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By Tyeesha Dixon
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE - It's a common injury but often goes unnoticed.
And the pinched nerve that kept Ken, a 5-year-old German shepherd, from getting into a cruiser, using stairs or moving his tail could have abruptly ended his career as a drug-sniffing police dog.
That is, until he went under the knife.
Compression of the nerve roots in the lower back - a pinched nerve - is not uncommon among dogs. But the condition is difficult to diagnose unless the owner notices a change in the animal's behavior, said Dr. William Bush, the veterinarian who performed the surgery on Ken.
In younger dogs, pinched nerves cause pain and can prevent them from using their tails and engaging in other forms of common activity. If the condition goes untreated, it can cause major problems later in life, such as incontinence. The same nerves that cause the pain run to the bladder, colon, back legs and tail.
"In older dogs, it progresses," Bush said. "I think we've all seen dogs that are really slow to move, and often what happens is people say the dog's getting old.
"When you think about the muscle atrophy or 'wasted' older dog, that's progression. Some of those dogs end up euthanized," he said.
In Ken's case, his handler, Pfc. Jamie Machiesky, was able to pick up on the subtle changes - something that wouldn't have been possible if the pair didn't spend so much time together.
Ken joined the Howard County Police Department a year ago and is trained to sniff out marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. He is the youngest dog on the team, said Pfc. Joseph Gummo, canine trainer for the department.
Machiesky, a five-year member of the department, started working in the canine unit last May and has worked with Ken since then.
"He's with me every day," Machiesky said. "He stays at my home with me. I think if he wasn't with me every day like that, we wouldn't have picked up on [the injury]."
Machiesky said he and Gummo began to notice that Ken wouldn't go up stairs or move his tail. They decided to take him in for magnetic resonance imaging to see what the problem was.
"We knew something was wrong; we just weren't sure what it was," Machiesky said.
The MRI showed a pinched nerve, which Bush says is similar to that in humans. Bush added that although the condition is common for all types of dogs, he sees it more in athletic dogs.
"This is such a common thing in people," Bush said. "He basically got the same work-up that a person would have."
Bush performed the surgery June 26 at his office in Leesburg, Va. Had the condition not been corrected, Ken likely would not have been able to perform his functions as a police dog in a few years, Bush said.
"They need to perform certain tasks, and if they're not 100 percent, it's hard for them to do that," Machiesky added.
Ken, who is also trained in criminal apprehension and building searches, must undergo a four-hour training session once a week, in addition to his normal duties.
"With working dogs, it's real hard to tell when they're in pain," he said. "When we worked him, you couldn't really tell."
Gummo said the department was very supportive of the surgery, which cost about $5,000.
"Most of these injuries are career-ending," Gummo said, noting that many police departments find it cheaper to retire the injured dogs and replace them.
"The department and chief really stepped up," said Lt. Chuck Jacobs of the special operations unit, which includes the canine section. "It wasn't even a question of doing the right thing."
Gummo said sometimes the condition is genetic and is common in police dogs. The animals are an important part of police work, especially in searching for narcotics and explosives.
The department uses six other dogs for police work, and last year, 350 apprehensions were made with them, Gummo said.
As for Ken, he has endured his suggested six-week recovery and is back on the job full-time, Machiesky said.

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