By Brenna Fender
Ten years ago, a young dog made her way into a small veterinary clinic in Massachusetts after being hit by a car and suffering in the woods for many days. A technician named the dog “Serena” because she was so serene despite horrific injuries. Many surgeries and a month later, another clinic technician, Amy Breton, took Serena home to be her dog. No one thought that Serena would walk, let alone do agility.
A decade later, Serena is an 11-year-old agility champion, earning a Specialist Championship with Canine Performance Events on July 29, 2007. At the 2009 CPE Nationals, she won awards for being the high scoring dog for her class and level in standard and games. She is a Canine Good Citizen and a registered therapy dog that frequently visits children and the elderly.
In between her painful beginnings and her glorious achievements, Serena experienced significant challenges. At age four, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancerous tumor in one of her front legs. The cancer required radiation to put it in remission. A side effect of that radiation was a weakening of the bone. Although she was able to resume her agility career post-treatment, at age seven she had a disastrous injury while chasing a squirrel, breaking the affected leg. After five months of trying to save it, that leg was amputated.
Breton gave up on Serena’s USDAA and NADAC agility careers. USDAA doesn’t allow three-legged dogs to compete at all, and NADAC only allows them to run in a few classes that have no jumps.
Then Breton discovered the world of CPE. Just two months after the amputation, Serena and Breton entered a CPE trial and they both loved it. But four months later, a benign tumor began growing into the pad of one of Serena’s toes. Removing just the tumor didn’t work; eventually Serena lost a weight-baring toe on a rear foot. Once again, losing a part of her body barely interrupted Serena’s agility career. And she never stops “smiling.”
Owner Amy Breton shares Serena’s story.
Brenna Fender (BF): When you first met Serena, she was in terrible shape. Why did you choose to take home a dog that was so severely injured?
Amy Breton (AB): We put up flyers and notified all the local dog officers, but no one came to claim her. Through it all she remained very calm and very loving. She was just a sweetheart. She always loved everyone, no matter all the IV catheters, blood draws, and surgeries. She just wanted to lie near someone and wag her tail. I decided that a dog like that was pretty special and I was willing to take on her recovery. When I told my then-boyfriend, now-husband about Serena, he said to bring her home and he would see what he thought. At the end of the first day he said, “Why don’t you bring her back tomorrow?” This went on for a week. He would ask me everyday to bring her back. At the end of the week I said, “What do you think? Can we deal with her rehab?” He looked at her and said, “How can we not?”
BF: Why did you start agility training, particularly with a dog that recovered from injuries that might have made her a less-than-ideal candidate for the sport?
AB: Once she started walking well, I could tell she had a ton of energy. She was crazy and I thought, “How did I ever think she was calm and serene?” She was a spaz! I started doing slow runs with her and eventually she became my running partner (she used to run five miles a day until she had her amputation). I took her to an introduction to agility [event] back in 2001. It was a free one-hour presentation trying to get people interested in agility. I sat there with about 10 other people. Serena had been through obedience classes and had earned her CGC at this point. The man who ran the class, Mike Masters from Masterpeace Dog Training, is wheelchair bound. I watched in amazement as Mike took his dog (off-leash) through a mini-agility course. I looked at Serena and said, “If he can do it, you can do it.”
Serena was one of the only dogs there that actually seemed to enjoy the equipment. You know how many dogs are a little timid at the equipment the first time? Not Serena. During that one hour she went through her first tunnel, did a small jump (lured with a treat, of course), and even went up a tiny A-frame. Her tail never stopped wagging. I thought it would be a great way for the crazy Serena to release that pent-up energy! I enrolled her in classes at Gemini [Dog Training in Littleton, Massachusetts] the next day.
BF: What were your goals for her at that point?
AB: I never thought I’d compete. I went to agility class solely for Serena to have fun and have a much-needed job.
BF: Did her previous injuries have any ill effects on her?
AB: No. In fact, no one at class ever knew she had been hit by a car and was running with a plate on her femur and knees that were so scarred orthopedists were fascinated that she could even walk! She was so crazy the instructor often told me I had to slow her down!
BF: How far along were you in her agility career when she became ill?
AB: I obtained Serena in October of 1999. We thought she was about a year old then. In August of 2002, only a year after her training had started, I had to pull out of agility classes because she had a very small tumor on her right front leg that was diagnosed as a myxosarcoma (cancerous). Treatment was surgery and radiation therapy. After the tumor was removed, she underwent three weeks of radiation at Tufts University. She got back to classes January of 2003. Her first competition agility run was a standard run on June 21, 2003 where she competed with USDAA and earned a non-qualifying second place. I had no idea what a Q even was. I was so excited my dog even placed! Then a very nice person explained that she had placed, but not qualified.
In March of 2005 Serena ran outside, chased a squirrel, slipped on some March ice, and fractured her right front leg in the same spot that she had received radiation. At that time she had earned the NAC [Novice Agility Certificate] and the NCC [Novice Chances Certificate] and was almost done with her OAC [Open Agility Certificate] in NADAC. In USDAA, she was a little over halfway done her PI title.
BF: When Serena’s leg was amputated, I’m sure that was a very difficult time for you. How did you feel? How did she feel?
