Grand County Search and Rescue dog, Taz, gets revolutionary treatment and a new Winter Park trail
October 5, 2018
When people voted for "Razzmatazz" as the name of Winter Park's newest trail, they probably weren't fully aware of the story behind the moniker — an ailing search and rescue dog named Taz.
It was only a few months ago that Taz, an 11-year-old border collie, started to become sick and frail, much to the aghast of her owner, Jane Mather. Her prognosis was less than hopeful; she basically received a death sentence. She had stomach cancer.
"It was definitely about how long she could hang on," Mather said. "I was just assuming she was going to die."
Taz had been raised with special and precise training. Mather, 60, was not only her devoted owner, but also her handler and teammate when on search and rescue operations in Grand County.
Since she was only 12 weeks old, Taz was expected to grow into an astute search and rescue canine, a career for which not every dog is qualified. Over the years, she has assisted Mather, a volunteer with Grand County Search and Rescue, in harrowing search operations.
With years of duty under her belt, Taz suddenly fell into a serious illness earlier this year.
Mather's friend, Kim Ducklow, suggested naming the new Winter Park trail "Razzmatazz" as a permanent symbol to show support and recognition for Mather's ailing canine.
Without much hope for her survival, it was agreed that to honor the precious pup was a great idea so Ducklow entered into the trail's naming contest.
"Razzmatazz" was ultimately selected over a host of other possibilities.
In June, Taz began throwing up nearly every day. Mather said she simply thought it was something irritating her stomach. But that was followed by Taz no longer eating. She dropped from a healthy 36 pounds to a frightening 20.
A trip to a local veterinarian led Mather to a more technically capable vet office in Denver. Unfortunately, however, that only created confusion as to what was ailing Taz, something that continues to upset Mather to this day.
Mather, who felt helpless to save her beloved companion, was initially told that cancer was not likely to be the cause of Taz's illness. An ultrasound of Taz's stomach reportedly did not show cancer. Mather would later learn the test was not completely reliable due to the amount of stomach acid present, which was not communicated at the time.
"I was so overjoyed: it's unlikely to be cancer," she exclaimed. It was then believed the problem lie elsewhere, possibly with Taz's diet.
As Taz continued to grow sicker, a visit three weeks later to the same veterinarian led to a biopsy and the removal of her spleen. That's when it was confirmed that Taz had stomach cancer.
In the interim, between the ultrasound and the biopsy, the cancer had nearly completely coated Taz's stomach.
Taz's sickness progressed to the point of Mather having to feed her through a tube inserted into her neck.
In the end, the Denver veterinarian basically told Mather, "Good luck," leaving Taz's future ambiguous.
Mather pressed on for the sake of her cherished animal.
A revolutionary treatment, a surprise donor
It was just a short time later that Mather and Taz would find hope.
Mather found herself at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, boasting one of the nation's premier veterinary research hospitals. If she were to find an answer to Taz's illness, it would be at CSU.
Dr. Brittany Ciepluch, a surgical oncology fellow at CSU's Flint Animal Cancer Center, suggested a unique course of treatment. While it was a possibility to save Taz, the new treatment, never before performed on dogs with stomach cancer, was equally risky.
There was no research on the treatment, which was a course of stereotactic radiation directed on Taz's stomach. It was also an expensive option, costing over $7,500.
"She's a border collie, and they have little border collie brains that feed on adrenaline and focused work," Mather explained. "Even as she was getting sicker and sicker, she was still wanting to go out and chase sticks and balls and find things."
That was just another reason Mather firmly believed it to be worthwhile to proceed with the therapy.
"She was so motivated, even when she was sick," she said flatly.
In a fateful turn, Mather was told she wouldn't have to worry about covering the whole bill. The Blue Buffalo Co., headquartered in Wilton, Conn., has been focused on cancer research for dogs and, through a partnership with the CSU Foundation, provided a $5,000 grant to help offset costs for Taz's treatment.
Blue Buffalo, known for its natural, health centric dog and cat food lines, was started when the founding family's dog, Blue, came down with a variety of health issues.
The Blue Buffalo Foundation was established in 2003 to provide a source of funds for universities and clinics that have programs dedicated to gaining a greater understanding of the causes, treatments and prevention of dog and cat cancer.
While radiation is a typical treatment for dogs and felines suffering from cancer, much like it is for people, never before had radiation therapy been performed to treat stomach cancer in a dog.
"It was a completely uncertain treatment," Mather said.
Doctors couldn't offer any probability of success since there was no record of using the treatment. And chemotherapy proved unsuccessful in similar cases.
In early September, they moved forward with the treatment.
For Mather, who works as a software developer, the process was just putting "one foot in front of the other."
"We're going to do this and just see what happens," she said.
Taz would have two days of radiation the first week, then three the next. Mather would make the 75-minute drive from Estes Park, where she was staying with her mother, to Fort Collins each morning. She would give Taz a kiss as she was put under in preparation for treatment, then sit in the waiting room for the rest of the day until Taz was taken into recovery.
"It's just about perseverance," she admitted. "You just keep doing it."
By the end of the therapy, Taz was already starting to eat food out of a dish.
A hopeful turn
Taz is now in recovery, which Mather doesn't take lightly. With no prior knowledge on the treatment, it's uncertain if or when the cancer could return.
But Taz is now facing a more optimistic future. She's up to 26 pounds, gaining weight and muscle. When she began the radiation therapy, Mather would have to pick her up to lift her onto the bed. Her leg muscles weren't strong enough.
Now, Mather is pleased to say, Taz is jumping up on the bed.
Taz sticks to a diet that is low in carbohydrates. Mather prepares a smoothie consisting of fish, meat, homemade bone broth and vegetables and feeds it to Taz four to five times a day. She eats it, no longer through a feeding tube, but straight from a dish.
As she continues to show improvement, Mather is already thinking about getting Taz back out to do what she loves most. Though, returning to search and rescue after being so ill will require some additional training and practice.
While Taz is trained in many different aspects of search dog work, one of the things she does exceptionally well is searching for human remains.
"She finds things really well," Mather explained.
Though her trailing work, which is following where someone walks, has been compromised since her illness.
"With practice, I think she'll be able to do that again," Mather said hopefully. "I am just amazed at how well she's doing. It's kind of scary."