Lovingly written by Marti Nickoli
My heart was in my throat as I followed behind Maddie, Donna and the judges as they very carefully inched their way across the TDX tracking field at the New Jersey National. The scenery was spectacular, rolling hills with trees to line the horizon. It isn't the kind of tracking field you'll find in Northern California, but Maddie was pulling Donna every step of the way, left turn, left turn, right turn, under a fence, and then patiently waiting for her mom to ease her way through the fence so she could pick up the article on the other side . . . off again with another right turn, then a left, as they worked their way over the hill and down into the brambles, picking up another article on the way. Finally they reached the very last leg and Maddie turned left, but with a scent several hours old, came back to double check before pulling Donna off the corner. She circled the corner checking each and every direction and decided to make sure the trail did not go back into the brambles. She went a few yards through rough undercover and was starting back - just as she had been trained to do.
The only noise we heard was that of trucks on a nearby road. Suddenly, a whistle broke the silence. One of the judges blew her off the course, an incident that I shall always consider a judge's error. Based on tracking methodologies used on the East Coast, he felt she had made an error and was anxious to move on to the next two dogs. I didn't believe it then and still don't believe that the dog erred. We simply train our dogs differently on the West Coast than they do on the East Coast. Nonetheless, the damage was done. This judge could not have known that he was watching a very young dog, barely more than a puppy, run her first TDX track with a first time handler/trainer, and that he would have the opportunity to award a TDX ribbon to one of the youngest English Springer Spaniels to ever attempt this title.
The seizures started sometime not very long after that. In the beginning they were always very small seizures, sort of like losing your place in a book, or forgetting to concentrate while driving. Nothing big, but enough to make an owner wonder what happened. Donna had her checked out and started her on light doses of medication.
Meanwhile, she went onto complete her TDX title and started her VST training. I had the pleasure of being at a seminar on the new VST test where Maddie was used as a very green demo dog. Unfortunately, Donna was called away just before it was Maddie's turn. Maddie took it all in stride as a handler other than Donna put on her harness and started her down the track. She had work to do and work she did -- across a well used lawn, down a very scented concrete walkway, through a building, around garbage cans, past flower beds, over dirt - she confidently completed her track across the University of California campus pulling her handler with her every step of the way.
The seizures continued, but Donna continued to move forward with both obedience and tracking and I showed Maddie a few times in the breed ring. I never saw her have a seizure, since we lived several hours apart and both of us travel with work a great deal. Donna continued to take her to different vets for their opinion and over time tried different medical options. The seizures continued, however, and perhaps became more frequent, but never became the massive grand mal type of seizure. I think I was living in denial, sure that her seizures would never materialize into anything other than "losing her place in her book." I guess I was sure she would live a long life just like most springers. After all, I once had her distant cousin that would sometimes "freeze" in the obedience ring, and only hand clapping would bring him out of it. Otherwise he was normal, though, and lived to see old age. I'm not sure what distinguishes lapses from seizures, but I always thought he had lapses, and I guess I always thought Maddie's seizures were more like lapses than seizures. HOW VERY WRONG I WAS.
Suddenly, with no warning and in front of Donna she had her one and only grand mal seizure and was taken from us forever. She was still a young dog, not much past puppyhood. I only know how painful it was for me, and to this day I remember her confidently pulling Donna across the Virginia horizon and then remember that I will never get to see her again. I cannot fathom the grief that Donna and her husband Ed felt in her loss. She was one of the most beautiful and talented young dogs I have ever known, with a very bright future ahead of her in obedience, breed, tracking and agility.
Were her seizures the result of a heritable defect? I don't know. However, her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and their siblings and offspring were seizure free. Was it the result of something her mother might have eaten or been exposed to? Was it the result of inhaling something while tracking? I don't know. Was it the result of liver or other internal organ disease? Several vets said she was perfectly healthy with the exception of the seizures. Was it the result of coming in contact with any kind of chemicals? I don't know. In fact, I doubt that in Maddie's case we will ever have the answers for this very unwarranted death. The only thing I do know is that she is gone.
I miss her as much today as the day she died. Every time we think of her, both Donna and I succumb to tears. I don't know that we will ever accept the fact that she had to leave our world at such an early age. It just wasn't fair.
I can't fix what happened to Maddie, but what I can do is step forward and support the ESSFTA Foundation as they move forward in their quest to find answers as to why seizures happen and what can be done to prevent them in the future. On behalf of Maddie and other Springers just like her who didn't and don't deserve to have such a dreaded abnormality, I hope you will join me in supporting the Foundation's seizure project.
On behalf of Maddie, I thank you.