AB: Because I work in veterinary medicine, I had seen hundreds of dogs get their legs amputated. I always told owners they “would be fine,” “Dogs do great,” “She’ll be back running around before you know it,” blah, blah, blah. Even though I knew she’d be OK, it was different because it was my dog. I couldn’t be there in the actual surgery, even though I had been in there with her for all her other surgeries. I just couldn’t watch the surgeon cut off her leg. I helped induce her under anesthesia and I was there when she woke up, but I just couldn’t be in there for the actual surgery.
I didn’t think she’d ever do agility again. In the end I just wanted her to be happy and agility wasn’t the most important thing, but at the same time, I was so sad that I was losing both my running and agility partner. I really thought with her bad hips, bad knees, and a plate on her femur, she would have a much more difficult time. One hour after surgery Serena was standing and trying to give me kisses. I told her that we would do whatever she wanted to do. I told her if she wanted to do agility, we’d do it. If she didn’t, we wouldn’t.
BF: How difficult was it to get back into the sport after the amputation?
AB: One month after the surgery Serena was doing very well. She was chasing the new dog around the yard. I said to her “Want to do agility?” She was so excited. I brought out some equipment I had at home and put everything down very low. She looked at me like I lost my mind. She ran over those jumps and up that seesaw. I made everything a little higher. She still looked at me like I was crazy. In 10 minutes everything was back to standard performance heights. She had a little more difficulty with the weaves, but after one week she figured out how to shift her weight onto a leg that was no longer there.
After I realized she could still and wanted to still do agility I started looking into if she could still compete. Yes, I won’t lie,I was completely destroyed when USDAA gave me a flat out “No” and NADAC told me “Yes, but only in Tunnelers and Weavers.” I sat and I cried and I promised Serena that if nothing else I would just rent out agility gyms for her so she could have fun. It just upset me that my dog wanted to do agility and no one would let her. I spent hours online asking people about tripods and agility. Finally I found CPE. Serena competed in her first CPE event on October 1, 2005, four months after her amputation. In the four events she entered, she qualified in all four.
BF: What changes have you made in your training and handling to compensate for the injury? How did the amputation affect Serena’s performance?
AB: The only good thing about Serena becoming a tripod is that it has slowed her down a lot. She used to be 30+ seconds under time and used to fault a lot because she missed her contacts or ran off course. Now she’s glued most of the time to my side. She’s definitely slower in her speeds, but she still is able to get 10 seconds under time sometimes. Even though many people comment she’s faster than their four-legged dog, she still a lot slower than she used to be. She also doesn’t fault as much because she’s better with her contacts and she doesn’t veer off-course any more. Sometimes we threaten our youngest dog, Meeko, that we’re going to take off her leg to make her a better agility dog. It’s a sick joke, but you have to laugh at the sad times sometimes.
Personally, I never, ever leave her side on some of the contact equipment (I use to just run ahead of her). I do worry she may trip or fall; after all, we’ve all seen four-legged dogs take a tumble. She’s never once made me worry (she has never even once stumbled), but just to be on the safe side, I never leave her side when she’s on the dog walk or seesaw. Other than that I haven’t changed much about my style.
BF: What advice do you have, if any, for handlers of canine amputees?
AB: Great question! Serena has done so well as an amputee because she was an active dog before this. There are so many dogs I see that are overweight and not active that don’t do as well after their amputation. It takes them months to get back to where they were before and then they still struggle with just walking. It’s important to keep tripods active! Swimming is great, but so is agility because it keeps the muscle mass built up.
After Serena lost her leg and I started emailing the other organizations about whether they allow tripods, I was shunned. I went online to an online chat group with one of the organizations and posted a question about Serena and how to get her back into competition. I can’t even tell you how many “hate” messages I got back. People told me I was abusing my dog, I was a cruel owner, I was a terrible dog owner, and I was being mean to my tripod. I’m not kidding. These ignorant people felt like most people do: tripods should just sit around and do nothing. It’s important to keep a tripod active. That’s my biggest advice for handlers of canine amputees. Let your dog do as much as they want and don’t ever think, “My dog can’t do that because he/she is missing a leg.”
BF: Tell me about your experiences at the CPE Nationals.
AB: CPE Nationals was a fantastic experience. I have to admit I’m not a die-hard agility person. I average about one trial a month and so I went to Nationals solely for the experience.
I had a lot of support from my fellow competitors. The New England crowd all knows Serena because they’ve watched her for the past four years. It was great getting to meet a totally different crowd of people. The first day I would hear the usual whispers when I would run Serena: “That’s a three-legged dog,” “That dog only has three legs.” By the last day, the whispers went from tiny whispers to large cheers at every one of Serena’s runs. She qualified in seven out of nine and looked awesome even on the last run on Sunday. I had so many people come up to me and ask me about her. Most of the time when I was standing in line waiting for Serena’s run I would have someone come up next to me and say, “I just love watching her run.”
Overall, CPE Nationals was simply fantastic. It was just a great time getting to meet new people and seeing some of the best dogs in the country compete.
Breton considers her family blessed to have Serena in their lives. The dog has a loving personality, a passion for agility, and is an inspiration for others. Breton says, “I once had a man tell his son at an agility trial, ‘When you say you can’t do something, you remember that dog. Nothing is impossible.’ He’s right. I think the same thing all the time.”
To see Serena in action, go to: