April 7, 2014 at 4:45 PM ET
When her beloved dog received a diagnosis of inoperable bone cancer, Riina Cooke needed a way to cope with the grief.
"When I found out, I was in shock,'' she told TODAY.com. "He watched me cry, and he would get upset when I got upset because he was a very sensitive dog. It took a couple of days to digest, but then I took him to the park, and we started putting together the bucket list."
Cooke, 32, wanted to maximize the time she had left with her boxer, Romeo, so she wrote out a list of fun things they could do near her home in British Columbia.
From getting a "pawicure" to a riding in a Vancouver police car to eating his favorite foods, Romeo was able to check off 22 items on the list until Cooke had to make the heartbreaking decision to have him put down on March 16 because he was in so much pain.
"(The bucket list) really helped with my grieving because it got me out and got him out to experience stuff we hadn't done before,'' Cooke said. "I think it kept him alive longer because I believe it kept him happy. I think he doubled the vet's projection of how much longer he had to live."
Romeo was able to live to celebrate his ninth birthday on Feb. 27, making it past the initial timetable given by his veterinarian.
"He was just such a happy dog right up until the end, sitting there with a bum leg,'' Cooke said. "We had a huge party in the park for his birthday."
Cooke's father used to be a fire captain, which helped fulfill the bucket list item of Romeo getting to ride in a fire truck, and a connection in the movie business helped hitch a ride in a police car.
"Romeo loved sirens,'' Cooke said. "Whenever he heard a siren, he would just howl and get so excited."
Cooke also let Romeo eat everything from cheeseburgers to birthday cake to a steak dinner.
"A lot of the bucket list items were food because we restricted his diet his whole life because of stomach issues," she said. "He was dying anyway, so if a cheeseburger is going to give him diarrhea, then whatever."
Once Cooke's Facebook friends began to see pictures of Romeo's bucket list, more people offered to help him check off more items. Cooke created a separate Facebook page for Romeo and began to hear stories from others going through similar situations with their pets.
"I've had hundreds, maybe close to a thousand messages from people, saying this helped them,'' Cooke said. "There were people saying, 'My boxer has same thing,' or, 'My German shepherd has lung cancer.' People are saying, 'It inspired us to live out the last days with our cherished family members, four legs or two, and end happy.' Why go down sulking?"
Cooke also has a Boston terrier pug named Yoshi, whom she bought for Romeo because Romeo had terrible separation anxiety when Cooke went to work. After Romeo was put down, Cooke bought a boxer puppy that she named Elvis Romeo to help with Yoshi's own separation anxiety. "He's been a lot happier now that he's got a new buddy,'' she said.
Cooke now hopes Romeo's story can help others going through the loss of ailing pets.
"I opened up his Facebook page for people who want to share their bucket list ideas and stories," she said, "to help them out after so many people helped me with Romeo."