KELLIE: Yep. October saw me celebrating my tenth birthday. On the morning of October 4, the Pack Leader woke me up and said "Well, Kellie, here I am after one whole decade of unending pain and agony, living with the greatest prima donna that ever grew fur, wagged a tail, and flapped a floppy ear. How on earth did I manage to survive?". But I think he was probably joking. At least I hope he was. I mean, prima donna? Moi?

Anyway, here's my official tenth birthday portrait, the ladies at Capital Grooming having placed a couple of celebratory ribbons in my hair.


DUSTY: And here are a few more shots of my big sister on her big day. The first one shows her arriving home after the traditional birthday fluffing-up at Capital Grooming, and the second one shows her contemplating her birthday cake.

There's a bit of a trick behind that second shot. She is actually being restrained by the Alpha Female, who was holding on to her leash with all her strength, just out of shot. And I can tell you that if that leash had snapped, or if the Alpha Female had lost her grip, that cake would have been toast inside fifteen seconds. I mean, it's not for nothing that Kellie has always been known around here as The Stomach With Fur.

KELLIE: OK. Given that it was an important milestone on 4 October, I'm going to sneak in another birthday portrait. This one was taken over at Commonwealth Park, one of my favourite walking places in Canberra, mainly because it's near the water. And you know how I love the water. Food and water: without doubt the two most important things in my life.

DUSTY: Why stop at one, Kellie. After all, it was a really big day for you. So here are some favourites of mine, which the Pack Leader and I agree prove conclusively that you are still the prettiest lass in the entire known universe. No contest, really.

KELLIE: But enough about me. There's another little Golden in residence here at No 86, namely my little half-sister Dusty, who is quite the happiest, sunniest little lass you could ever hope to meet. Around the house, she's rarely seen without a big chew-toy in her mouth (her raccoon, Dalmation and elephant being her favourites), but here she is enjoying herself up at a park quite near our abode, not a chew toy in sight. (Notice that the eight-year drought has finally broken, and that Canberra is now awash in lovely green grass that the lawn mowers just can't keep up with.)

KELLIE AND DUSTY: I suppose you may have assumed from the preceding photographs that we don't spend much time together. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of tha matter is that we are the very best of pals, and always look out for each other. We greatly enjoy each other's company, and like nothing better than to go sniffing around together during our daily walks. No sibling rivalry hereabouts, that's for certain.

KELLIE AND DUSTY: And here is our Pack Leader's all-time favourite shot of us together.


DUSTY: I must tell you now that my dear sister Kellie had a very rough time of it in November. And, quite frankly, there were times when the Pack Leader, Alpha Female and I really wondered whether she would be able to pull through it all.

Firstly, in late October, we noticed something wrong with her vision, in that she didn't seem to be looking at her morning treat when the Pack Leader held it out for her, just seeming to sense its location with her nose. And when the Pack Leader stood back and threw a treat to her, she clearly did not see it coming. So off to the our vet we went, following which we were referred to a specialist in Sydney. On 2 November, the specialist in Sydney diagnosed her with SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome), and said that she was completely without vision at that time.

Well, as you might expect, we were all absolutely shattered by this news, especially since we had seen no other evidence of her vision problem other than the thing with the treats. I mean, only a day before, she was still bounding down steps with great confidence, was navigating around the house and our rather complicated backyard with absolutely no difficulties, had never bumped into anything, and was quite happy to wander far away from the Pack Leader and Alpha Female when off-leash up at the park. It was all so difficult for us take on board.

Apparently, with SARDS, vision loss can occur gradually over a number of months, or it can occur quite suddenly. In Kellie's case, we suspect that her loss occured over a period of only a few days. Either way, we simply had to accept the fact that there was no treatment and no cure, and that we had best seek advice and get a book or two so as to learn about how best to manage the situation.

If that had been the end of it, it wouldn't have been so bad, comparatively speaking. But the next problem was that, a couple of days after the SARDS diagnosis, we thought we saw a couple of the symptoms of Cushing's Disease, which is apparently often associated with SARDS. The main problem was continual panting at night, and an inability to settle down. So next morning we were at the vet's place again, this time for something called an ACTH Stimulation Test. The results of that were equivocal, so the vet called for an ultrasound of the adrenal glands and liver areas. The ultrasound vet said that there appeared to be some abnormality in the area of one adrenal gland but that a CAT scan (in Sydney) or exploratory surgery would be required to get a better grip on the situation. Desperately trying to make the right decision, the Pack Leader opted for the exploratory surgery option, though with some reluctance. His thinking was that he wanted Kellie to avoid the further two- to four-day delay involved in the case of the Sydney CAT scan option at a time when she was obviously in some distress.

When the vet opened up her tummy and looked around, he realised that that he was not dealing with Cushing's disease at all. He thought he saw evidence of a cancer that had spread to more than one of her inside bits. The decision at that point was to take a biopsy, close her up, and determine whether it was a form of cancer that could be treated with chemotherapy.

And here is where the goal posts shifted yet again. The biopsy vet reported that it wasn't cancer at all, even though it looked to the naked eye like cancer. Rather, it was evidence of necrotising pancreatitis - not good news at all. The curious thing was that Kellie had never displayed the classic symptoms of that particular malady (vomiting and diarrhea), but the vet was adamant that that's what it was.

