Pittsburgh police dog has 'difficulty' after surgery following Lawrenceville stabbing

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Rocco, a Pittsburgh police dog stabbed Tuesday night in Lawrenceville, underwent two surgeries and multiple blood transfusions Wednesday, and a veterinarian described his condition as “considerably more stable” though still critical.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. It doesn’t mean he won’t be well, there’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said Anthony D. Pardo, co-owner and surgeon at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Ohio Township.

Police said a man they were trying to take into custody Tuesday on four outstanding warrants plunged a knife into Rocco, going through 6 inches of muscle, Mr. Pardo said, then pushed it 3 to 4 inches deeper, lacerating the dog’s kidney and causing major blood loss.

By Wednesday night, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said, “He is still holding his own right now.” Mr. Pardo said Rocco was more alert, had a good blood pressure and had stopped bleeding.

“Lots of things can go right, but lots of things can go wrong,” he said, adding that Rocco will undergo a relatively minor surgery in another four to five days.

Three officers, including the dog’s handler, suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the ordeal and are expected to recover. An Allegheny County sheriff’s deputy also was assaulted in an attempt to arrest the suspect, John Rush, 21, of Stowe.

Rush is being held in the Allegheny County Jail without bond.

He could face a felony three charge in the stabbing of Rocco if the dog dies, district attorney’s office spokesman Mike Manko said, adding it “is a special charge involving animal cruelty and/or torture when a police dog is involved.”

Rush was wanted on four separate warrants, including failure to register as a sex offender in Stowe, stemming from a 2013 statutory sex assault conviction, sheriff’s office Lt. Jack Kearney said. In December, Rush was charged with several crimes in a violent home invasion in Lawrenceville. He and another person were accused of assaulting his stepfather with a baseball bat, Lt. Kearney said.

Shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday, a deputy with the warrant squad was driving in Lawrenceville when he saw Rush walking at Penn Avenue and Butler Street, Lt. Daniel Herrmann said.

Rush lunged at the deputy as he was taking him into custody and grabbed at the deputy’s gun, the lieutenant said. The deputy used a Taser on Rush after a brief struggle, but Rush broke free and ran.

A short time later, police responding to a call about a suspicious person in the 3700 block of Butler found a man whom they identified later as Rush. In the basement of the building, Rush lunged at three of them and Rocco, “swinging wildly at them with a pocket knife,” the lieutenant said.

The 8-year-old German shepherd dog bit Rush, who stabbed Rocco in the back, Lt. Herrmann said. Two officers had leg, knee and arm injuries, and the other suffered a minor stab wound to his left shoulder, Lt. Herrmann said.

Rocco specializes in locating guns and detecting accelerants and has been with the force since 2008 and with his current handler, Officer Phil Lerza, since 2010, with whom he lives. Officer Lerza couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, said that while Rocco may not be able to return to police work, he’s hopeful the dog will “live out his life in comfort.” The sergeant was a handler for five years.

“Having experienced it myself, it’s hard to explain, it’s hard to put into words how willing they are to put their life out there to protect their handler, and it’s really vice versa,” he said.

Police initially said the dog would make a full recovery. But late Wednesday morning, Ms. Richard said the dog was “experiencing difficulty.”

Rocco, who was in the intensive care unit, had damage to the bone in his spinal column and to the muscles in his back, Ms. Richard said. He also had a kidney removed and suffered a lot of stress on his heart, Mr. Pardo said.

“Rocco basically — over the past 24 hours — has lost his entire blood volume one time over, if not more,” he said, adding that’s about 3.5 quarts.

The animal hospital depleted its blood supply Wednesday, and five or six dogs came in to donate blood, in part for Rocco and to replenish the stock, Mr. Pardo said.

Donor dogs will give a pint of blood, and he said the blood bank prefers universal A-negative donations. Staff at the clinic Wednesday night said they did not need blood specifically for Rocco, but added that blood donations are always welcome.

Pittsburgh pet-lovers sought ways to help Rocco on Wednesday, from taking their own pets to donate blood to contributing money to cover veterinarian bills.

“It’s so heartwarming to see support from the community when tragedy strikes,” Sgt. LaPorte said.

The “Rocco Medical Fund” has been established at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, 1338 Chartiers Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15220. Money raised will help offset the city’s bills for Rocco’s veterinarian care, Sgt. LaPorte said. Donations can be mailed or made by calling 412-922-4800. Checks or money orders should be made payable to the “Rocco Medical Fund.”

Russ Hess, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, said police dog stabbings have happened but aren’t common. Considering the number of times a police dog is deployed, the “injuries they receive are probably not that great.”

But whatever the outcome, an injury can take an emotional toll on many, including the dog’s handler and his family, Mr. Hess said. “It’s not a family pet, but it’s a member of the family,” he said.

He said his thoughts are with Rocco and the Pittsburgh police department.

Mr. Pardo said his center treats injured police dogs occasionally. He recalled one Shaler police dog who broke two legs after jumping off a second-story balcony while chasing a suspect — and still kept running.

“We’ve seen some bad ones. This is one of the worst,” he said of Rocco.

The city’s canine unit, which was established in November 1958, is one of the oldest in the nation, Sgt. LaPorte said.

Pittsburgh police dogs have bulletproof vests, but because they are cumbersome, dogs often wear them only in planned situations, such as SWAT callouts or parades, not on patrol duty, police said.

Since 1990, three canines have died in the line of duty, Sgt. LaPorte said, one, Ulf, was shot to death in 2008, another had a heart attack and the third was hit by a vehicle while chasing a suspect.

“Work in the city [...] can be dangerous and the canines are such a wonderful asset to all of our officers. It adds another line of defense,” he said.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Lexi Belculfine: lbelculfine@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc. First Published January 29, 2014 9:36 AM

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