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The Coastal Muse

Jim Joyce and his wife Bonnie have been avid agility competitors for decades, and their 6 year-old Flat-Coated Retriever, “Sadie,” is following in their footsteps. When she was five, she was already racking up titles across not just agility, but other sports as well. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2023, Jim and Bonnie received devastating news: Sadie was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a deadly canine cancer.

At the time of her diagnosis, Sadie was working toward her second MACH title. And against the odds, she’s earned it. Despite receiving chemotherapy every three weeks, her illness hasn’t stopped her from doing what she loves. Sadie (MACH Kaotic’s Serendipitous Sadie SueCDX SH MXS MJG MXF T2B3 DJ DN CGC) will be competing at the 2024 AKC National Agility Championship from March 14 to 17 in Perry, Georgia, among other top agility dogs.

Two Decades of Agility

Jim and Bonnie have been married for 40 years, and their love for Flat-Coated Retrievers and Golden Retrievers has been a constant throughout their marriage. Twenty years ago, he and Bonnie retired from their jobs as behavior analysts, and turned that passion to dog training. Their interest in human learning and performance seemed to translate naturally into the world of dog training. “Bonnie has been training dogs longer than I have and does hunt training, obedience, agility, and dock diving,” Jim says.

Jim can hardly recall a time when he and Bonnie didn’t have three or four dogs in tow. Jim’s introduction to agility was through their Golden Retriever, “Benny,” who sadly passed away in 2023. He was a successful dog sports competitor, boasting a bronze Grand Champion in the show ring and had a MACH 2 and a PACH title. They went on to do agility with nearly all of their dogs, and have loved every minute of it.

Unfortunately, this is not the first dog that Jim’s had that’s been diagnosed with cancer. Prior to getting Sadie, they had “Fluke,” a Flat-Coated Retriever who passed away from hemangiosarcoma at age 7. Jim recalls how much Bonnie enjoyed training Fluke, and thought she had the ideal temperament for agility. They decided to get another dog, and that’s when they found Sadie. “She fit right into the family,” Jim says. “Since Benny died, Sadie has been the matriarch around here. She’s the revered oldest one now.”

Bonnie Joyce

When Sadie was a puppy, Bonnie started her in obedience and hunt training. Around age two, Sadie started competing in agility. A couple of years later, Bonnie said to Jim, “Why don’t you take Sadie and run her in agility and keep her busy and happy?” Since then, Jim and Sadie have been competing in agility, leading up to her qualifying for the AKC National Agility Championship in the 20-inch division. The Joyce’s Golden Retriever, “Hobbes,” also qualified to compete at nationals and is going for his second MACH.

“All the obedience and hunt training is a good foundation for everything else,” he says. “You have to learn to sit and stay until you’re called. Little things like that make the world of agility possible.” Although Sadie doesn’t have the same speed and strength as she did before her cancer diagnosis, she’s still thriving. At a recent AKC agility trial in Tallahassee, FL, Sadie won the Jumpers competition all three days.

Sadie’s Devastating Diagnosis

In August 2023, Jim noticed that something was wrong with Sadie. “I’m pretty in tune with her since I’ve been running her in agility,” he says. “She just did not look right.” When they took her to the vet, they discovered she had a liter and a half of blood in her abdomen. Sadie underwent emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. A biopsy later confirmed that Sadie was suffering from hemangiosarcoma.

Hemangiosarcoma is an aggressive cancer that develops from the cells that make up the blood vessels. It tends to spread quickly and may affect the spleen, heart, liver, and skin. “Her spleen was full of masses from the cancer,” Jim says. “We’ve had a number of dogs that have had cancer, because we have always had Retrievers. Especially Flat-Coated Retrievers, Sadie’s breed, are susceptible to it.”

Typically, the life expectancy for dogs with hemangiosarcoma is weeks to months. With chemotherapy, treatment may extend their life expectancy by months. “Sadie has been on chemo since her surgery,” he says. “Even though they removed the masses, the cancer is still flowing around in her blood. Eventually, it’s going to start up again somewhere else in the body. They consider it a terminal diagnosis.” But over six months later, she’s still fighting, and her love for agility helps keep her going.

Agility: What Keeps Her Going

In 2019, Sadie was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America. The Hall of Fame honors dogs who are the most accomplished in their chosen fields. Sadie was recognized for her versatility, based on her successes in hunt, obedience, and agility. Sadie got her first MACH title in 2022 at an AKC trial with the Montgomery Alabama Dog Obedience Club in Autaugaville, AL. She’s now also gotten her MACH2, after she got her spleen removed.

But she wasn’t always an agility star. When Sadie was younger, she had difficulty qualifying in both Standard and Jumpers since a MACH title requires speed and consistency. “We’ve been working on being more consistent, and we’ve done pretty well,” Jim says. He credits her improved performance to her getting older and becoming more mature. In that past, Bonnie would often run and handle the dogs, but Jim has taken to running Sadie generally. “It’s not her new handler necessarily,” he jokes. “My wife had trained her very well, and she was very fast.”

Another challenge for Sadie has been staying at the start line. “We have to slingshot her. We just send her and go,” Jim says. “She’s a lot faster than any dog I’ve run before and has taught me a whole lot about the sport.” Jim has learned to give Sadie distance and take shortcuts, so he can catch up to her. “You’ve got to be ready to go and have a good plan for your course because it’s going to be fast,” he says. “If you make a mistake, you won’t be able to tell her where to go soon enough, and she’ll go off-course.”

When Sadie finishes a run, she comes right up to Jim. “It’s almost like she wants you to catch her, but she’s too big,” he says. “She’s coming back to say, ‘Look at how we did,’ so she’s fun in that way.” Even after her diagnosis, Sadie competes twice a month, sometimes more, and trains almost every day. “I just want her to be happy, and she loves agility,” Joyce says. “We’ll keep going as long as she can enjoy the sport.”

Bonnie Joyce

Cherishing Each Day They Have

Jim and Bonnie are trying not to think about losing Sadie. “We have no idea how much longer she has,” he says. “We’re devastated by the fact that we’re going to lose her. In the meantime, she’s having a great time, and we’re just trying to enjoy every day we have with her.”

When Sadie isn’t competing, she gets her energy out in different ways. By looking at her, you can’t even really tell she has hemangiosarcoma, especially when watching her explore the family’s 35-acre property in Havana, FL. “The thing she loves more than anything else is running around the edge of our ponds and making all the frogs move,” Jim says. “And swimming — she loves to swim. The other dogs love it too, so they’re out there together. They all get along. They’re a family and a pack.”

Aside from her doting family, Sadie gets along with everyone. “She’s the sweetest dog you’ll ever find,” Jim says. “She loves people and wants to greet everyone and get belly rubs from everybody she meets.” Jim explains she’ll get down on the ground and roll over when someone approaches her.

In the meantime, she’s not slowing down when it comes to agility. “The doctor’s have said that she’ll tell you when it’s time to stop, and so far, she hasn’t told us,” Jim says.

The 2024 AKC National Agility Championship will air on ESPN2 on May 5 at 9am ET. Watch these fast, agile teams to see the winners crowned in each height division!