Reunion: For the Love of Cockers, Not Joe

By Suzi Lewis Pignataro, Kimberley Dill Graham, Lynne Harpst Koen as well as “Chester”, “Roscoe”, “Tobey”, “Lilly”, and “Sandy”

Suzi Lewis Pignataro’s Cockers:

I started working with traumatized children while at an internship in grad school, 25 years ago. I love my work; it’s a labor of love. There’s more fun and joy in it than one would think. Kids are amazing in their ability to recover.  They only need someone to keep them safe while doing it. That’s part of my job.  Another big part is helping them get back to themselves as playful, spontaneous, imaginative and funny people. I get to be all those things with them in the playroom, as well as motherly.


Our first Cocker Spaniel was a party-colored male we named Chester. We found him through a breeder. None of her clients wanted him; he was too big and had too few points to show. We couldn’t have cared less; we wanted a family dog.  Chester was a mad man. He was a loving little guy, but he was also crazy. For example, he developed a habit of licking furniture.  He would start at one end of the couch – his favorite – and lick all the way to the other end, then turn around and lick his way back to his original spot. He used to jump up on the dining room table to steal food. If he were caught in the act, he would spit out the morsel and flop on his side, feigning sleep with raspy dog snores. He was healthy until age six-and-a-half, when he suddenly developed a rare autoimmune disorder that was showing up in male Cockers: his liver identified its own cells as an enemy and literally attacked itself, killing Chester in three weeks’ time.  It was devastating.  We donated his liver to research at UC-Davis, where the school of veterinary medicine was attempting to identify the etiology of the disease in the hope of finding an eventual cure.

When Chester was five, we adopted Roscoe. He was six. He had been forfeited by his human who had become homeless.  Roscoe was rescued by Pets Lifeline in Sonoma.  I happened to be volunteering for them when he came in.  One look, and I knew he was ours to love. Chester was not as enthusiastic about Roscoe as we humans were. He pushed him into our pool a couple of times before the two of them came to some sort of understanding. Roscoe is 14 now. He has plates in his back knees, is going deaf, has arthritis and has the Cocker Spaniel ear issues – but he’s outside right now barking his head off at the pool guy, and he wakes us up every morning howling like a wolf.  He has years to go.

When Chester died, I went into a mourning that I knew could only be healed by adopting another Cocker. My husband Daniel and I drove to Berkeley where a rescued Cocker was being fostered. That was how we adopted Tobey.  Tobey had been found on the streets of Berkeley starving and injured. He weighed only 18 pounds when he was rescued.  By the time we met him, he was up to 23 – still small for a Cocker. Once we got him home, we found out the rest about Tobey.


As a stray, Tobey must have survived on trash and textbooks abandoned by UC- Berkeley students. He ate any garbage, piece of paper or book he could sink his teeth into. I still have the children’s books whose spines he chewed. I have them in my office where the children frequently request that I read, “One of Tobey’s books”. For the first few years, if we tried to take away the thing he was not supposed to be eating he would attack us. I was bitten twice by him. We quickly developed a hostage-negotiation relationship, where Tobey kept the object in his mouth until we offered him something more delectable. He learned that other items could be used in this manner: pencils, silverware, clothing, iPods, etc. He also had an aversion to rain, most likely the result of being homeless during the winter. It rains up to 40 inches a season here. If the air so much as smelled of rain, Tobey refused to go outside. Consequently, we had to put towels in certain areas of the house where he did his business. We grew to dread winters. Carpets and the legs of tables were ruined.

Because of the book noshing, we had to Tobey-proof all of our bookcases and bedrooms. We put a baby gate in every doorway, restricting Tobey’s access to all things munchable. I have to say, our kids were exceptionally patient about all of this, as were their friends. After Tobey passed away and the gates were retired to the garage, we still “stepped over” them.  It took us weeks to stop doing that.

In the five years we had him, Tobey cost us $13,000 in vet bills. He was treated for hypothyroidism, epilepsy, mange, chronic ear infections (leading to him having his ear canals removed), total blindness, a rare disease called Pemphigus (an autoimmune disease found mostly in the tropics, in which the proteins that keep the skin knitted together break down – the skin literally breaks apart) which almost killed him, cysts that burst, and hepatitis – the disease that caused his death. He was a huge challenge, but he was our baby. It took him three years to recover from whatever horrors he experienced before being rescued. For those three years, we never knew whether Tobey would lick us or bite us. But with unconditional love, we helped him heal. He might have been a medical disaster, but he turned out to be the most loving dog I have ever known. In the last two years of his life, all he wanted was to be with us. All he wanted was to have a cuddle with his mommy and daddy. That’s how he left this world – having a cuddle.

Daniel and I have entertained the thought of trying another breed, one with fewer health issues. The truth is, we go ga-ga every time we see a Cocker. I think it would be easy for me to adopt another breed – I have had other dogs – but Daniel’s first dog was Chester. He’s only known Cockers, and Argentines are nothing if not sentimental and loyal.


