Camo: A Service Dog’s Story of Love

Camo was chosen for the GSCA (Giant Schnauzer Club of America) Lady Fergie Award, presented to the individual Giant Schnauzer whose actions and outstanding achievement in public and/ or community service has brought recognition and honor to the breed. Recognized for his heroism and dedication to his owner Kevin.
Written By Sharon Burns

Camouflage or “Camo,” the green-collared puppy in a litter of 13, was given a very lofty name, Apffel Bach’s Covert Operative. He was given such a fancy name because he was destined from the start for greatness. He was expected to excel in the sport of Schutzhund and do AKC lure coursing, barn hunts, tracking, and obedience as well. But none of these activities was meant to be.

Camo started training like many of my previous giant schnauzers. He was initiated to scent training and tracking at eight weeks along with basic puppy obedience, manners, and housetraining. He learned to swim in deep water at seven and a half weeks and to come when called for treats, praise and play immediately. He had strongly cemented his off lead recall by twelve weeks.

Camo started formal obedience with Ivan Balibanov and joined the “Sunday Group” training at trainer Ed Reyes’ home, where he got lots of great opportunities for socialization with people and other dogs. I anticipated bringing him to Phil Hoelcher and Albert Hupfauer to further hone his schutzhund (IPO) skills.

However, when Camo was nine months old, my husband Kevin and I found a local search and rescue group, Central Florida Search and Rescue. We observed some training and then tested Camo to see what he would excel in. He tested equally well in Trailing, Air Scent, and Human Remains Detection (HRD). For his first trail, he watched the man drop his hat and run off into the woods. We waited a while for the man to go deeper into the woods and conceal himself. We started Camo on his first trail (he did have foundation tracking). Camo ran up to the hat and started following the trail. Then stopped. He turned back, picked up the hat, followed the trail accurately and returned the hat to the poor man “foolish” enough to lose his hat and get lost in the woods! What a comedian!

search-dog

Camo loves people and when tested on Air scent, he happily found the only person in the Air Scent area. He also immediately picked up on indicating on scent. His reward? He will do anything for the opportunity to play tug! We decided to start training HRD and to add trailing as a second search skill a little later as we were new to the search and rescue group and also didn’t want to confuse the dog by starting two new skills at once.

We continued to train Camo in obedience at home and at Ed Reyes’, and we trained HRD on our own as well as meeting with other group members several times a week. Camo excelled at everything.

Unfortunately, while Kevin and I were training for our personal NASAR SARTECH II certification, I stepped in a hole and severely reinjured a knee which had been operated on twice previously. I ignored the pain and did manage to get NASAR certified, but because I had to have knee replacement surgery, Kevin took Camo to his NAPWDA HRD certification exam. First, Camo impressed the test givers with his stylish, fast, off lead obedience. He was had been trained to a much higher level in obedience because he was expected to compete in schutzhund and AKC obedience. Kevin and Camo then proceeded to do every HRD test without a single error. These included buried, elevated, car lineup, rubble pile, shoreline/water, etc. Camo ignored distracting scents. He even completed tests found challenging by experienced search dogs without difficulty.

Camo and Kevin went on to be an active deployable team. They did demonstrations and education sessions for various law enforcement agencies and even traveled to Colorado to the GSCA National Specialty 2016 to provide an education seminar.

In November, our world changed drastically. Kevin was diagnosed with stage 4 Glioblastoma, a highly malignant brain cancer. Given no hope in Florida, we headed north. A cancer team at Dana Farber Cancer Institute was willing to operate on and treat him. There was no cure, but they would help us fight for some quality time. Camo and his younger sister Delta stayed with my niece for over a month without any training. We visited a few times, although it was difficult for Kevin to deal with their exuberance while recovering from surgery.

Finally, after we had stayed in a Boston hotel room for the duration of Kevin’s 33 radiation treatments, we rented a house in New Hampshire. We would be close enough to continue clinical trial treatments and also be reunited with our dogs, who are our family.

I purchased a custom fitted mobility harness for Camo and got a medical authorization designating him as Kevin’s service dog. Camo got a crash course with the mobility harness, which he mastered quickly, Camo already had retrieval training so picking up items for Kevin also became one of his jobs. Kevin could also tell Camo to get me if he needed me. Again, this was an adaptation of a previously introduced skill for survival in search and rescue training.

open-harnessCamo was already so bonded with Kevin that he would do anything for him and quickly adjusted to being a mobility service dog. Kevin used him at the grocery, restaurants, doctors, church, etc. We received compliments on his training and behavior as well as his good looks wherever we traveled. Kevin basked in the attention and enjoyed the dog so much that he used him for walks twice a day for physical therapy and quickly gained back much of the strength he had lost during his craniotomy and radiation.

