June 20, 2024
McHenry County | Northwest Herald


'Bucket list' for Crystal Lake dog with cancer inspires kindness from strangers

Image 1 of 7

Theo Leech’s best friend is an octopus.

Rarely is the terminally ill golden retriever seen without his trusty stuffed toy held gently between his teeth or tucked under his chin for a quick nap. Recently, Theo and his octopus have captured strangers’ hearts as the inseparable pair cross off items on Theo’s “bucket list,” one adventure at a time.

“I think it is kind of a happy story and kind of a sad, tough time,” said Theo’s foster owner, Crystal Lake woman Jenny Leech. “We’ve heard from other people who have been touched. I think he’s kind of given people a reason to want to do something good and nice.”

Over the past 2½ months, Theo has enjoyed feeling the wind in his fur during a breezy ride in a Mustang convertible. The 12-year-old dog has worn a sea captain’s hat and sniffed the spray of the lake on a pontoon boat. He’s even toured the local fire department and spent a day as an honorary Crystal Lake police K-9.

“I was thinking he had probably never done some of those things, so we decided we were going to create a list for him to accomplish in whatever time he had left so he could experience all the things we wanted him to,” Leech said.

Theo was found in a Walmart parking lot in Joliet earlier this summer and turned over to BAARK dog rescue in Barrington Hills. He arrived at Leech’s home May 27 and was diagnosed with cancer shortly after, Leech said. A Chicago-area nonprofit called The Live Like Roo Foundation has sponsored some of the cost of Theo’s cancer treatment and helped inspire the bucket list.

“Roo was a dog that was diagnosed several years ago with cancer, and the founder of Live Like Roo created a bucket list for Roo,” Leech said.

Theo is one of the many senior dogs Leech has fostered over the years, and he’s not the only one to gain a little bit of fame. Leech’s other dogs, Tiny Tim and Big Ben, have amassed a 2,243-person following on Instagram, where Leech shares pictures of all her pets and documents Theo’s progress.

“The first day I picked [Theo] up, he was in desperate need of a bath, so I ran by Pet Supplies Plus in [Lake in the Hills] to give him a self-service bath,” Leech said. “At that point I looked at him and he looked like in such rough shape, and I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.”

After the bath, Leech bought a collar and name tag, and let Theo pick out his own toy – a blue octopus.

“By the time we were in the car on the way home I look in the back, and I had to pull over because he was throwing the octopus up in the air and squeaking it,” Leech said.

In the tail end of his life, Theo is experiencing the same joys that Leech provides all her pets. She and her animals celebrate “Sunday Funday” and get out of the house for a fun weekly activity, she said. It was in that same spirit that she created Theo’s bucket list.

Already, the dog has crossed off a number of items, including a professional photo-shoot, meeting a pony and going on a blind date with a German shepherd named Sasha.

“They sat on a blanket here and had blue frosting all over their faces,” Leech said. “It was really cute.”

For his first date, Theo wore a bow tie and floppy hat – both decorated with octopuses – while Sasha wore octopus bows in her hair. The pair shared a picnic of dog treats shaped like wine glasses, hot dogs and hamburgers, and a dog-friendly, octopus-decorated cake for dessert, Leech said.

Theo also has enjoyed a “pup cup” of whipped cream from Starbucks, a Butcher’s Block Bone and a drive-thru hamburger. He’s had picnics and play dates and greeted a group of skydivers as they made their way back to land. A stranger even organized a birthday party for Theo at a dog training center where 20 people showed up with gifts.

“Somebody who we had never met bought him a stuffed birthday cake toy,” Leech said. “The young boy brought it to Theo, and Theo grabbed it out of his hand and just walked around with it for about a half hour. It was very sweet.”

Theo recently was sworn in as an honorary Crystal Lake K-9 deputy, complete with a patch and certificate, Crystal Lake Deputy Police Chief Thomas Kotlowski said.

“Chief [James] Black swore in Theo, presented him with a patch which was attached to his collar, and gave him a dog-friendly doughnut treat,” Kotlowski said. “Jenny then placed Theo’s paw print on his certificate, and Theo was also given a stuffed doughnut toy as well as a Crystal Lake Police Department Challenge Coin. We then ended the day with a short tour of the PD and a ride around the city in a squad car.”

Still on Theo’s list is a drive-in movie, a celebrity meet-and-greet and meeting a real octopus at an aquarium.

“I want people to understand that we’re only doing this because he’s telling us that he’s well enough to do it,” Leech said. “Above everything, anything we plan is based on how he’s doing or feeling.”

Despite his medical diagnosis, Theo wags his tail and sniffs with curiosity when strangers ask to pet him. At the park, growing masses on his paws prevent him from walking far, but he seems happy to rest beneath the shade of a picnic table before getting up and taking a few more short laps.

“He’s kind of the story of being resilient despite these bad things,” Leech said. “He’s happy despite everything.”

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie reported on the crime and courts beat for the Northwest Herald from 2017 through 2021. She began her career with Shaw Media in 2015 at the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, where she reported on the courts, city council, the local school board, and business.