Back to Roscoe, our 14-year-old Cocker:

Roscoe has two personalities: That of a dignified but grumpy old curmudgeon, and that of a highly sensitive and creative being. Mostly, we live with the curmudgeon. Seldom does Roscoe seek or accept affection, and often he voices his complaint about our attempts at babying him. But, on the rare occasion, he will surprise and delight us with such fancies as “bone art”, or playing soccer with the kids, or falling head over heels in love with our neighbor’s Suffolk ewe who, unfortunately, does not return his affection.

I provide therapy for young children who have been traumatized. I never considered that Roscoe could be of any help in my “playroom”. I imagined him voicing his complaints about the children’s loudness, their messiness or their attempts at giving and receiving affection. He proved me wrong. One day last winter, Roscoe’s weekly visit to my office’s acupuncturist overlapped with my first session with a severely abused and neglected six-year-old boy. The boy huddled in a corner of my room absently playing with my dollhouse, refusing to engage with me. A scratch at the door brought in Roscoe. I worried how he would react to the boy, and how the boy would react to him. At first, Roscoe did not see the boy in the corner and walked toward his favorite spot in my room near the couch; but he picked up the boy’s scent, and turned toward the corner where the boy sat with his back to us.

“Uh-oh,” I thought, imagining Roscoe growling at the child. As I moved to intervene, Roscoe did the incredible. He trotted over to the boy, a worried look furrowing his brow, and sat down next to him. Without a word or a turn of his head, the boy put his arm around Roscoe and leaned against him with a sigh.  Roscoe turned his head toward me, his eyes speaking of the sadness he felt coming from the boy. Then he turned to lick the boy’s cheek, which was tear-stained.

That was Roscoe’s first session as the boy’s therapy dog. Every week, Roscoe waited in my reception area for him to arrive and escorted him to my playroom.  Every week, he and the boy sat by the dollhouse. Roscoe positioned himself to protect the boy from unseen danger. Gradually, the boy began to create scenes in the dollhouse from his horrific past, with Roscoe and I as his witnesses.

Roscoe has since gained a reputation for being a dog capable of “sniffing out” a child’s deepest feelings, a gift he has put to good use with a dozen children.

Enter Kimberley Graham and Lilly Belle:

Frankie, my cancer recovery dog, was gifted to me on Mother’s day after a week-long hospitalization from a bad reaction to the first round of chemotherapy in my fight against breast cancer.  He was a “dorkie”, a cross between a Dachshund and a Yorkshire terrier.  He fit in one’s palm, he was so tiny.  Frankie, named after my husband’s favorite brother, went on to become the joy of my life, while I battled a yearlong struggle with two surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments.  He snuggled under the covers with me at night and followed me everywhere by day.  We even showered together.  He was my constant entertainment and the only one who could seem to bring me joy.  Two days, before this Mother’s Day, Frankie went missing.  After a month-long campaign and an oath to my healing companion that we would always search for him, we found out he was hit by a car two blocks from our home.

During that month of June, I was so distraught.  I could not be dissuaded from the constant campaign of searching for “Frankie Dog”.  On Mother’s Day, two days after he went missing, my family and friends again gifted me with a puppy.  She was a half-a-foot long blonde “miniature” cocker spaniel purchased from a popular puppy shop in Mission Valley where they sell puppies to the innocents for over a thousand dollars.  Because of my story of losing Frankie and the breast cancer survival, the store owner, gave my family a bargain.  We named her “Lil’ Something”.  Well, a bargain, she wasn’t.  Lil’ Something was not a miniature cocker spaniel.  She was a diseased puppy mill dog infested with spaghetti-sized worms among other infestations, a respiratory infection, and a definite aggression-disorder.  She would immediately growl at me when I touched her and aggressively try to bite my face.  She was not a Frankie dog.  I was so sad from losing “my baby” that I could not bring myself to bond with this puppy especially with her deposits all over my carpets that well-intended family members and guests would trot all over the house.  I was a-cleaning constantly as well as having to afford large veterinarian bills.  Plus she made sounds and had mannerisms that would make me feel Frankie’s ghost.

After a series of veterinarian appointments, medication treatments, and improvements in her diet, Lil’ Something started to grow and grow and grow.  She needed a new name.  My daughter, Ariel, said she wanted to call her “Lilly”, and Lilly she became.

Weeks passed and I began to notice my new puppy as well as the two kittens well-intentioned friends also gifted me to make me feel better.  My home had become a play fest for baby animals.  Who could not notice?  I began to pay attention to all these little varmits.  Benny, Esperanza, and Lilly – the crazy, shedding, pooping, always playing babies.  They started to creep up into my psyche and started my healing process.

