Honz is a handsome and fit 75-pound German shepherd from Poland, where he was bred from bloodlines that produce K-9 dogs to serve with police departments.
Honz, 7, is known and loved by many people who have served in the military because he patrolled the Pittsburgh properties of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System for five years.
The dog’s service ended abruptly at 3:30 a.m. Nov. 6 in the yard of the Penn Hills home he shares with his partner, VA police Sgt. Charles Hartman, his wife, Candy Hartman, and two pet German shepherds, Harley, 7, and Haley Sue, 6.
“He just collapsed,” Mr. Hartman said. “He couldn’t move his legs at all.”
Honz wasn’t doing anything strenuous or dangerous, so the big dog’s collapse was as mystifying as it was worrisome.
Mr. Hartman rushed his partner to Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Ohio Township. When he called in a “sick” day for himself and the dog, he learned that the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System — which actually owned Honz — was unwilling or unable to pay an expensive veterinary bill.
The VA said in an emailed statement, “We were saddened to learn that our beloved and devoted service dog Honz suffered a life-changing injury ... His handler, Officer Hartman, rushed Honz to a veterinary clinic where his emergent care needs were met and diagnostic tests were completed. VA worked to ensure we paid the associated bills in accordance with regulations.”
Kathleen Pomorski, public affairs officer for the VA, when contacted for more information said she did not know what the VA paid for the emergency visit to PVSEC and the diagnostics. She said the VA did not pay for the surgery.
“Honz had an uncertain prognosis and an inability to walk and is unable to perform his police duties. A tough decision had to be made," Pomorski said.
When ownership of the dog was transferred to Mr. Hartman on Nov. 8, he became responsible for the dog's veterinary bills, she said
“I could not let Honz die,” said Mr. Hartman, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Marine Corps. “I would not let him be euthanized. The VA [Pittsburgh Healthcare System] signed ownership over to my wife and me.”
The Hartmans are now responsible for veterinary bills and other expenses that are now $5,500 and climbing. Recovery could take as long as six months. Mrs. Hartman set up a GoFundMe page to help.
Veterinary neurologist Edward MacKillop operated on Honz’s back on Nov. 8. He removed a ruptured disc that had caused bruising, compression and inflammation of the spinal cord, said Dr. Kenton Rexford, an emergency medicine veterinarian and an owner of the PVSEC practice.
The back injury was not caused by trauma and is probably congenital, Dr. Rexford said. Honz is doing well, coming in for checkups and returns weekly for water therapy in a small pool.
The operation was a success, but Honz is still unable to walk. He couldn’t urinate, either, so he came home with a catheter, which he needed for five days.
“Honz is improving every day,” Mr. Hartman said. “He is standing on his own now. He is moving his legs a little bit, but he can’t walk.”
Mr. and Mrs. Hartman strap Honz into a harness when he needs to go outside. The harness has a handle which they use to hold up his back end. After the surgery, Honz had to wear dog diapers because he had no control of his bladder or bowels. The Hartmans had to massage him to make him urinate. He can now do that on his own, and he’s able to “hold it.”
Honz is eating well, plays with Harley and Haley Sue and does not seem to be in pain.
Other expenses included buying big crates that restrict Honz’s activity and four $200 matresses for various rooms in the house. The couple does at-home physical therapy three times a day.
“It’s been crazy, but it’s worth it because Honz is special,” Mrs. Hartman said. “Every day gets easier because he is improving.”
Through it all the Hartmans have been working — she at a bank and he at the VA Pittsburgh. The hardest thing for Honz is seeing his partner go off to work without him. He is taking tranquilizers to deal with what Mr. Hartman calls “separation anxiety.”
Mr. Hartman, 63, has been a police officer since 1980, starting in Pitcairn. He partnered with two other K-9 dogs, including Vader, a German shepherd, with the Duquesne police department. He has been a VA police officer since 2002. Honz is trained and certified in explosives detection, gun detection and tracking.
“We only had one bomb threat in five years,” Mr. Hartman said. “We were more of a deterrent than anything.”
On the GoFundMe page Mrs. Hartman said, “Often my husband was told how safe Honz made the veterans and employees feel.”
The GoFundMe goal is $10,000. By Dec. 13, 95 people had donated $5,455, including $500 from Susan Bull, a registered nurse in the VA emergency room, and $100 from Palma Imbarlina, the nurse of the VA doctor who treats Mr. Hartman.
The specialty vets tell him Honz has a good chance of regaining his ability to walk. The dog was officially retired by the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System on Nov. 8, and he will never work again.
“Honz is really special and has come such a long way,” he said. “He may not be 100 percent, but he will still be loved, cherished and cared for.”
Go to www.gofundme.com/k9-honzs-medical-fund to make a contribution or mail to the Hartmans, 6804 Verona Road, Verona 15147.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.