4 OCTOBER 2000 - 3 JULY 2013



In late November 2000, my wife Jan and I were driving down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Canberra. As we passed abeam the little town of Exeter in the Southern Highlands, I remarked to Jan that, just over there, about seven kilometres to our left, there was a little female Golden Retriever puppy who would very shortly be having a profound influence on our lives. We had been advised six weeks prior to that day that Buffalo Kennels had assigned us a female from a litter just delivered by a lovely little lady named Breeze and sired by the estimable Rian, both of whom we had met on a visit to Buffalo Kennels some months before. Needless to say, Jan and I were looking forward with considerable excitement to the day we would be picking up our new puppy.

And then came that day. About two weeks later, we were heading back down that same highway, but this time with a little Golden Retriever puppy, whom we had named Kellie, asleep on Jan's lap. From time to time, when traffic permitted, I glanced down at her, still utterly gobsmacked by how beautiful she looked. I just couldn't imagine nature producing anything more perfect. There was simply nothing I would have changed about her, even if I had had the power to do so.

There was a little bit of whimpering during her first night here at No 86, but after that she seemed to adapt herself to her new home very quickly indeed. She was incredibly curious, endlessly sniffing around the lawn and hedges and shrubs in our backyard as if searching for buried treasure. As for myself, I couldn't take my eyes off her. I confess to having been completely entranced by this little golden bundle of energy. Whatever magic the canine species has that makes them such wonderful companions for we humans, well, Kellie had it in spades.

So what exactly had we taken on board? Well, slowly it became quite evident that we had taken on board a very self-assured and supremely self-confident little Golden. She certainly was no shrinking violet. Indeed, I would have to say that the words "headstrong", "wilful", and "stubborn" occasionally featured in conversations between Jan and myself during those early formative months. It actually got to the point where I had to encourage Jan to be more assertive with her at times, because I got the distinct impression at about the six-month point that Kellie was challenging her for the Number 2 spot in the pack hierarchy. But, hey, she was clearly her father's daughter, and her father was quite a lad.

Another aspect of her behaviour during those early months was her keen interest in 'gardening'. She dug holes on the back lawn, topiarised several shrubs, and generally re-arranged the flora to her liking. Her major achievement in this regard was a three-day effort which involved de-branching a half-grown camellia sasanqua, then chewing the main stem off at the base, then digging out the entire root ball, and then, for some inexplicable reason, dragging the root ball to the middle of the lawn and leaving it there.

And she was a born wrestler. Quite early on I discovered that she liked nothing more than a 'rough and tumble', so it became a daily ritual that, at about 5.00 PM or so, I would sit down in the kitchen as a signal to her that I was ready to begin yet another wrestling bout. She would then attack, with no holds barred and no quarter given. She soon discovered that she could break my grasp by dragging a paw down my chest, so I eventually had to wear a stout barbecue apron as a counter. Biting of arms and hands was also a favoured way of gaining the upper hand, so I then had to wear gardening gloves for protection. The energy, strength and determination she displayed during these encounters was simply mind-boggling - so much so that, when she had grown to full-size, I had to discontinue this activity, simply as an act of self-preservation.

Eventually, and to the great relief of Jan and myself, she grew out of such behaviour, although her agreeably stubborn streak was to remain a dominant characteristic for her entire life, as were her outstanding abilities as a counter-surfer and food thief. In fact, her exploits in this latter regard became legendary in our family. This trait caused us to always be on our guard when she was present and we were preparing food in the kitchen or eating in the barbecue area. The trouble was that she was always waiting patiently for that split second when we became distracted, which she seemed to be able to sense with uncanny accuracy. In that brief moment, she would strike with the speed of a cobra, jumping up and grabbing the target foodstuff in her jaws, and then racing out the back door as fast as she could possibly go, an exasperated human in hot pursuit. Having reached the back lawn, she would start gulping as quickly as she could, hoping to get the entire purloined object down into her stomach before the human could intervene. And if the human did manage to reach her before the purloined object had been despatched to its appointed destination, that human found it next to impossible to prise open her jaws, so dedicated was she to the task of reaping the benefits of her crime.

