Owner of algae-afflicted dog recounts tragic trip on Russian River

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Alfredo and Brooke Rudas floated down the Russian River last Saturday in a rented inflatable canoe, their 2-year-old golden retriever, Posie, jumping off the boat again and again to splash and play in the cool water.

The day was unfolding in the same relaxing fashion as the previous float trips the San Jose couple had taken on the river. But suddenly, Posie started showing signs of distress.

In the boat, the dog appeared to suffer a seizure, her legs stiffening and catching in the folds of the canoe. When the dog’s eyes rolled back into her head, Brooke called out to her husband for help.

Moments later, the young dog began foaming at the mouth. Then, to the Rudas’ horror, she stopped breathing.

“We started paddling frantically as hard as we could,” Brooke said.

The San Jose woman on Friday provided the first public account of the circumstances surrounding the dog’s death, which in the days after the tragedy became the focus of an intense investigation into an outbreak of toxin-containing blue-green algae on the Russian River.

Tests ultimately confirmed the dog died of a lethal toxin produced by the algae, prompting Sonoma County public health officials on Friday to take the extraordinary step ahead of the busy Labor Day weekend of telling people to keep their pets away from the Russian River and its beaches.

One mystery that clouded response to the algae outbreak was whether the dog that was the focus of the investigation had perhaps come into contact with algae somewhere other than the Russian River. That uncertainty now appears to be settled.

Brooke Rudas said she and her husband drove straight to the Russian River last Saturday morning from their home in San Jose. She said the only opportunity for Posie to come into contact with the algae was on the river that day.

Brooke, 28, is an accounting manager who works in Mountain View. Alfredo, 29, is the vice president of a startup.

Brooke, who spoke on the couple’s behalf, said they had been on float trips on the Russian River about five times prior to last Saturday’s excursion. They always brought Posie with them. “She loves the water, and we love seeing her happy,” Rudas said.

The couple had purchased the purebred golden retriever when she was 6 months old from a Gilroy couple who could no longer keep her. Photos provided by the couple show the dog embracing a loving household and pampered life. She even earned a spot on the couple’s bed at night.

Posie, who was fully vaccinated, wore a life jacket at the river to help keep her afloat. The San Jose couple brought bottled water and a bowl to keep her hydrated during last Saturday’s excursion.

When they paid for the canoe at Russian River Adventures, an employee alerted the couple to the algae outbreak. Rudas said the employee presented it as a minor worry, even under her questioning.

On Friday, a woman in the office at Russian River Adventures said owner Larry Laba was out of town and all questions were being referred to the county’s health department.

The company’s website had the following notice: “Due to the possible presence of toxic blue-green algae, and the recent death of one dog, we highly discourage dogs on our river trips until further notice. Any dog owner that chooses to bring their dog down the river is doing so with this knowledge.”

Brooke and Alfredo Rudas put their boat into the Russian River about 10:30 a.m. at Healdsburg’s Veterans Memorial Beach. About noon, they pulled the boat onto a beach to eat sandwiches they had packed. Posie was never out of their sight.

The dog showed some interest in foul-smelling translucent bubbles along the shore, Rudas said, but the couple did not let her near the bubbles.

But not long after the group was back on the river, Posie began experiencing problems. Rudas said when the dog stopped breathing, the couple quickly hauled out at a beach so she could call the rafting company. She said an employee advised them to continue downstream to another location, where someone would meet them.

But as they struggled against panic and uncertainty over their location, Brooke began hailing other boaters for help. A group responded to her cries.

Rudas said members of the group started performing CPR on the stricken dog, while she hung back, horrified by what was happening.

“My husband came back to say they couldn’t save her,” she said Friday, between sobs.

She said the other boaters took Posie with them so that the couple would not have to continue down the river with their dead pet. At another beach where they all hauled out again, Rudas said her goodbyes.

“They had covered her with a blanket, so I pulled it up and I hugged her. I told her I loved her.”

Rudas said she was in such a state of shock that she can’t recall whether she asked the other boaters to take Posie with them and to have the dog cremated, or whether they offered to take care of that.

“I couldn’t bear to be with my dead dog anymore. I just couldn’t take it,” she said.

Upon reflection, she feels now that it was the “wrong decision” to leave Posie behind and drive back to San Jose.

Jeff Charter, executive director of Petaluma Animal Services, said an animal control officer was dispatched to the river for the reported dog fatality. The agency provides field services for the city of Healdsburg.

Posie’s body was taken to the Healdsburg shelter, where it was stored in a freezer.

Rudas said she received a phone call later that day from someone asking for permission to perform tests on the dog. She consented.

“They told me Posie is the missing link they’ve been looking for to prove there were toxins in the river, and that Posie is going to save lives,” she said Friday, a day after local authorities first raised an alarm over tests results pointing to a previously unsuspected toxin in the Russian River thought to be linked to Posie’s death.

The scientific work that led to that determination got underway Monday, when county public health officials, alerted to the golden retriever’s death, retrieved the dog and took it to UC Davis, where the tests were performed.

The final toxicology report, provided by Rudas, noted the dog had tested positive for Anatoxin-a, a neurotoxin produced by blue-green algae that is so lethal it is sometimes known by the moniker “VFDF” — short for “Very Fast Death Factor.”

Brooke and Alfredo Rudas witnessed the toxin’s deadly swift power last weekend as their relaxing outing on the Russian River turned tragic without warning.

By sharing their story, Rudas said she hoped others might be spared their grief and pain.

“Don’t go in the river,” she said. “And don’t listen to authorities when they tell you everything is fine.”

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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