By the time Welz, a red-and-black German shepherd, came to Dr. John Anderson's attention, he was one sick animal. In six years of work with John Bell, now a sergeant with the Inglewood Police Department in California, Welz had helped apprehend 1,500 suspects, find several lost children and save seven people—including Bell. Welz and Bell had won awards in police-dog trials all over the state. California criminals knew of Welz's smarts and tenacity, yet children could poke him in the eye and grab his ears. But now something was clearly wrong.
"Welz was normally feisty, independent and strong-willed," Bell recalls. "Then he began losing weight. He wanted to be by my side more, while before he had liked his own space, liked to find a corner by himself. He wouldn't eat, and when he woke up in the morning he was shaking like a leaf."
Bell took Welz to Dr. Anderson, a veterinarian who practices in Simi Valley and specializes in treating police dogs. Anderson was concerned by the dog's condition. "Welz was underweight," he says. "His coat was rough. He had diarrhea. He was lethargic. He couldn't make it through a night's work without lying down."
Police dogs are used to on-the-job injuries. They get kicked, shot, burned and stabbed; they break their jaws and fall off buildings. Welz had already been through much of that; he had been shot at six times, hit over the head with a tire iron and thrown from a patrol car. ("I forgot to roll up the window before we started a chase," Bell admits.) This time, though, it turned out that Welz had a different kind of work-related ailment. "These dogs are sensitive, alert and ready for action at all times," says Anderson. "They have to react with split-second timing, yet they have to remain obedient. That's extremely stressful."
After undergoing a long series of tests, Welz was found to be suffering from colitis. To control the physiological symptoms, Anderson prescribed more easily digestible food, a new feeding schedule and medication. Equally important, Anderson helped Bell realize that he had been pushing the dog too hard. "We were in the midst of a lot of competitions," Bell says. "Plus, we were working every day. I constantly demanded perfection, because I wanted to be the perfect cop. Welz just wanted to be my buddy."
To ease the pressure on his companion, Bell started spending more time playing with the dog. "That was a hell of a lot more fun," he says now. "And Welzie came back. He really responded."
Dogs have been involved in strenuous activity, often of a sporting nature, for thousands of years. Only recently, however, have veterinarians and handlers begun supplementing conventional dog care with procedures and therapies borrowed from sports medicine. A number of veterinary schools now have sports-medicine departments. And three years ago a group of veterinarians established the American Canine Sports Medicine Association, the field's first national group. The 300-member ACSMA promotes research into the care and treatment of canine athletes, not only familiar jocks such as sled dogs and racing greyhounds but also true working stiffs such as police and herding dogs. And while the specialties of member vets include those found in human sports medicine—conditioning, nutrition, diagnostics, orthopedics and the like—they also take in some uniquely doggy matters: sniffing styles, droopy tails and paw dynamics.
Much of the thrust behind this new field comes from the popularity of dog sports. Since the expansion of greyhound racing in the U.S. in the late 1980s the sport has taken off. Sled-dog races are held around the world, and across the U.S. thousands of field trials take place every year.
"As more and more veterinarians administer to sports dogs, we've realized we need to know as much as human and equine specialists do," says Dr. Mark Bloomberg, chairman of the Small Animal Clinical Sciences department at the University of Florida. "For years we have been able to make an injured dog walk. Now we want the dog to regain its full athletic potential."
For a greyhound that means being able to run 40 miles per hour, as fast as a thoroughbred. And while leg injuries for a 70-pound dog aren't as severe as they are for a 1,200-pound horse, the dog's speed puts enough pressure on his shoulders, legs and feet to cause sprains, fractures and muscle tears—almost always on turns.