Sometimes The Human-Animal Bond Transcends Death

When dogs that help people get sick or die, it is amazing how much their family and friends want to help.


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Isabelle Francais

Rescue, guide and other service and assistance dogs have a growing role in helping people. When these highly valued pets get sick or die, it is amazing how much their family and friends want to help.

I’d like to introduce you to two special human-animal bonds that have transcended death. The participants in these bonds are as different as night and day.

Former Constable James Symington was a strong young Canadian police officer with a big German shepherd search and rescue dog, Trakr.

Disabled former truck driver Joe Martinez was always seen in the company his little Chihuahua-min pin mix assistance dog, Killer.

Little Killer’s job was to dial 911 if Joe had trouble breathing through his tracheotomy tube or if he had another stroke or heart attack. Killer also picked up things for Joe and helped with daily routines as Joe made his way around town via the bus system and his motorized wheelchair.

Everyone who saw Killer on Joe’s lap or behind his back on the wheelchair fell in love with him. Joe was happy to share his amazing service dog with friends and passers-by. Killer wore sunglasses and a little hat with pride and gave greeters a high five in the Southern California beach community where they lived.

Joe trained Killer to ride a little scooter. Somehow, the highly trained Killer could understand Joe’s range of squeaks as meaningful commands.

At Ground Zero

Trakr’s job was search and rescue. He was bred and trained in the Czech Republic and had joined the Halifax, Nova Scotia, police force as Symington’s K9 partner in 1995 at 14 months old. Trakr had an illustrious six-year career apprehending felons, recovering lost persons and detecting more than $1 million of contraband.

Halifax police policy was to euthanasia K9s when they retired. Symington filed a formal objection to the policy. He wanted Trakr to grow old with him.

Trakr was retired early and Symington was demoted during the battle with the police department, which forced a stress leave. Eventually he was allowed to keep the dog.

When Symington saw the news of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he and Trakr and a police officer friend drove 15 hours to be one of the first K9 search and rescue teams to arrive at New York City’s ground zero.

In addition to locating numerous victims, Trakr led a rescue team to unearth the last survivor, Genell Guzman. She had fled from the 64th to the 13th floor before the South Tower collapsed. She suffered crushing leg injuries and was buried for 28 hours beneath 23 feet of rubble.
Trakr worked at ground zero until he collapsed.

For his efforts, Trakr was presented with the United Nations Extraordinary Service to Humanity Award by Dr. Jane Goodall.

Hit-and-Run Death

On Dec. 12, as Joe Martinez was maneuvering his wheelchair in a crosswalk on his way to get a cup of coffee, a car grazed his chair and tipped him onto the street. Four-year-old Killer fell under the car’s tires and was killed instantly. The driver fled.

In shock and grief, Joe held Killer’s body for four hours before allowing Animal Services to take him away. It took my best pet-loss counseling and the support of his many friends to bring Joe through his sorrow and despondency.

Goodbye, Trakr

Trakr died last April 28 at the ripe old age of 16. Pet owners often develop very strong bonds with their pets while dealing with terminal illness. The Symingtons were especially devoted to their geriatric pet.

Trakr had degenerative myelopathy and was one of our Pawspice patients. He loved romping on the beach in his wheeled cart. Before Trakr died, he received international attention once again when BioArts International named him the “World’s Most Cloneworthy Dog” when Symington won its essay contest.

The Symingtons are happily raising and training five of Trakr’s clones: Trustt, Solace, Valor, Prodigy and Déjà Vu. The pups are officially known as Team Traker.

Symington plans for them to be the world’s first search and rescue dog team “without borders.” They will be first responders to disasters all over the world. The story was featured on CNN on Christmas Day. The Symingtons are accepting donations for training and travel at TeamTrakr.org.

Welcome, Thunder

Divine Providence worked in Joe Martinez’s favor despite the tragedy that took his beloved service dog, Killer.

Only two weeks earlier, I saw Joe on Pier Plaza in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and asked whether he knew of someone who would like to adopt a little stray dog that looked very much like Killer. Joe thought about it and said he would.

“Killer needs a brother!” he announced.

We neutered, wormed and vaccinated the little dog through the Peter Zippi Memorial Fund for Animals and delivered him to Joe’s trailer park home. Joe named him Thunder.

There is an old saying that “The dog you rescue will rescue you.” In Joe’s case, little Thunder was there for Joe when he lost Killer.

Thunder absorbed Joe’s tears of grief and licked Joe’s face in love. Joe’s friends arranged two memorial events and fundraising campaigns to finance an expensive assistance dog training program for Thunder.

It will take several months for Thunder to learn his duties and to interpret Joe’s commands.

More than 100 people honored Joe and Killer’s special bond at the memorial services. The rain was torrential the day of the second service in January, but a crowd turned out nonetheless.

To Joe’s amazement, more than $5,000 was raised by friends in the community for Thunder’s education. This show of love honors Killer and Joe’s bond beyond life and will solidify their bond.

Alice Villalobos is a past president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is president-elect of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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