In short, her counter-surfing and food-thieving exploits were nothing short of utterly outrageous. They seemed to be conceived by the mind of an evil genius and executed with incredible and diabolical skill by a consummate professional. I suppose I should have attempted to train her out of that behaviour, but the truth of the matter is that, after the first few moments of anger subsided, I always fell about laughing at the unmitigated, brazen audacity and unalloyed gall she displayed on those occasions. For that reason, I didn't want her to change one bit, because this was the sort of endearingly aberrant behaviour that made Kellie, well, Kellie. She was clearly a force of nature, and you just don't mess with that stuff.

Of course, I always suspected that after each of these felonious acts, she sensed that she had done something of which I disapproved and thus would have to employ her considerable charm to get back into my good books again. And did she know how to do that! In the evening, when I had settled in my chair to watch the television news, she would come up on the right side of my chair, gently nudge my right forearm with her muzzle, and look up at me soulfully as if to say "I've had a really hard day, Pack Leader, and I need some serious patting.". When she got the response she wanted, she would lay down contentedly beside me while I patted her, having re-confirmed in her own mind, I am certain, that she could wrap me around her little paw any time she wanted.

About two years after Kellie was born, Sanda Patterson at Buffalo Kennels contacted me, advised me that they were thinking of retiring Kellie's Mum Breeze to somewhere where they could be assured that she would be well looked after for the rest of her life. The outcome of that communication was, of course, inevitable, and a few weeks later Breeze arrived at No 86 to spend her remaining years with her daughter. We always joked that Breeze was quite excited when told that she would be spending her retirement with one of her daughters, but recoiled in abject horror when she walked in the back gate and realized that the daughter in question was the wilful and headstrong Kellie.

Our decision to take Breeze on was, as it turned out, a masterstroke because she and Kellie became utterly inseparable. When off-leash, they would always run together, shoulder to shoulder. They would always swim together, side by side, and when they slept during the day it would almost invariably be in close proximity to each other. They were real bosom pals. It was always a joy to see them together, and to see the genuine affection and loyalty that Kellie seemed to have for her Mum. And I'm bound to say that her Mum's presence probably had a steadying effect on Kellie's tendencies to outrageous behaviour.

The four and a half years that Breeze was with Kellie were indeed the halcyon days. Long daily walks all over Canberra, swimming in the Molongolo, the Murrumbidgee and Lake Burley-Griffin, various other adventures, and a zillion pats were the order of the day - and every day. Unfortunately, it was all to end in April 2007 when Momma Breeze's brave little heart gave out. We have always wondered what Kellie thought of the fact that her mother and companion wasn't around any more. Did she think that her Mum had probably just gone off to Dr Chris' again and would be back home any day now? We'll never know, but suffice to say that she seemed to cope with her changed circumstance better than expected, and visits by Saybo the Long-Haired German Shepherd (my daughter's gentle giant) ensured that she had frequent canine company to help her negotiate this change in her situation.

The next significant event in her life occurred in 2010. Sandra Patterson at Buffalo Kennels contacted us saying that she wanted to retire one of Kellie's half-sisters to somebody she knew well, and asked us if we were interested. Well, of course we were, so little Dusty arrived on 4 May 2010 and took up residence with her older sister. They lived together quite happily until Kellie passed away.

But there were storm clouds on the horizon. In October 2010, shortly after her tenth birthday, we discovered that Kellie had lost her sight due to SARDS (Sudden Acute Retinal Degeneration Syndrome), for which there is no known cause and no known cure. It must have happened very quickly, because we really did not have the slightest inkling that anything was wrong until a week or so before a specialist in Sydney confirmed that she had no residual vision at all. And then, about two days later, she really went downhill, and was diagnosed with necrotising pancreatitis. Our vet referred her to the Specialist Veterinary Clinic in Sydney, and I raced her up there without delay, because she was obviously in a very bad way.

