Garnering top honors in his field despite battling two deadly canine cancers, a Cornell family’s dog treated at the College of Veterinary Medicine has become an emblem of hope for patients and pet-owners facing terminal illness. Through expert treatment, family support, and a hardworking spirit, this resilient survivor continues to succeed in a multifaceted sporting career while defying cancer’s odds.
Hokey is a Belgian Tervuren, an energetic breed born to work. This put him right at home in a family full of Cornellians, including Dr. Debra Eldredge DVM ’80/BS ’76. A retired veterinarian-turned-dog-trainer, she brought Hokey toward the top ranks in agility, obedience, herding, and tracking. Then one day in September 2009, just after a successful competition, lymph nodes across his body suddenly swelled. A biopsy at Cornell revealed that Hokey had aggressive lymphoma, an immune-cell cancer with a median survival time of one year.
“I drove him to Cornell’s animal hospital to discuss chemotherapy,” said Eldredge, who began treatments in consultation with canine cancer experts in Cornell’s oncology service. “He flew through without a bump and earned the highest level title in agility that year. He especially loves tracking, and chemo can destroy the sense of smell. Yet I had faith in Hokey’s abilities, and we continued training.”
Testing a champion
They entered a Variable Surface Tracking (VST) test, the American Kennel Club’s most difficult competition. A dog must follow a person by scent over a multi-terrain track three to five hours old and locate three dropped items, all with no handler guidance. Only about 300 dogs in the world have passed this grueling test—three of them trained by Eldredge and her two children, current Cornell students.
“Hokey got into a night test and tracked right off – down cement stairs, through a large crowd leaving an awards ceremony, across a courtyard, finding all articles in the dark. He was the first dog ever to pass at that site,” Eldredge said. “That Summer he earned his Companion Dog Excellence in Obedience (CDX) title and in December we tested for Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) certification. It was sleeting hard. Hokey took us across a creek, through brush, woods, and swamps, over a horse jump, and finally onto a muddy path where he found the final item.”
Hokey became the 280th Champion Tracker ever in the history of AKC – with all the most difficult tests passed post-chemotherapy. His high profile in the sport-dog world as champion athlete and cancer survivor brought hope to communities across the country. A certified therapy dog, Hokey has been a special guest in many cancer fundraisers, and is pictured on a bumper sticker bearing the slogan “Canine Cancer Survivors Can Do.” In April 2010 he was named “Top Companion Dog” by Freedom Guide Dogs, “chosen for his accomplishments and perseverance in the face of a serious obstacle.”
New cancer, same resilience
After two healthy years, Hokey developed a troubling sneeze in October 2011. Eldredge found a tumor in the left side of his nose caused by a new type of cancer: nasal chondrosarcoma.
“Dogs developing this nose cancer usually survive approximately one year,” said Dr. Margaret McEntee, the Alexander de Lahunta Chair of the Department of Clinical Sciences and Section Chief of Oncology at Cornell’s animal hospital. “Nasal tumors are especially difficult to cure—they require aggressive radiation therapy that can also affect nearby normal tissues with temporary side effects.”
Using a CT scan to create 3D maps of his nasal cavity, Cornell’s oncology service developed a detailed treatment plan targeting the tumor in a way that would minimize normal tissue damage. Hokey began a course of 19 daily radiation treatments using Cornell’s linear accelerator. Throughout this he was surrounded by friends —partly because he makes them so easily.
“It’s a very hard course for patients but Hokey’s amazing attitude won over everyone he came across,” said McEntee. “Technicians and students visited him frequently; he even helped ease other nervous patients who came through. Having happy dogs around brightens everyone’s days.”
After radiation and recovery from minor side-effects to his eyes which Cornell ophthalmologist Dr. Thomas Kern described as “miraculous,” Hokey returned home.
“The left side of his face suffered cosmetic side-effects but he’s healing quickly– never missing a meal,” said Eldredge. “He competed in obedience again this month and loves to be back to work. His genetics must stink for him to get two cancers but his love of life and healing powers are strong.”
Hokey has donated blood to the DNA bank at Cornell, where it will contribute to cancer research in dogs and humans.