Dogs are teachers in life and in death.
No truer words could be spoken about Kelsey Stuart, a beautiful Golden Retriever we had the honor of knowing at the Flint Animal Cancer Center.
In her nearly 15 remarkable years, Kelsey and her puppies have taught researchers so much about the genetic makeup of Golden Retrievers and their susceptibility to cancer, but she taught us all so much more than that. Kelsey taught us how to live and love without abandon, and what the true meaning of companionship is. She will continue to teach us all in death.
“I’ve always said that my dogs are my teachers in life and in death, and if you’re not learning something, that’s criminal,” Nan Stuart, owner of Kelsey, said. “My dogs have enriched my life more than I could ever say and they have taught me more than I ever thought possible.”
Kelsey was born on March 14, 2008, on a ranch in Wyoming. She is closely related to all of Nan’s other dogs dating back to 1979 including K.C. and Kinsey who are both Hall of Fame dogs. This lineage has been bred for fire, intelligence, and speed – traits evident in all the puppies.
After a truly inspiring life, and travels around the country, Kelsey passed away from old age on December 10, 2022, at home. Nan, Kelsey’s lifetime Veterinarian, Dr. Brian McKee, and three of Kelsey’s children, Kevlar, Koaster, and Korrigan surrounded their mother to say goodbye.
“Kelsey was a remarkable dog. She was no everyday dog,” Nan said. “She was simply brilliant. Just a magnificent dog. She was intuitive and so in tune with people in such an amazing way. She was my partner… my best friend.”
Kelsey spent her life as a working dog. Through Code 3 Associates, Kelsey helped provide first responders with animal rescue training skills in the event of a natural disaster or emergency including fire, snow, ice, and swift water rescue. Kelsey was extremely talented – she would jump into fast waters or other dangerous situations to help build disaster-capable communities for people and pets. She worked both as a rescuee to teach first responders how to safely rescue pets and as a rescuer to teach other dogs how to rescue humans. She could code-switch between roles with little to no effort.
“Kelsey enjoyed her work so much,” Nan added. “She loved when we held a class and she got to teach. She had this amazing deductive reasoning ability that you just don’t see in many dogs. She was so fun to work with and she taught so many others important skills.”
Kelsey also dedicated her life to science, especially, the study of the cancers that are known to plague Goldens. She was a member of the Golden Oldies study – an offshoot of The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study through the Morris Animal Foundation. This study was designed to look at what makes some Goldens live long lives, while others are cut entirely too short by cancer. The ongoing study includes healthy purebred Goldens over the age of 12 who had never been diagnosed with cancer. Researchers look at the dog’s DNA, environment, and lifestyle to better understand what environmental and genetic factors give some animals longevity in comparison to others.
“Kelsey was a working dog. She taught. She did cancer research. She did it all. And she did it with a smile on her face,” Nan said. “I am committed to finding a way to kill cancer. All my dogs except one have died from cancer and if there’s something I can do to make a difference, I will. Kelsey agreed with me there. She loved visiting CSU, and she loved seeing her people there. She always had a smile on her face at the clinic.”
To continue this remarkable lineage, Kelsey had one litter of puppies in 2012. Like nearly every one of Nan’s dogs, these “puppies” are known as the KDogs. Kono, Kizzy, Kubota, Khaki, Korrigan, Kevlar, and Koaster are and were all as special as their mother. They have all gone on to work and contribute to the study of canine cancer as well. The liter recently celebrated its 10th birthday.
The KDogs were all enrolled in The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This ongoing study is the first of its kind – designed to follow Goldens from cradle to grave, tracking many factors including health, diet, exercise habits, environment, travel, and more. Along with biological samples and eventual necropsy results, researchers are hoping to identify what makes this breed especially susceptible to cancers and how to prevent it.
Many of the KDogs were also enrolled in The Vaccination Against Canine Cancer Study at the Flint Animal Cancer Center. To date, this study is the largest clinical trial conducted for canine cancer. The goal is to evaluate a new vaccine strategy for the prevention, rather than treatment, of dogs with cancer. It’s with the hope that this vaccine protocol can also be applied to humans one day.
“Kelsey and her puppies all have a remarkable life story,” Dr. Rodney Page, Director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center, and initial researcher on the Lifetime Study, said. “It’s a huge commitment to join a study like this and Kelsey did it with a smile on her face. She always knew where the treats were, and she was just a joy to be around. So well behaved and a beloved member of our center. We’ll miss her, and her work will live on through her kids.”
“Working with Kelsey was such an honor,” Dr. Lana, Associate Director of The Flint Animal Cancer Center, said. “I was always amazed by how Kelsey would pick out the person in the room who needed her most – she was such a calming “therapy” presence and seemed to know exactly whose hand to put her head next to.”
Kelsey never forgot a friend and spent her life comforting both people and dogs. “Kelsey always accompanied her puppies to the Flint Animal Cancer Center as they received treatment, and as Nan said because they were not consenting adults. She came to provide moral support, and consent with the help of Nan’s opposable thumbs,” Dr. Hardy, One Cure Program Lead, said.
Kelsey will be a teacher in death as well. Her body has already been necropsied, and data will be collected as part of the Golden Oldies study.
Kelsey was preceded in death by her puppies Kono and Kizzy – both died of cancer. She is survived by Kubota, Khaki, Korrigan, Kevlar, and Koaster. Kubota underwent treatment for Osteosarcoma at the Flint Animal Cancer Center and is currently doing well.
“I don’t know that there’s been one lineage of Golden Retrievers that have contributed more to the study of cancer than Kelsey and her puppies,” Dr. Page said. “Her memory will continue in the work we do and the strides we make in the fight against cancer.”
“May her legacy live on,” Nan said. “She was my partner, my friend, and my teacher. She was just a wonderful dog. Amazing, amazing dog and I will forever miss her but she will always remain in my heart.”
Kelsey had a lifetime of contributions, and she will never be forgotten. All of us at the Flint Animal Cancer Center will miss Kelsey, but we’re deeply honored to have known and learned from her. Special thank you to Nan for entrusting Kelsey’s care, and that of her “K-kids” to our team.