Dr. John Armstrong

Dr. John B. Armstrong, Ph.D.

Professor of Biology and Genetics (32 years)

Canine Health Researcher

Lover of Poodles

My fatherís love affair with poodles began with a small ball of apricot fuzz we named Peaches back in 1984. At the time, my Dad was already engaged in his first battle with a serious and disabling illness, Scleroderma. Diagnosed in 1981, his survival chances were not considered promising. A photo of the time shows the tiny toy poodle puppy sitting beside my fatherís foot, the tubes of his plasmaphoreses treatment shockingly visible. But my father survived and Peaches grew up to be 10" and 12 pounds of love, joy and courage despite her own various health problems, including PRA. My Dad told me once that Peaches was a "special soul", and he was devastated when she had to be euthanized at 10Ĺ because of nerve damage caused by the degeneration of her spine. She died the day after his 53th birthday.

Though the familyís choice of a poodle was originally due to our having been (erroneously) told that our only choices in a non-shedding dog were poodles or schnauzers, when the question arose of getting another dog, there was no chance that weíd choose anything other than another poodle. We went with a miniature next though, in the hope of better health and a longer life.

At the time Belle entered our lives, my Dad was still teaching full time at the University of Ottawa and doing research on heart development with his axolotl colony. Though the Scleroderma had burnt itself out some years before, leaving his hands crippled, as well as other internal damage, my father was yet again facing a terrible, disabling illness - Parkinsonís disease. When diagnosed in 1994, he was given 10 years to live. This second illness led to his losing the grant to support the axolotl colony... a loss which hurt him deeply. I know that he must have secretly feared that he would not be able to continue to engage in worthwhile scientific research.

In the meantime, I had joined an internet discussion group about poodles because of some concerns I had about our new "baby". One day, I noticed that a number of people were discussing how coat colour determined personality in poodles: "that brown poodles were goofy" and "white poodles aloof". This sounded questionable to me, so of course I asked my easily accessible biology and genetics expert, my Dad. He told me that no, coat colour has no part in determining personality. So I wrote back to the list, sighting my "expert advisor" and suggesting that any poodle biology or genetics questions could be referred to my father in the future. I had no idea of the monster I was unleashing, for in very short order, it was my dad who was reading all the list mail and corresponding with more and more people as time went on.

From then on my father began to take an ever increasing interest in poodle issues, until what had seemed merely a hobby was his new passion - the history and health of the poodle. He began to study standard poodle pedigrees and to research the effects of inbreeding in the poodle population. It wasnít long before he was being consulted by many people, including at least one European breed club and his expertise and interests had expanded far beyond poodles. At the time of his death, he was engaged in studies of at least 7 breeds and was preparing for publication a paper on lifespan and inbreeding for a scientific journal.

Though my father had been sick for the last 20 years of his life, he never stopped teaching or doing research for any significant length of time. He valued being useful and productive so much, and enjoyed his dog research so much, that my mother would complain that she was a computer widow; even at home we would almost always find him working away at one of his computers.

My fatherís entry into the world of canine genetics was something of a fortuitous accident, but he told me once that he thought his work to help improve and protect the domestic dog would be a greater service to the world than his 20+ years of cardiac research had been. I think it angered him sometimes that many people in the dog world did not seem concerned about breeding with longevity in mind. He wanted to ensure that these wonderful creatures who share our lives are healthy and happy and as long-lived as possible. He loved our own dogs so very much and never forgot how much it hurt to lose Peaches; or another much loved miniature poodle named Taylor whoís tragic death came far too young.

In the end it was not the Parkinsonís that stole him from us, his family, and the dog world. It was a heart attack, and it was sudden and spared him from the pain of continued degeneration and disability. But it also kept him from ever learning of the standard poodle who was being secretly trained to be his Parkinsonís dog. It robbed our two current poodles, Belle and Merlin, of their much beloved "daddy". It took away my motherís husband of 33 years and a wonderful father to me and my two brothers. It cheated me out of years I hoped to share with a man who was both my mentor and my friend. Though I have faced my own disability for almost 9 years, now I have to face it alone, without my fatherís constant example of how to live fully and productively despite whatever life throws in your way.

He has gone to join Peaches and Taylor at the Rainbow Bridge now. It must now pass to others to try to keep his research and his dream alive.

I miss you Daddy.

Kathleen Armstrong (kaitlin@magma.ca)
18 Stephanie Avenue
Nepean, ON K2E 7A9