Elissa O'Sullivan sure picked the right name for her dog.

Elissa O'Sullivan sure picked the right name for her dog.

After a bout with bone cancer, Phoenix has arisen, albeit on three legs, to return to what the rottweiler's owner feels certain is what she was meant to do, which is to be a therapy dog at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Her gait a bit altered, Phoenix made her triumphant return last week to the waiting arms and eager hands of youngsters battling serious illness and injury.

"I think it'll increase the bond with most of the kids," said Judy Roback of Worthington, who has taken Phoenix to Nationwide Children's Hospital for her therapy visits the past several years.

O'Sullivan, who lives in the Strawberry Farms area, has never gone.

"I can't do it," she said. "It has nothing to do with the kids."

It would simply be too emotional for her; she knows that she would cry.

"I could probably go in there without her," O'Sullivan said.

Phoenix, who turned 8 in March, recently received her seven-year pin for serving as a therapy dog at Nationwide Children's Hospital. It was nearly her last, and had it not been for what at first seemed like an overabundance of caution on the part of her owner, the dog might have seen her last birthday.

Phoenix retired from canine agility competitions three years ago, but back in April, O'Sullivan decided to let her compete once again as a favor to a 15-year-old cousin.

A few days after Phoenix went through a practice session, her owner noticed a "hitch in her step." She immediately thought of canine osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. It's relatively common in rottweilers and other so-called giant breeds, although O'Sullivan can trace Phoenix's lineage back 35 years and there are no occurrences of the disease. Still, she told her chiropractor husband Roger that she was going to take Phoenix to the vet and insist on X-rays.

"She's had an uncanny sense of things with the dogs that most of us might pass over," Roger O'Sullivan said. "She really caught it early."

"I saved about six weeks," Elissa O'Sullivan said.

"With something like that, you've got to move quickly," her husband added.

One week after returning to the agility course, Phoenix had her right front leg amputated to prevent the spread of the cancer.

"She woke up three-legged, and I would guess a little upset at the situation," Elissa O'Sullivan said.

She was a good candidate for thriving on only three legs, O'Sullivan was told by the orthopedic surgeon, because she's not overweight and was in good physical condition.

"They learn to adapt," Roger O'Sullivan said.

Phoenix sure has.

When the O'Sullivans picked her up 24 hours after the operation in a borrowed minivan, Phoenix leaped up onto the back seat.

Once home, Phoenix took a fall while squatting to urinate, and screamed. Elissa O'Sullivan tears up at the recollection. Soon, though, the three-legged animal taught herself to climb steps and 10 days after the surgery, moved by the plight of so active a dog having to be convalescent, Elissa O'Sullivan took Phoenix for a car ride.

"I opened the car door and she jumped in. I said, 'OK, I get it. You're only going to be limited by me.' "

O'Sullivan has a whole pack of rottweilers, four of them, all with heads the size of bowling balls, each one seemingly bigger than the last. All had to greet a visitor to the O'Sullivan household last week, but it was Phoenix, the mother of the other three, getting around remarkably well on only three legs, who curled up on the stranger's feet in companionable contentment.

"She's been a neat dog," said O'Sullivan, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and who has a bachelor of science degree in animal production from Texas Tech University.

O'Sullivan bought Phoenix expecting her to compete in agility trials and to be a show dog.


"Phoenix was born to be a therapy dog," the professional animal behaviorist and dog trainer said. "She's always had that natural ability to sidle up, sit down with someone and offer comfort."

Roger O'Sullivan initially was the one who took Phoenix on therapy visits to a hospice, where she proved her mettle in that regard.

"She kind of had a sense of who needed her," he said.

He also took the dog to Nationwide Children's Hospital, but family friend Roback took over after one of her therapy dogs reached retirement age.

"Phoenix is just a very gentle dog," Roback said. "The children love to sit next to her. A lot of times the kids will want to feel her teeth or her toenails. She will sit patiently for hours and a child will pet her, talk to her. I think a kid will tell things to a dog that maybe they can't tell a person, an individual."

"Children have fallen asleep with their arm around Phoenix," Roback added.

Roback doubts any of the children will draw back from a dog that has only three legs.

"The kids at Children's are just so special," Roback said. "They are so strong, going through some terrible things. For the most part you would never know. I would envision that they will embrace Phoenix. I think there will be questions about what happened and why, and I think it will make them accept her even more.

"I am honored that I can watch what Phoenix and other therapy dogs do with the children and the strength and courage that the children have."

There was never a thought of keeping Phoenix from returning to her therapy dog rounds once she healed from the surgery, according to Elissa O'Sullivan.

"It was the only thing left that she can do that we had done," she said.

"She's done so much for me. We do the therapy work for her, because this is her thing."