COLORADO SPRINGS - The timeless act of the faithful dog resting his wet nose on his loving boy's lap is a bit more complicated with Comet and his master, Veren Betzen.
First, Comet has to jump over the arms of Veren's motorized wheelchair. Second - and it's a heart-stopping second - Comet now has only three legs to propel himself into the lap of a boy whose legs barely work at all.
But Comet would never let down the boy he has served for half of Veren's 14 challenging years on the planet. So, the golden retriever-yellow Lab mix rears back on two of his good legs and launches his black nose into Veren's laughing gut. It was mundane a thousand times over before this winter, when a cancer threat nearly put Comet down. Now, it's a spectacular act of affirmation that tends to draw a crowd.
"I expect medical issues with my son," said Verlene Betzen. Veren has been poked, soothed, realigned and sutured since birth. "But when it happened with Comet, too - oh, my gosh, that was rough."
Veren has cerebral palsy, largely immobilizing his legs and limiting the dexterity of his arms and fingers. For seven years, Comet picked up Veren's fallen books and pens, pulled off his pajamas and put on his socks, and closed the back gate on the way to Veren's grandparents' house. For a growing teenage boy, is there any higher use of a dog than tugging on a rope to open the refrigerator?
The purpose Verlene initially meant for Comet was to be a best friend for a boy who might always have trouble making others. And the good-natured Comet became the four-legged shill that would gather in school-age strangers made shy by Veren's ungainly wheelchair and strained voice.
It worked. At Russell Middle School in northern Colorado Springs, a steady stream of eighth-graders come by to bump fists with Veren and snag some love from Comet. They don't have to talk about movies or girls or sports. It makes Veren smile just to have someone nearby, scratching Comet's fur-covered stump.
Comet was limping badly on that former leg in November, whining in pain. The Betzens' vet took an X-ray and saw what looked like cancer on the right front shoulder. Most dogs with osteosarcoma die within six to 12 months.
But the vet suggested more work at Colorado State University's veterinary hospital. Many tests later, Dr. Clara Goh suspected something other than cancer. Amputation would both treat the symptoms and allow for tests on the spots.
Vets can be far more sanguine about amputation than pet owners, and Goh knows that.
"We joke sometimes that dogs are born with three legs and a spare," Goh said. "Right after surgery, they hop up with minimal help and hardly seem to notice."
They worried that Comet, though, might need all four legs to push a door shut or tug that fridge for an after-school snack. And Verlene fretted that the trainers might not consider Comet a service dog anymore, or the school might not let in a dog that wasn't providing service.
CSU did two weeks of tests on Comet's leg and eventually concluded it wasn't cancer.
Possibly a stroke in the bone or a focused infection, Goh said; most important, Comet would survive to Veren's high school years and his own 10th birthday.
If only he can survive the kindness of bored adolescents. Comet's first move when leading Veren into a classroom is to park his intact hindquarters near the teacher's desk and beg for a carrot.
"He has protein allergies, so he can only have simple proteins like carrots and figs," Veren said. "And he likes to sneak things when no one is looking."
Verlene is a district-salaried paraprofessional now assigned to Veren.
While she attends Veren's social studies work in Karen Peyer's classroom, Comet alternates napping and taking jaunty hops down the hall. He knows where the other teachers are who keep carrots, and he knows his way back to Veren.
Only recently has Comet regained the strength to stay with Veren most of the school day.
Whenever exhausted, which is often, Verlene ignores the piles of papers covering her dining room and goes to scratch Comet.