For The Independent/Jarrod Spilger

Thanks to chemotherapy, Phantom was still around to retrieve these pheasants on opening day this season.

I shot my first quail of the 2018-2019 hunting season on November 6, just a few hundred yards from where I shot my last quail of the 2017-2018 hunting season back on January 30.

That wasn’t what made this quail so special, though. At one point this year, I feared I’d never shoot another quail over my beautiful pointer again.

This bird was taken from the second covey of the morning. The first slinked beneath a cedar tree ahead of Phantom and flushed on the far side. I fired once, but missed.

A chance at redemption presented itself soon enough. I spotted Phantom’s orange collar glowing in the sunrise on the far side of some tall weeds. She was holding a staunch, perfect point. As I approached her, a covey pinned between us erupted almost beneath my feet. I dropped a right to left crosser.

Phantom quickly retrieved the first quail of a new season.

This bird was particularly satisfying because in March Phantom was diagnosed with lymphoma.

She’d been exhibiting flu-like symptoms for over a month. After running several tests locally, we took her to the veterinary teaching hospital at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. A biopsy and ultrasound confirmed our worst fears – she had lymphoma. Ironically, it was March 30, Good Friday.

The oncologist gave us a CHOP chemotherapy protocol to follow, which provided a glimmer of hope, a hope that was reinforced a couple days later. The Easter service in Loveland opened with a stirring bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace. The sermon was on Hope, the preacher himself a recent cancer survivor. We left for home both hopeful and terrified.

The CHOP chemotherapy protocol consists of four cancer fighting drugs – Cyclophosphamide (or Cytoxan), Doxorubicin, Vincristine, and Prednisone. Vincristine was given the first week, Cytoxan the second week, and Doxorubicin the third. The fourth component, Prednisone, was administered as needed and eventually phased out after the first two cycles.

Week four was a rest week. Overall, there were four cycles in the 15 week regimen. Treatments began in April and ended in July.

Our long-time veterinarian was reluctant to administer chemo. Fortunately, we found another vet here in town willing to give it a try. He’d experienced good results giving chemo to other hunting dogs and was hopeful it could help Phantom as well.

Chemotherapy for dogs is often greatly misunderstood. Essentially, all that was needed was someone to figure out the proper dosage based on the dog’s weight and then administer the drug. It was that simple.

It wasn’t easy, though. The first cycle went just fine, but problems arose with round two and continued as Phantom’s body reacted to the poison being pumped into it.

Still, she handled chemo better than most people. This is typical for dogs since they are given a much lower dose than humans due to their smaller body size. Phantom never lost her hair, but her muzzle did turn from grey to brown. The same thing had happened to the Loveland pastor, so we took that as a positive sign. It also made her look much younger!

Back in March, though, we didn’t know how everything would play out, so we stacked the deck and ordered a puppy to ensure I’d have a hunting dog come fall. We brought Komet home in June, right in the middle of the ordeal.

We knew we might be stuck with two dogs if everything went well, and luckily that happened. Although Komet was (is) often an annoying puppy, he also perked Phantom up, kept her active, and encouraged her to eat. I know he helped her recover much more quickly than she would have without him.

So far, Phantom is doing well. Tests indicate she’s cancer free, and she’s been able to hunt frequently and energetically this fall. When she gets fatigued, we give her a rest and bring the K-man up to bat.

One of my favorite moments this season occurred in October when Phantom retrieved a wood duck for me on my birthday. As we sat there waiting for another flock, I looked at the duck, then at her, and took a moment to reflect on how grateful I was that she was still here with me.

I felt that same sense of gratitude a few weeks later when I bagged a pair of opening day pheasants. The first was taken over a very staunch Phantom point, and she ran to and retrieved both birds with the vigor of a pup.

We’ve been able to share these moments and many others this season thanks to the graciousness of God, the wisdom of a wife who suggested we visit CSU, and the caring and talent of doctors who love animals and understand the unbreakable bond between hunting dog and hunter.

For more information about chemotherapy for animals and the CHOP protocol, visit www.csuanimalcancercenter.org.

Jarrod Spilger writes an outdoor column for The Independent.

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