Enter Lynne Harpst Koen:

Lynne Harpst and I, Kimberley Dill, grew up alongside each other, but never were really acquainted.  My husband, Al Graham, had known her well while she was growing up as he worked closely with her mother, Fran, on several projects.  We were recently introduced through him as we shared not only a deep affection for my husband, but a love of our hometown, Coronado.  After a suggestion that we have a girls’ day in which we walk our dogs on Lilly’s first dog walk, we got together.

Lynne has two rescued adoption dogs – Rockit and Boo.  They are small dogs and have known their own issues as well.  Lynne with her husband, George Koen, have salvaged these mistreated and sick dogs into healthy, happy family members.

Lilly and I arrived a bit nervous at the doorstep of the Koen’s home trepidly wondering how we would do on our first day out as a mommy and a puppy duo.  We were still not even sure of ourselves.  The door opens and Lilly on her first day on a leash enters.  Rockit and Boo excitedly approach.  Lilly starts to scream.  I have never heard any dog make that sound.  She then proceeds to pee all over the tile floor.  I picked Lilly up to comfort her and she then pee-d all over me.  While I was trying to recover from this puppy insanity, Rockit lifted his leg and pee-d all over the wall in the foyer.  Good start – all of us – on our first visit – in an effort to get to know one another.

Well, Lynne, the trooper that she is, grabbed Lilly from me wrapped her in a towel, asked her housekeeper to clean up, and escorted me outside for refreshments.  She pronounced that today is “Lilly’s Coming Out Day” and she was now officially “Auntie Lynne”.  She went on to say that her only granddaughter is named “Lilly” and the family nicknamed her “Lilly Belle”.  Now, my Lilly is officially Lilly Belle as well.  Auntie Lynne made me promise that she could treat us to a day at Wags-N-Tails with special girlie-dog puppy gifts to make both Lilly and I feel bonded.  And that is just what she did – pink baby blanket saying, “I Love My Mommy”, a special puppy dog bed, healthy puppy treats, bright pink harnass and leash, and lovely toys just for Lilly Belle.  Up until this time, she was playing with Frankie’s playthings, which would break my heart every time I heard them squeak.

Lilly and I went home officially bonded and we came out as an official puppy and mommy.  Lilly is now still growing.  She’s commanded my attention and demanded my love.  I now officially love her and I thank Frankie for being my angel – for giving me someone to help replace his loss.  He has official wings and watches over and provides stewardship trying to teach Lilly to be nicer to her mommy, who still nips and growls, but in her own way adores me.

"Lilly's Coming Out Day"

Sandy was her mother’s dog when Lynne came into the world.  She was a beautiful blonde cocker spaniel.  Lilly reminds Lynne and her brother very much of their beloved Sandy.  In a poignant e-mail and later a card, Lynne designated Sandy as Lilly’s Guardian Angel.  Sandy and Lynne also gifted me a statue of a little girl angel holding a small dog.  The plaque reads, “Always in Our Hearts”.  I, Suzie, Lynne, Sandy, Rockit, Boo, Frankie, Chester, Roscoe, Tobey, and Lilly are always in ours.

Sandy, Lilly's Gaurdian Angel

Enter Suzi and her cockers:

Suzi Lewis and I, Kimberley Dill-Graham, were best friends growing up.  We lived two blocks from one another – I, on Glorietta Boulevard and she, at the foot of the Tenth Street hill at Pomona.  We had many all-night sleepovers where we wrote love letters to The Beatles.  We shared many a wonderful childhood memory that only friends of our sort could share.  How about having a slumber party for my birthday on the night JFK was assassinated just for starters?  How about purchasing your very first album, which wasn’t The Beatles, it was by the Rolling Stones?  My favorite song was the obscure, “Just Walkin’ the Dog”.  How about sharing when you had first signs of puberty?  How about sharing when your first kiss was?  How about just sharing your dreams?  And I’ll meet you at the Village Theater, what are you wearing?  We are bonded in these memories.  We are taken back.

Suzi and I lost touch decades ago – just as we embarked upon growing up and growing away from our beloved island, Coronado.  After thirty-something years, Suzi asked to be “friends” on Facebook.  I was thrilled and responded immediately.  What brought us back together and officially bonded us were our shared feelings for the cocker spaniels, not Joe’s.  We have renewed our childhood friendship.  She is now an official contributing editor for the Coronado Clarion as her muse allows.  We welcome her and her stories as well as those of Auntie Lynne’s.

Big hugs to all of us doggie lovers and friends.

NOTE:  In honor of Frankie’s memory, we, at the Coronado Clarion with our special donors, are establishing “Frankie’s Friendly Little Dog Park” at the Ferry Landing.  It will officially open this winter, 2010 with a kickoff festival of rock n’ roll entertainment, a little dog costume competition, raffle prizes, and a Second Chance Dog Rescue adoption of little dogs as well as food and drink.

Come join us and celebrate Frankie’s memory, Lilly’s future, and the pleasure of little dogs running free safely with others.

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One Response to Reunion: For the Love of Cockers, Not Joe

  1. Aleene Sexton Queen says:

    Love this beautiful story of beloved pets and friendships~

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