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Learning from the animals

By: Nicolas Grizzle
December 3, 2010
Doolittle kept spirits high during chemo by opening dog kennel

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Karen Doolittle's life went to the dogs.

She dedicated her life, or what she thought she would have left of it, to creating a dog kennel and rescue center.

Working between chemotherapy treatments and renovating the multi-acre rural property, some people thought she might want to take a little rest, like her sister, Susan Dotto. But she conceded it was important at the time to keep going.

"That's the one thing you were in control of at the time," she said.

Sisters and survivors

Both are breast cancer survivors, and Dotto works in the office a couple days per week. Four of the 10 who work at Doolittle's Petaluma dog ranch, It's a Dog's Life, are cancer survivors, and she offers free boarding to those going through chemotherapy.

It’s part of her caring nature.

When she opened the ranch in 2006, part of it was dedicated to housing rescued dogs. Five spots are open at all times for animals whose owners can't care for them anymore, and they're usually all filled says Doolittle.

All dogs at the ranch get a little cooked chicken sprinkled atop their daily kibble.

"This is where we cook chicken every day," said Doolittle, pointing to a homey looking stove.

The kitchen is the first thing visible after entering through the front door, letting an appropriate familiar feeling immediately take hold.

Jen Wirth, a young English major at Sonoma State, has worked at the ranch for about nine months.

"Everyone gets along, it's like a big family," Wirth said.

Wirth thought Doolittle's story, returning from a battle with cancer to pursue her dream, was inspirational, calling her story "amazing."

Risky part of the job

Doolittle is a former geologist, working at a time when she was training men whose starting salary would be higher than hers. Taking samples at potential development sites and testing them was just part of her job, but it was possibly the riskiest. Reaching down into a pool of foul-smelling liquid to collect a vial of it isn't the safest choice when you're pregnant, but it was part of the job.

She majored in geology at Sonoma State, but after working in the field discovered it wasn't for her.  She took some stay-at-home type jobs, like selling makeup to friends, to raise her three boys.

When they were almost all grown up, she started thinking about finding a job out of the house. Then the cancer news came, and her mindset changed.

A lasting legacy

"I wanted to leave a legacy for my family," said Doolittle. "I had to keep going."

Though working at the ranch was therapeutic, "I didn't know if I would be here to see the project come through."

But she persisted, working on the ranch with Tomas Ortiz, who "does everything," including some dog whispering, Doolittle said half-jokingly. By 2006, it was ready for clients.

Doggie Olympics

There is a vision, Doolittle's vision, for a "Doggie Olympics" at the ranch. There is a space and she has a lot of pieces for an obstacle course. But it will take a lot of work, says Dotto, who keeps her sister in check.

"She's an idea person," Dotto said. Part of her job is bookkeeping, the other part is keeping her sister's imagination at least somewhat grounded in reality.

When she was young, Doolittle worked at a dog boarding facility her family owned in Marin County. She even wanted to become a veterinarian at one point.

When she was sick, this is what her mind kept going back to.

The comfort of animal companionship brought her relief and still does.

"This is my sanctuary," she said. "You can learn a lot from the way dogs live."

Does she get a lot of grief from having the name of a doctor who could "talk to the animals?"

"About as much as I get, 'So do you do a little or do you do a lot?'" she chuckled. The jury may still be out on the animal communication. But this Doolittle certainly does a lot.