Caring for our four-legged partners

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- The countertop gleamed, the white walls were lined with people and the room smelled of a dog’s musk. The x-ray machine ticked in the background, it screeched as images imprinted on to film. The Military Working Dog handler murmured in MWD Oxigen’s ear as the veterinarian manipulated her body on the table.

Exceptional medical care is vital for MWDs, insuring K-9s are healthy and mission ready.

“If our dogs aren’t fully up to par, it can be life or death,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Benfer, 92nd Security Forces Squadron MWD trainer. “When a dog isn’t feeling the best, there is room for error and that can mean someone’s life.”

To eliminate the possibility of a life-threatening scenario, x-ray exams are administered to the dogs anytime a health concern is presented or as the dogs approach a senior age.

X-ray exams for MWDs consist of gathering radiographic images of the spine, hips, knees, stomach, chest and teeth. One of the main reasons MWDs leave the service is due to degenerate joint disease.

Prior to exam, the veterinarian sedates the K-9 with a mild sedative to freely manipulate the body. The x-ray technician is responsible to make sure all attending personnel wear appropriate safety gear. The veterinarian and handler are the only personnel allowed to freely move about the exam room and make contact with the sedated K-9, while the x-ray technician takes high quality images as quickly as possible.

“Once all the images are taken, the veterinarian will review them to ensure they are clear and capture the desired areas,” said Senior Airman Ryan Berends, 92nd Medical Support Squadron diagnostic imaging technician.

After reviewing the images and comprehensive medical history, the veterinarian may require additional x-rays to guarantee an accurate diagnosis. Many times, images come back clean and the healthy K-9 returns to work.

“We take preventative measures to make sure we’re not working the dogs when they’re in pain,” said Capt. Margaret James, 92nd Medical Group veterinarian treatment facility officer. “We don’t want to push them past their breaking point.”

Handlers and medical staff take into account the current and future health of the K-9 and consider possible treatment plans to ensure positive long-term results. If a health issue is discovered, a medical discharge may be needed; careful planning and early treatment may prevent an early separation, Benfer said.

When a diagnosis indicates the best course of action is a medical discharge, the veterinarian begins the separation process with the ultimate goal of transitioning the K-9 into retirement.

“After so many years of service, sacrifice and commitment, these loyal public servants deserve some couch time, just like anyone else,” James said.