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Elyse Quartuccio and Eliza played, worked and trained together for five years. The family pet died last May; Eliza developed an infection that spread to her organs.
Elyse trained and bonded with Cedar in less than three months and won a second title.
By CATHY DYSON
Elyse Quartuccio didn't just win the Top Dog Award at the 4-H
She won it with two different dogs--and under difficult circumstances.
She had to deal with her own grief over the sudden loss of a pet, then bond with a new dog in less than three months.
That "took great determination and commitment," said Terry Misch, the 4-H agent in King George, where 17-year-old Elyse lives. "I am extremely proud of Elyse."
Elyse, a senior who's home-schooled, said the value of her experience amounted to more than the trophies she took home.
For five years, Eliza, a yellow Labrador retriever, was part of Elyse's life. The two played together and took walks in the woods. Eliza slept at the foot of Elyse's bed.
The two started obedience training together and won several titles, through the American Kennel Club and 4-H. They ended their 4-H year in September 2011, when Elyse and Eliza won the Top Dog Award.
The trophy is named after Sue Coleman, leader of the King George group, Fancy's Friends 4-H Dog club.
Then, everything changed on May 16.
Eliza had a bloated abdomen and obviously was in pain. Her family took her to an urgent-care center that night, then to her regular veterinarian the next day.
The dog died on the operating table. She had developed an infection in her uterus--which Coleman said is somewhat common after a female comes out of heat or has puppies--and the infection spread to other organs.
"My companion of five years passed away within 24 hours of becoming ill," Elyse wrote in an essay about the experience.
The 4-H group had always been a big part of Elyse's routine, and she didn't want to give it up. But the thought of handling another dog was too painful to consider.
That's when Coleman offered the use of her pet, Cedar.
Coleman and her husband, Howard, had let trusted club members use their dogs as projects in the past.
"I've known her for 10 years, and I thought, if anybody could do it, Elyse could," Coleman said.
In June, Elyse started visiting Cedar, an English springer spaniel, at the Colemans' home. At first, she just played with the dog who turns 3 in December.
Then, she started putting him through the drills.
Coleman had already trained Cedar in basic obedience for use as a therapy dog, but he didn't know other obedience commands or anything about agility training.
And he clearly had bonded with the Colemans. At first, he didn't seem interested in including anyone else in his circle.
Elyse regularly came home from training sessions in tears, because she missed Eliza and feared Cedar would never respond to her, said Elyse's mother, Katherine.
Then, the Quartuccios decided to try to shift their focus from the incredible loss the whole family felt to the generous offer the Colemans had made.
Cedar came around, but still had his moments. At a precursor to the state show, his obedience was "all over the place," Elyse said.
But when he took the stage for the state show in September, Cedar was tuned in to Elyse. His obedience score was the highest in the show: 195 out of 200.
The two demonstrated their drills to a reporter and looked like they were gliding above the ground, with Cedar's eyes locked into Elyse's.
"When he looks at her like that, he's saying, 'I'm here, I'm focused, I'm all yours,'." Coleman said as she called out commands.
Elyse is finished with 4-H shows because she's headed to college. She hopes to study physical therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
She's written about her experience with Eliza as part of her college applications. She described the hole in her heart left by Eliza's passing and how Cedar helped her move on--even though he couldn't possibly take her place.
No dog could.
"I saw that even beautiful things come to an end," Elyse wrote, "and it is important not to dwell on the ending, but on the opening of a new chapter."
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425