Camo acted as mobility service dog for Kevin during his treatment days at Dana Farber. These days started at 6 a.m. with the car ride from New Hampshire. At Dana Farber, there were Blood draws for Kevin about 9, followed by an MRI, followed by vitals, followed by a clinical trial nurse appointment, followed by a doctor appointment, followed by a long wait for Kevin’s cancer poison to “cook” and then the hour-long infusion, and finally, the trip back to New Hampshire and home about 8 p.m. Camo was a trooper through it all. He made friends wherever he went and calmed the fears of many patients at Dana Farber in addition to Kevin. He also gave families and friends of cancer patients some much needed respite from worry, at least for a short time. During infusions, Kevin often became very chilled, because both the cancer and the treatment had destroyed his ability to regulate his body temperature. Camo would gently climb up next to Kevin and use his own body to warm Kevin. He knew not to disturb the IV tubing and other medical equipment. Nurses would come and go and just smile as dog and man slept peacefully among IV alarms, and other hospital noises. After Kevin’s treatment, many of the nurses would take a moment to thank Camo for taking such great care of Kevin. I think the dog lightened the spirits of many who worked daily with terminal brain cancer patients.

At home, Camo stood sentry when Kevin slept in bed. It was difficult to get him to even go outside to exercise or to eat. While Kevin was still mobile, Camo followed Kevin throughout the house. He adjusted his speed to Kevin’s gait on any given day, whether Kevin was shuffling along unassisted, using a cane, or a walker, or a wheel chair.

Kevin also exercised his arms and enjoyed the New Hampshire spring by sitting outside and throwing a ball for Camo. Three times with the left, more mobile, arm and then once with the weaker right arm was my rule for Kevin to improve his strength. Camo was patient even when that right arm only tossed the ball a foot away. Kevin had some OCD issues from the tumor and hated dog spit on the ball, so I taught Camo to drop the ball into a cup for Kevin. Camo happily complied, and Kevin continued to toss the ball using the cup. Man and dog were inseparable.

Kevin’s decline came suddenly with the onset of seizures. There were several ambulance calls in that last week, and the dogs behaved wonderfully in their outdoor kennel by the front door as emergency personnel and strangers flooded our home. Not a peep, just worried expressions. Camo began lying beside Kevin in bed and watching him closely. At 5 a.m. on the Sunday before Kevin passed, Camo woke me by frantically nudging me in bed and whining. Kevin was having a seizure, choking and unable to roll. I quickly rolled Kevin onto his side and cleared his airways. If not for Camo, Kevin would have died that day. Without training, Camo became Kevin’s official seizure alert dog. The only way I could do laundry or cook was with Camo keeping watch over Kevin from the foot of his bed. Camo also allowed me to get a few hours of sleep during that horrible last week. On that Friday, we had friends from our Search and Rescue group come to visit. Camo was so excited thinking he was going back to searches with daddy, but Kevin felt too ill even to see visitors, so Camo resumed his watch.

It was Camo’s birthday, and I served him steak for breakfast. He would not eat.

infusionInstead, he returned to Kevin’s bed.

Kevin’s brother came to visit. The visiting nurse had expressed concern about Kevin’s rising blood pressure, and we were also concerned by his unresponsiveness. When we took his blood pressure, it was through the roof. We called the doctor and 911, but by then Kevin was unable to move at all and was complaining of neck pain. Camo was distraught. I had to physically pull him from Kevin to put him into the kennel with Delta, where he cried and carried on. He knew.

Camo barely ate for the two days I stayed at the hospital with Kevin.

He is grieving still and standing sentry, watching the bed and the door Kevin was carried through.

Camo will return to search and rescue soon, and I am certain he will save lives and bring closure to grieving families. I know Kevin will be waiting anxiously for Camo at the bridge because their bond was unbreakable. In those last weeks, I learned that nothing can compare with the bond of a terminally ill man and his service dog. Nothing can compare to the gifts Camo gave to Kevin: mobility, comfort, strength, and love.