Just like the rock band for which she’s named, the black-and-white-masked Kiss never gives up, even when people might count her out. Like KISS, whose members have been rocking for 47 years, she keeps coming back, stronger each time, just when you think she’s thrown in the towel. KISS the band is traveling the world throughout 2020 on their The End is Near tour—this time, they say, they’re really going to retire. We’ll believe it when we see it.
Kiss the border collie, however, has no plans to throw in any towel or slow down, and certainly not to retire. This rock star therapy dog/athlete has a can-do attitude that won’t quit, and all the curve balls she’s been thrown so far haven’t taken her down. She’s tough as nails, and yet sweet as the pink swipe of a gentle doggie smooch. She’s one special dog who has defied unthinkable odds to not just survive but also stay at the top of her game.
And what game is that? Well, for starters, she used to give other dogs a run for their money in flyball, agility, dock diving, nosework, and Frisbee catching. But being a top athlete wasn’t where Kiss found her calling. It turns out her best talents emerged during her 11-year career (so far) as a therapy dog—part of the Animal Health Foundation, an affiliate of Pet Partners. Kiss visits hospital patients, helps elementary school children learn to love reading, and appears at many public service events benefiting various causes for pets and children, including her local Rotary Club’s fundraising efforts to raise awareness of skin cancer. Since 2013, she has served as a crisis response dog, sent on deployments where she has helped people affected by disasters or other crises cope with their losses. But her best trick yet? Beating her own cancer, a soft-cell sarcoma on her front left leg, and now living with a complex disease called immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA). This 13-year-old takes it on the chin, but she never takes it lying down. Despite a grim diagnosis and multiple complications, Kiss is making steady progress and will soon be back visiting her local hospitals and elementary schools, putting smiles on the many faces she loves.
Kiss was six months old when she was given to Jane Horsfield and Dan Balza of Fountain Valley, California, by a fellow flyball enthusiast. Horsfield and Balza previously owned several dogs involved in the sport—which, heartbreakingly, they had lost to various forms of cancer. A lover of border collies, Horsfield was all in for taking Kiss home. However, she and Balza had recently discussed how their household was definitely at its maximum dog capacity. Grudgingly, Balza agreed to take a look at a photo of the striking black and white little furball. It wasn’t long before Kiss became part of the family.
Horsfield describes young Kiss as “one wild little banshee.” She recalls, “She barked, she chased, she screamed … and she ate everything in sight. She chewed clothes, glasses, furniture, walls (not kidding!), and the oak baseboard. I’d get home from work and, with drywall hanging from her mouth, she’d look at me with those big, brown, loving eyes. Who could be mad? Eventually, the bad behavior faded, and a wonderful ‘teenaged’ doggy emerged.”
At that time, Horsfield was doing pet therapy work with another of her beloved athletic dogs, who was 11 and nearing retirement age. All of her dogs do dog sports, but therapy work—that’s a raised bar that Horsfield says only a few dogs can reach. Because Kiss was proving to be a loving and sensitive dog, she began to train her. At just 2 years old, Kiss passed her Pet Partner evaluation, and with that opened a new chapter in her life. Although her primary job was now therapy work, Kiss still enjoyed participating in dog sports in her spare time.
In 2017, Kiss’s image was featured on a surfboard that was part of a fundraiser by the Huntington Beach Rotary Club. Local artists were paired with local surfboard shapers, and 22 surfboards were decorated and auctioned off, with the money donated to local hospitals benefiting skin cancer research, prevention, and care. At the unveiling of her surfboard, a participant visiting with Kiss felt a swelling on her front left leg and alerted Horsfield to it. It turned out to be a soft-tissue sarcoma, and Kiss was referred to a specialty hospital. Having lost four previous dogs to cancer, Horsfield and Balza were devastated, fearing the worst. But after 18 months of treatment, including 6 months of rehabilitation, Kiss was declared free of cancer and cleared to go back to work.
Horsfield got word of a grant from the Petco Foundation and Blue Buffalo that was available to therapy dogs with cancer. The foundation donated $3,000 to help cover some of the costs of Kiss’s treatment, and Petco Foundation and Blue Buffalo shared Kiss’s story on their websites for the 2018 Pet Cancer Awareness campaign. The two companies have invested more than $15 million into pet cancer research since the campaign began in 2010. Asked to participate again in 2019, Kiss’s face was featured on ads in People magazine, on Petco’s Pet Cancer Awareness website, on posters in nearly every Petco store, and even on a reuseable tote bag, a gift for donating $10 to the campaign in any Petco store nationwide.
Sadly, between the time she was declared cancer free and the start of the 2019 Pet Cancer Awareness campaign in May 2019, Kiss was diagnosed with immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, or IMHA. “It’s a horrible, not-so-common disease where the immune system goes haywire and starts destroying its own red blood cells,” explains Horsfield. “She literally was fine on Saturday, then on Sunday morning she didn’t want to eat her breakfast.” While that symptom didn’t seem particularly alarming, Horsfield discovered discoloration in Kiss’s mouth and immediately took her to a veterinary specialist. From there, her condition went downhill fast, but thankfully Kiss’s condition today has been mostly stabilized through medication. But not before she suffered an intestinal blockage that required emergency surgery and a severe bout of pneumonia. The road has been long, and it’s been rough. But Kiss is not a quitter. She fights on.
And Horsfield, who “researches absolutely everything” but was too terrified to even look up this disease at first, is fighting along with her. Every day, she’s learning and, more importantly, educating others about IMHA. It’s a complicated disease with no “one-size-fits-all” treatment—veterinarians must try protocol after protocol to find one that strikes the right balance for Kiss. “This story is far from over, and she has not been ‘cured.’ Knowledge is everything when treating this disease,” Horsfield points out. She says if she’d waited a day to take Kiss to the vet or not gone straight to a specialist, Kiss likely would have died, according to her doctors. “Dog owners need to be aware of what IMHA is and know the warning signs” she cautions. “IMHA packs quite a punch, and Kiss’s life has taken a drastic side road.” Younger dogs who make it through this disease are generally more able to get back to normal, says Horsfield. “Kiss got this ugly disease at 12. She’s not a young dog, but she was in great shape before this hit, which is probably why she’s been able to fight it. I am just grateful to still have her with me 12 months after diagnosis.”
While Horsfield admits that Kiss probably won’t be competing in flyball or dock diving anytime soon, she still enjoys her nosework and catching the occasional ball or Frisbee. A pivotal moment in her recovery was when she was finally able to take a swim once again in the family’s backyard pool with her pack, the other family dogs. She’s also back to visiting hospital patients, and will head back to school for the elementary reading program very soon. In December, when a student from Rim of the World High School in Lake Arrowhead was tragically murdered, Kiss was there to lend support. In January, she helped deploying military service men and women and their families prepare for the year ahead.
With all she’s been through, you might expect Kiss to just bask in the sun and take life easy for the rest of her days. But that’s not who she is. That little banshee who barked her head off, ate everything in sight, and chewed her way through puppyhood (and the drywall) isn’t resting on her laurels or her haunches. She’s forging ahead, mending hearts and spreading joy and kisses along the way. Because, sometimes, a kiss changes everything.