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Is it possible dogs can help heal us?

These two 2019 AKC National Agility Championship competitors would tell you yes. Terri Sanders and Joyce Coleman both thank their dogs – and Agility – for helping them overcome cancer.

Terri Sanders and Laney

Terri Sanders says her bond with her 8-year old Dalmatian, Laney, is strengthened by the fact that they are both survivors of life-threatening diseases.

Terri Sanders was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. At the time, she and her Dalmatian, Krypto, had just started trying Agility. She didn’t know everyone in her club very well, but soon after her diagnoses, she found her club to be her greatest source of support.

“My club was right there,” Sanders says. “I’d just gotten started with my older one, and one of my closest friends now actually called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m picking you up. We’re going out to lunch.’ I really didn’t know her at the time as well as a lot of my friends, but my friends didn’t know what to do. But dog people did. It was awesome.”

Krypto gave Sanders the strength she needed to overcome cancer. And a couple of years later, she got another Dalmatian – Laney.

Almost immediately, Sanders realized Laney was a fighter. After flying her from Idaho to Indiana, Laney was diagnosed with Parvo and overcame it. But at one year old, she started experiencing more health issues.

Her weight quickly dropped from 43 pounds to 28. She wasn’t eating anything. Then, Sanders had an idea. What about trying out Agility as a way of getting her to eat? Laney was pre-programmed to get a jackpot of food after running Agility anyway, so the idea was that she would eat afterward. Sanders stresses that she consulted her veterinarian and was cautious not to push Laney.

It worked, but Laney was still going downhill.

That’s when the vet called with test results.

“You gotta get back up here,” the vet told Sanders. “She’s in liver failure.” At the time, Laney wasn’t even two years old.

Laney was one of only five living Dalmatians in the U.S. diagnosed with Copper Storage Disease.

Dr. David Twedt and the Dalmatian Club of America are currently working on finding out more about the cause of this disease.

“They contacted me and wanted her blood sample,” Sanders says. “We had agreed that she’d been through so much we weren’t going to do anything else unless there was a medical need. They said that they would definitely need it because she was only one of five that they could find alive in the United States, which was six years ago. She’s been a survivor for six years now.”

The bond between the two is evident in the way they interact with each other. But knowing they are both survivors adds another level to their relationship. Laney still has to take daily medication in order to stay alive.

“Yeah, being survivors is a lot,” Sanders says, “We’re both hopefully getting through it.”

Krypto helped Sanders survive, and Sanders helped Laney survive.

Through it, all, did either of them ever consider giving up on Agility? Sanders says it saved both of their lives.

“In a way, they’re starting to link some people with fighting cancer to competition. There’s something about the endorphin in the brain, they’re finding, that competition helps. I’ve met a lot of survivors, a lot of cancer survivors that run agility, and I don’t know if it’s the competition we thrive with, or just the dog people and the “full of life” thing. You just want to make every minute count.”

Joyce Coleman and Woody

Joyce Coleman was told she wouldn’t survive her cancer. That’s when she decided to get her Havanese, Woody and prove them wrong.

Joyce Coleman is another survivor.

Five years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma everywhere in her body and given four months to live.

“I had cancer in my spine and lost my ability to walk,” Coleman says. “And then I finally decided I was going to live, and I love dogs.”

That was when she decided to get a dog and try to gather her strength to compete in Agility. “I thought, well, I’ve got nothing else to do. I’ll get a dog and go for Agility and that really helped me to get my mobility back.”

Before Coleman got Woody, a Havanese, she couldn’t even get down on the floor.

“He helped me because he made me laugh and Havanese are a really funny dog and they enjoy their family,” Coleman says. “He also just made me get up and down.”

Soon, Coleman and Woody were in Agility and Obedience classes, and Coleman had regained some mobility.

In 2019, they qualified for their first National Agility Championship. As of March, Coleman says they are almost qualified for 2020 already.

While Coleman’s story is inspiring, she finds inspiration in her fellow competitors as well. “You see a lot of people running Agility that are out there with their cane and their dog and I even saw a 90-year-old lady run her first Novice Agility with a Border Collie,” Coleman says. “That’s very impressive to me.”
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