Last summer, after much soul searching, I decided that if a Control Litter to potentially produce the disease Cerebellar Ataxia was to ever happen, I would have to be the one to do it.  The research was at a standstill waiting for new cases to erupt and my potential carriers were nearing the age of 6, which meant time was running out for the girls to be bred.  I knew that I would keep the entire litter well past the age when any symptoms would be likely to appear.   The problem was, could I maintain my distance while still giving them the care and socialization necessary for them to go the new homes at the end of the study period?  I convinced myself that I could do that.  Boy, was I wrong!!


When Fudge came into season, I allowed Chip to breed her.  Not an ideal situation, since the actual status of clear or carrier was not known on either.  But…they were the only chance we had and they were both offspring of Pero, the only known carrier in the US.  On October 21, 2002, Fudge presented me with 5 little puppies, 2 boys and 3 girls, then lost one little girl at 3 days of age.  One would hope for a large litter in a test breeding to increase the chances of the occurrence but it wasn’t to be so we’d work with what we got. 


As the puppies grew, I noted that this was a happy, outgoing litter of puppies that were quicker than most litters in many respects.  They walked early, were out of the whelping box in record time, and never met a stranger.  What a delight they were!  They were quickly named Latte’, Espresso, Cocoa and TaTa (a warm drink from my childhood).  Leash breaking was a snap and they were happy to do whatever I wanted whether it was chasing toys or taking cookies and playing with strangers.  This was a dream litter with such wonderful attitudes and the superb Spinone conformation that we, as breeders, strive for.  The only catch was that they quite possibly carried the lethal gene for Cerebellar Ataxia.


On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the middle of May, just a few days short of their 7-month birthday, the bottom dropped out of my wonderful little world.  As I played with the group of dogs in the backyard, I noticed that Latte’ seemed to be staggering a bit and acting drunk.  My first thought was that she had gotten into something and called her over to see if there was anything around her mouth.  Thinking that I was passing out cookies and they didn’t want to miss any, here came the rest of the dogs.  And, then, to my horror, I saw Espresso weaving.  And then it hit me!  I knew that I was looking at the early stages of CA! 


Needing confirmation that I wasn’t seeing things or having an overactive imagination, I called a close friend who came immediately.  After watching the puppies for a while, we went into the house and I showed Mary Ann the tapes of the CA pups in England and the ones in Italy.  As we watched the first tape with Teabag in the early stages of CA weaving up the street, we looked at each other and knew that we were about to embark on a learning opportunity that few have experienced. 

Again, the question arose as to whether I could maintain my impartiality to be able to document the progression of this disease.  At this point, I was already more attached to this group of puppies than I would like to admit but, for the breed, I had to do what was necessary to ensure that we garnered the knowledge to be able to recognize the symptoms and where to go from there.  After all, that is what research is all about.  And I tried to tell myself that so many times as I sat, holding a puppy, and weeping into its fur. 


Determined to document as much as possible, I started a journal and we videotaped Latte’ and Espresso every week.  There was a constant stream of people who were also interested in the development of the disease.  My vets were frequent visitors along with human doctors and others who wanted to learn as much as possible in the short time we knew we had.  Latte’ and Espresso romped and played and chased butterflies and greeted every new visitor with delight.  They took the inevitable poking and prodding and testing in stride, laughing and wagging their tails at this new “game”, knowing that they would get hugs and cookies at the end.  Such brave babies they were!


Finally, the time came when they couldn’t run and play as hard as they wanted and moving around the yard took more energy that they had stored.  A bit more advanced symptomatically than her brother, Latte’ wouldn’t be able to get back to the patio and would look to me for a “lift”.  She never failed to lift her little head and lick my chin in appreciation for this service.  I knew the end was getting closer and my heart was breaking with the knowledge that I only had days with my babies, not months or years.


On July 15, 2003, almost exactly two months from when I first noticed their symptoms, I said goodbye to Latte’ and Espresso.  Just as they had lived and played, we knew it was appropriate to let them cross the Rainbow Bridge together.  As I held them one last time, sobbing, my vet said, “It’s OK, Pat, now they’ll be able to run and play and chase butterflies again.”


 There is a brighter side to this story.  Cocoa and TaTa are perfectly healthy and unaffected and will soon go to their new home.  They are as loving and outgoing as their brother and sister and, I’m sure, will be a constant delight to their new owners. 


Knowing what I know now, would I have done this?  Yes, I think I would because my life has been richer for having known these four wonderful young dogs.  There will always be a special place in my heart where the memories of my special little babies lives and there will continue to be tears for them.  I only pray that their lives and deaths were not in vain and that a DNA marker for this dreadful disease is found.


Thank you, sweet babies, for being a part of my life.

  Pat Fendley