New Bolton Center Kennett Square, PA
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Ryan Hospital Philadelphia, PA

Penn Vet Stories

Fit to Work: A Police Dog's Story of Recovery

By: Carole Cloud Date: Jul 1, 2014

Ever since Rocky and Jenkintown Police Sergeant Richard Tucker were paired as working K9 and handler, Sergeant Tucker knew he could rely on his dog completely. But when Rocky became critically ill, Sergeant Tucker realized just how deep his bond was with his dog.

On a Saturday in late March, Sergeant Tucker brought Rocky to the Emergency Service at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital. The large German Shepherd couldn’t stop vomiting. He couldn’t even hold down water.

Rocky performs a belly crawl.An initial examination revealed that the seven-year-old patrol/narcotics dog was severely dehydrated. An ultrasound of his GI tract showed a twisting of his intestines, or a colonic torsion – a potentially fatal disorder in dogs because the condition can cause obstruction, tissue necrosis, bowel rupture, sepsis, and death. Rocky was immediately sent to soft-tissue surgery for an exploratory laparotomy. When Dr. Owen Fink returned from surgery, he did not have good news for the anxious police officer. Both the dog’s colon and small bowel had twisted around the root of the mesentery. Even though they were able to untwist a portion of the intestine, part of the descending colon did not revive and had to be resected.

While a success, the surgery took its toll on Rocky. Torsion correction is a delicate surgery and recovery is fraught with potential complications. Over the next two weeks, Rocky, who weighed 76-and-a-half pounds before surgery, suffered loss of appetite and regular bouts of diarrhea, resulting in a weight loss of nearly 11 pounds, or 14 percent of his body weight.

Rocky walks the ladder to practice agility.Sergeant Tucker knew it would take a special team to rehabilitate Rocky and get him back in shape to work again. Working dogs—particularly police canines—are constantly met with extremely challenging physical demands. Luckily, Sergeant Tucker knew about the Penn Vet Working Dog Center from a fellow police officer, who facilitated a meeting with Executive Director Dr. Cindy Otto, a nationally respected expert on working dogs. She offered to oversee Rocky’s rehab pro-bono.

Dr. Otto, herself a Penn Vet emergency veterinarian, not only understood Rocky’s physical issues, but also his role as a working dog. And she had recently completed the coursework necessary for a certificate in canine rehabilitation. Rocky’s care team, made up of Sergeant Tucker, Dr. Otto, and Tracy Darling, a certified vet tech with training in canine rehabilitation, went to work.

First, Dr. Otto arranged for a nutrition consultation at Ryan Hospital with certified nutrition specialists, Drs. Ariel Mosenco and Amy Farcas. After a thorough review and analysis of Rocky’s diet, Drs. Mosenco and Farcas recommended a plan for a stepwise, post-surgical weight gain program. Next, Rocky and Sergeant Tucker engaged in an aggressive physical therapy regimen. 

An excercise to strengthen Rocky's neck muscles.Dog and handler were now partners in recovery. They had weekly meetings with Dr. Otto and Ms. Darling, along with rigorous at-home exercises. Warm-up exercises and massage therapy increased Rocky’s flexibility and broke up post-surgical scar tissue. Then came strengthening, which included going up and down stairs, walking first on flat surfaces and then adding a hillier terrain. Finally, Rocky started to run with regularity. To round out his workout, he also focused on agility and balance.

Steadily, Rocky gained weight. His appetite continued to improve, even though there were setbacks. He still had periodic bouts of diarrhea and loss of appetite, but these grew less and less frequent. Most significant was a steady increase in his muscle mass. He became more flexible, and his core strength grew stronger and stronger.

Rocky stands on eliptical discs to regain balance.The final step for both Sergeant Tucker and Rocky was to go back to work. But just like with humans recovering from traumatic injury or surgery, this was a stepwise process. First, Rocky returned to the office for periods of time, then, the patrol car, and finally, some police work in a gradual, yet steady transition.

Then nearly 10 weeks after surgery, Sergeant Tucker and Rocky were up for narcotics recertification. Rocky, who had gained back seven pounds and was by now much stronger, was ready. If they could pass this test, it would be their gateway back to full recovery. After a tense few hours of rigorous work, the results were in. “We certified with the United States Police Canine Association on June 10,” said Sergeant Tucker. Rocky, police K-9, and his handler, Sergeant Tucker, were back.

Today, Rocky and Sergeant Tucker continue their therapy, both at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and at home. “This certification is only half of Rocky’s job,” said Dr. Otto. “He is still building the stamina and strength to return to his criminal apprehension work.”

His expert care team anticipates that within a few more weeks, and with the implementation of a lifelong conditioning and fitness program, Rocky will be back in full force for a long and successful career.

See the progression of Rocky's strength and reach.