The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study Supporters Facebook page tells the story of the lives of these dogs and their families. On a typical morning, at 5:35 a.m., a golden owner asks for prayers and positive thoughts for her hero, who’s undergoing cruciate ligament repair. A few hours later, another owner shares a paw print of her hero, who crossed the rainbow bridge and will soon be necropsied, with the results sent to Morris to further the study.

“It’s a tight-knit community, amazingly supportive of one another,” Dr. Simpson says. Members support each other not only when one of them loses a pet but also with advice on the study itself. “It’s not a trivial task to do everything we ask of these owners. So those communities are really great in helping us keep our compliance so high and keep people engaged in the study.”

For example, urine collection is an important task for the study, and owners share tips that range from using soup ladles to creating contraptions that attach to the dog itself. Others share stories of cancer diagnoses, remission or the special treats their pets receive after fasting before the annual study exams.

“It’s kind of funny to see the faces of the dogs before they go in for the study, because you can tell they’re like, ‘Where’s my breakfast?’” Cole says.

A recent question posed in the forum: If one of the owners from the study passed away and they wished for their dog to remain in the study, would anyone be willing to take that dog?

“The response was just amazing,” Cole says. “It made me start thinking, if anything happened to me that’s exactly what I would want. I would want whoever takes Truman to keep him in the study. Because just because I’m not here, it shouldn’t take away from the overall greater good.”

Cole says she’s been surprised by how the Facebook page has brought people together.

“Even if you’re having a personal struggle, people just rally around you,” she says. “It’s crazy to think that a breed of dog just instantly brings people together.”

For example, when a golden’s owner recently had surgery, other GRLS participants volunteered to walk the dog while the owner recovered. Cole says she’s constantly impressed by the pods of people who pop up to support each other, whether it’s helping each other out in a crisis or planning puppy playdates.

As I finish writing this, my own now-13-week-old golden retriever sleeps at my feet. He’s doubled in size since we brought him home at 8 weeks. He adores biting at the water that sprays out of the sprinkler and he prefers shady, wooded hikes over the concrete city sidewalks. He’s a tick magnet (thank goodness for modern parasite prevention!) and a goofball and a nippy, sleepy, energetic wanderer. He’s a golden retriever, with that characteristic golden smile that makes a heart happy.

Like the dogs in the GRLS, he will likely not benefit directly from the Morris Animal Foundation research. He’s too young and the scope of the study is big. But it’s a good feeling to know that those dogs who come after may have a brighter future, thanks to the dedication and contribution of the veterinarians and pet owners who are just as amazing, dedicated and loyal as the dogs they love.

Want to know more?

You can connect with the Morris Animal Foundation on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Also check out the website. You can sign up for quarterly updates about the GRLS study as well as updates about other research.


What's a veterinary visit like for a participant in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS)? Click on the image for a photo gallery of an exam. Photo by Portia Stewart