At the Pack Leader's request, our vet then referred Kellie to the Veterinary Specialist Clinic (VSC) up in Sydney. We were lucky enough to get an appointment at the VSC the next day, so on the next morning the Pack Leader raced Kellie up to North Ryde in Sydney, a journey that took about three and a half hours. There followed lots of tests, ultrasound examinations, plasma transfusions and other medication.

Unfortunately, shortly after arrival, Kellie was again displaying signs of being a very unhappy Golden. In fact, for the whole time she was there, she "vocalized" almost continuously (except when she managed to get some sleep), and seemed very agitated and distressed when the Pack Leader came to see her in the mornings and afternoons.

On the Monday, the specialist gave the Pack Leader the option of repeating the previous treatment, since the ultrasounds had indicated no reduction in the inflammation of her pancreas at that point. The Pack Leader elected to keep her at the VSC for repeat treatment. As he told the vets, he was not at all concerned about the cost and did not want to spend the rest of his life wondering if there was anything more he could have done, or should have done, to give her the best possible chance.

On the Wednesday, the ultrasounds indicated that the inflammation of her pancreas had diminished to some extent. But the problem was her almost continual high state of agitation and distress. The vet said that he just couldn't be sure whether this was due to residual pain, despite the pain killers she had been administered, or anxiety arising from a combination of her blindness and totally unfamiliar surroundings. He said that the best thing at that point would be to bring her back to Canberra, to familiar surroundings, to see what happened.

For the Pack Leader and Alpha Female, the first hour on the road out of Sydney was about the most unsettling of their lives. Although in the familiar environment of the back seat of our car, Kellie became even more agitated and distressed, and they were convinced that she would have jumped out the window if she had not been strapped in and the window had been open. Her agitation was so bad, and the uncertainty as to whether it was caused by terrible pain or a high state of anxiety so distressing, that the Pack Leader seriously began to weigh up whether he should be putting her through all this, and whether he should just call into a vet in Bowral or Goulburn and make a fateful decision. Fortunately, however, after about an hour and a quarter, Kellie started to calm down and, at the three-hour point, as they got near Canberra, she was actually snoozing fitfully on the back seat. You have no idea - absolutely no idea at all- how relieved my humans were at that point.

Once she got home to familiar surroundings, Kellie displayed absolutely no agitation or distress at all, so the vet had clearly made the right call. She was still very lethargic and "zonked out", no doubt as a result of her ordeal and the Fentanyl patch on her side, but she was soon displaying a reasonably healthy appetite again - always a good sign. Mercifully, she got a pretty good night's sleep that night and, from that point on, we saw slow but steady improvement.

These days she seems quite happy and contented, and seems to have come to terms with her loss of sight. She navigates around the house and backyard with uncanny accuracy, except when she has to go out during the night when, possibly because she's a little groggy at those times, she ocasionally loses her sense of direction. When that happens, it's just a question of gently leading her back to a familiar object, like her outside water and food bowl stand, so that she can re-boot her navigation system. Of course, we now have a policy of not re-arranging the furniture or anything else, inside or outside, so that everything remains familiar to her. We also make sure that we don't leave any hard objects laying around that she might accidentally bump into. Apart from that, it's really just business as usual.

She's quite happy to go for her walks, provided they are in an area that is familiar to her, and is quite happy - indeed determined - to go off-leash. She's a tad slow these days, but we suspect that's as much to do with her age, and the fact that the pancreatitis episode clearly took a lot out of her, as it is to her loss of vision.

As for swimming, well what can I say? In late November, we took her down to her usual swimming spot at the lake, partly because the Pack Leader wanted to see how she would react once she knew she was close to the water again. He had a feeling that she probably wouldn't have enough self-confidence to actually go in the water so soon after her time of trial. But, of course, it never pays to underestimate my big sister. I mean, she became very excited when she realized where she was, and it immediately became apparent that she wanted to throw the switch to retrieving mode again. And since swimming and fetching sticks have always meant the same thing to Kellie, the Pack Leader had no option but to wade into the lake, fully clothed, so as to position the sticks where Kellie would be sure to bump into them with her nose. The pictures below were taken by the Pack Leader on that occasion. What you see there is The Unsinkable Kellie Bricknell in action again.

Anyway, all that seemed to work OK, so the procedure these days is for the Pack Leader to wade out up to about his shoulders and pound the top of the water with the stick earmarked for retrieval. Kellie then jumps in and homes in on that sound. When her nose bumps the stick, she grabs it in her mouth and heads straight back to shore where, as is traditional, she chews it to matchwood at her favourite chomping spot next to some bullrushes. That done, the whole exercise is repeated. She never seems to tire of it.

And, incidentally, how do you think that makes me feel? There's my big sister, with no sight at all, swimming out into the briny with all the self-confidence in the world, and I'm still too scared to go in out of my depth! Sheesh.

It was, of course, quite a blow to the Pack Leader, the Alpha Female and I to learn that our dear Kellie had lost her sight. However, we are quietly confident that, despite her loss of vision, and provided the pancreatitis does not re-visit her, she will still have a good quality of life from this point. One thing is for certain: she's an immensely brave and resilient little lady, and we are all unbelievably proud of her - more proud, in fact, than we can possibly say.