After two days at the clinic, during which time she was almost continuously vocalising, the specialists told me that she had not seemed to respond to treatment and that, at that point, I had a decision to make: authorise them to repeat the treatment in hope of getting a response, or authorise them to put her to sleep. I had dreaded the prospect of having to make a decision like that. What was the right thing to do? If I authorised them to repeat the treatment, would I simply be condemning her to another two days of unnecessary suffering and loneliness if she didn't respond? And if I authorised them to put her to sleep, would I be terminating her life prematurely and be haunted by that thought for the rest of my life?

In the event, I authorised a repeat of the treatment. At the end of the second day, the situation was only mildly encouraging, and the specialist asked us if we would take her home to Canberra to see if she perked up when in familiar surroundings. Well, the first hour out of Sydney was pretty disturbing, but she eventually settled down and, by the time we approached Canberra, she was snoozing quietly on the back seat. She slept soundly on her own bed that night, which was an enormous relief to Jan and I. We had been through the fire, but we had our beloved Kellie back again.

There then began the task of reading up on the subject of looking after a blind dog. I found two good books and educated myself. That said, I would have to say that, in Kellie's case, we didn't have to make any real adjustments at all. She could still navigate around the house and backyard with ease, and only very occasionally got herself into a situation which required me to take her back to a known location (her water bowl) so that she could reboot her navigation computer. Indeed, the casual observer would have been excused for not noticing that she was blind at all.

And then came the day where I decided to determine whether she still wanted to go swimming now that she was without sight. So we drove down to her favourite swimming location at Yarralumla, and parked at our usual spot. When I opened the car door, she became very excited, possibly because she smelled the water, and broke out of my grasp when I unhooked her car harness. I then stood there in absolute awe as I watched her race around the bend in the road, break about 70 degrees right and race along beside the boat ramps at the Australian Institute of Sports rowing sheds, and then do another break right through 90 degrees for about 100 metres until she reached her usual swimming spot. And there she stood, barking loudly in her usual fashion as if shouting 'Throw the stick! Throw the stick!'. I simply couldn't believe that a blind Golden could do all that, and at full speed. But that was my Kellie - a thoroughly indomitable spirit if ever there was one.

Yep, swimming was well and truly back on the agenda again, the only change being that, this time around, instead of just throwing the stick to be fetched from the shoreline, I had to go into the lake up to my shoulders and pound the water with the stick so that she could home on the sound. I'd make sure she bumped the stick with her nose, whereupon she would grasp it in her jaws, execute a flawless U-turn, and head back to shore.

As for the idea that a dog without sight should always be kept in familiar surroundings, well, that just didn't apply in Kellie's case. In early 2011, we decided to take her on a holiday to Kangaroo Valley, intending to come straight back to Canberra if she showed any signs of confusion or distress. Not a bit of it. Somehow she figured out the internal layout of the house we stayed at and only required minimal assistance in finding her way around. She displayed that same ability a year later when we went to Callala Bay for another holiday.

So the decision I made in Sydney turned out to be the right one, because we had another two and a quarter good years with our brave little lady - two and a quarter years that Jan and I will always be grateful for. But during the second quarter of 2013 it became apparent that something was wrong. Unfortunately our vet could not determine what was ailing her. She just seemed to slowly weaken until she got to the point where I sometimes think she had realised that her time had come and was asking me to let her go quietly and with dignity. She went to sleep peacefully on the night of 2 July, but must have somehow drifted off during the night because she never regained consciousness. We asked our vet to stop her courageous little heart on the morning of 3 July. My son-in-law Tom and I then buried her next to her mother Breeze in a planter bed on the back lawn, in the shade of the claret ash she always used to snooze under in the afternoons. And there she rests today.

I cannot find the words to explain how much my beloved Kellie meant to me, and how much I miss her. Jan and I will always look back on our years together with immense fondness and boundless gratitude for the joy she brought to our lives. She was a truly exceptional and courageous little lady, and we will never forget her.