Cancer survivor dog finds her calling

Jovie the dog out on a walk on a path by red rock cliffs
Jovie nearly lost her leg to cancer, but now she’s healthy and happy in her new home — and preparing for a new career as a therapy dog.
By Sarah Thornton

Calm, gentle, soft, and sweet: 8-year-old Jovie is the embodiment of all those things and so much more. She’s also strong, steady, and still full of playful puppy energy — when the mood strikes her, of course.

If you were to ask her adopter, Nina Noble, Jovie is like magic: full of wonder and always seeming to know exactly what those around her need most. She’s a go-with-the-flow kind of dog who absolutely loves being with people. And within just a few days of going home, it became clear Jovie had a gift for a very special, important kind of job — one where she could really help people.

But first, Jovie needed a lot of help herself.

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Specialists save a leg

Jovie came to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in the middle of December with several other dogs from the Navajo Nation. They’d sent her to get veterinary care for a roughly 3 ½-pound soft tissue sarcoma growing from the side of her knee. The location was a tight one to operate on, and if the cancer had spread beyond that tumor, Best Friends veterinarians were concerned they might need to amputate the leg.

[Lymphoma in Dogs: Cancer Diagnosis, Treatment and Prognosis]

But Jovie’s arrival had coincided with a visit from veterinary specialists Dr. Nick Raffa and Dr. Nicole Smee. They were at the Sanctuary to assist with various surgeries and special care for pets throughout the canyon, and when they saw Jovie, they elected to stay an extra day to handle her surgery. It went beautifully. The cancer was contained to the mass, the removal was clean, and they were able to close the site with practiced expertise.

Jovie left the clinic with a new spring in her step, and after just a couple weeks of recovery, she was joining doggie playgroups and going for outings and sleepovers with volunteers. She received rave reviews from everyone who met her, and it was only a matter of time before someone came to visit who couldn’t leave without her.

Meeting a new walking buddy

As is often the case in some of the most magical stories, Nina had not come to the Sanctuary intending to adopt a new pet. She was here to volunteer —  something she makes a point of trying to do each year — assisting around the clinic with recovering patients in need of attention. She was interested in taking an animal out for a sleepover, too. And as she scrolled through the list of pets on the Best Friends website, she spotted Jovie.

“I have a soft spot for older dogs to begin with,” she explains. One sleepover turned into a couple outings during the day and then a second overnight. Jovie was the perfect guest — polite, calm, and ready to hang out on the couch or go for any number of walks Nina could take her on. And Nina was missing having a walking buddy after a final farewell to her own beloved senior dog a few months earlier.

[If you want to help a shelter dog, take one home for a sleepover]

“I had been fostering dogs and thinking I would just do that for a while because I travel a lot. I wasn’t really thinking about getting another permanent dog,” Nina says. “But Jovie won me over.”

So Nina started thinking about taking her home. She wondered what Jovie would think of her two cats and whether moving all the way across the country to Baltimore would be too much of a change for her. But Jovie had been curious (in a positive way) about small feline friends when she was at the clinic — so much so that it was noted in her records — and when a caregiver walked her past a window with a little kitten sitting in it, Jovie perked up and watched with hearts practically leaping from her eyes. She had also proven to handle new situations well, so a big move could be a fun adventure for her.

So Nina decided to do it: Jovie was moving to Baltimore, where there was a whole new life waiting for her.

A comforting canine

“When she first got here and she encountered leaves for the first time on the ground, she just started rolling around in them,” Nina recalls with a laugh. “She still does that pretty much every day.” For a desert dog, the crunchy, crisp-smelling leaves were a novelty that was not going to wear out anytime soon.

But there wasn’t much time for Jovie to settle into her new home and leaf-loving life. The day after Jovie arrived, Nina’s mother-in-law had a stroke, and the next day Jovie and her new family were in the car, heading five hours north to Long Island, New York, to be with her. “Jovie didn’t even really get to know that this was her home before she was back in the car,” says Nina. “And then we were staying in hotels. There was a lot going on.”

But when they reached the hospice care facility, surrounded by friends and family members who had been called to visit, Jovie did something no one was really expecting.

“There were a lot of people,” Nina says, “and Jovie was just greeting everyone, consoling them, comforting them. She would come up to people and was very tolerant of being petted. She never showed any signs of stress; she was just going from one person to the next. It was just incredible to see.” Jovie even sidled up to the nurses and doctors. For the three days they were there, she seemed to be on a mission to check in with everyone.

[From at-risk dog to therapy pet in training]

When it was time to go home, Nina says, Jovie seemed a little down about having to leave the crowd of new friends she had made. She had been in her element, and Nina could see that Jovie had found her calling. She had the heart and temperament of a therapy dog; she just needed a bit of formal training.

“I did some research and found out what would be necessary for her to be certified,” says Nina. “I do a lot of volunteer work as a vet assistant, and I’ve been interested in crisis response and things like that. So that’s what we’re going to try to do together.”

Home at last

When they got back home, Nina reached out to a trainer to start Jovie on her new career path. She’d never learned basic cues like sit, stay, or down, and she was still learning her name. But she is a patient and engaged student, so things have been going smoothly thus far.

In the meantime, Jovie has made herself fully at home. She’s fallen head-over-paws for Neutron, the younger of Nina’s two cats, and follows him everywhere. He even joins her on walks occasionally, the two new best friends sticking side by side the whole way. She’d love to make friends with her other cat brother, Roger, as well, but he’s a bit slower to warm up to new dogs.

Jovie keeps her toys in the kennel Nina got for her. She takes them out each morning, parking them across the house as she sees fit — including her favorite: the stuffed cat she brought with her from the Sanctuary (she’s clearly a cat person, er, dog).

She finds wonder in every new thing she sees outdoors. Deer and squirrels of course catch her attention as they run past in the distance, but even birds make her stop in her tracks, ears forward and nose in the air. “There must be different birds here than out there because she’ll stop and just watch them,” Nina says. “Not even to chase them, but to watch them and listen to them. It’s really captivating to her.

“It’s super interesting to experience things a little bit through her perspective — coming to such a different place, where everything is new. She just seems to really be enjoying all these new experiences.”

There is still so much more for Jovie to see and explore and do. There are people to meet, trails to sniff, and big differences to make. The way she’s handled life so far is a hint that she’ll be brilliant at it all.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.

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