The story of Yukon: Lessons about life, love and loss
By Richard Gaw
For nine years, a dutiful servant worked hard to keep the residents of Chester County safe, but instead of craving accolades and recognition for his work, a few puppy treats were all that Yukon really wanted.
Alongside his partner Corporal Brian Bolt, the German Shepard served in the patrol and explosive detection unit in the Chester County Sheriff's Office, where he enjoyed a stellar career that rivaled that of his human counterparts. Yukon completed explosive searches for federal, state and local municipalities, and was a member of the U.S. Police Canine Association (USPCA), where he placed second in a national explosive detection competition.
When Yukon retired as a K-9 in March 2019, Bolt and his wife Lauren made the decision to adopt him, but shortly after, the Bolts noticed that something was negatively affecting the dog's normal enthusiasm and ability to get around.
“He wasn’t really eating all that much and he seemed really lethargic, which is unusual since he was always so full of energy and life,” Lauren said. “We were really worried about him.”
The diagnosis was difficult for the Bolt's to hear: Yukon had degenerative myelopathy (DM), a genetic disease that affects the spinal cord, resulting in slowly progressive hind limb weakness and paralysis that ultimately results in death.
“It was absolutely devastating to us,” Brian said. “He is such a healthy dog that doesn’t have many of the issues common to German Shepherds. We wanted to be able to fix it, but we couldn’t, so we wanted to give him the best life we could in the time that he has left.”
Then a miracle happened – one that eventually connected the Bolts and Yukon with students at the Veterinary Science and Animal Science programs at the Technical College High School (TCHS) Pennock’s Bridge Campus in West Grove.
In many ways, the journey of how Yukon got to TCHS was one of destiny, and one that was supported by connections the Bolts have had to the school for years. Brian had visited TCHS before, during demonstrations he conducted with Yukon for students in the Criminal Justice & Police Sciences program. Lauren is friends with Joan Farwell, who is the Veterinary Science instructor at TCHS Pennock’s Bridge Campus. When Yukon was displaying unusual behaviors, Farwell suggested to the Bolts that they bring Yukon to the Pennock’s Bridge Campus so that the students could take care of him during the day.
Soon after Yukon first arrived at the Pennock's Bridge campus in August 2019, the Bolts saw an immediate change in the dog’s demeanor. In turn, Yukon has had an incredible impact on the students, instructors and administrators.
“He went to work every day for nine years, so he was confused at first when he wasn’t working,” Brian said, “but once we got him in the program at the school, he felt like he was being productive again.”
“We absolutely noticed a change with him once he started going to TCHS,” Lauren said. “I pack all of his things in a backpack and so he now knows that when the backpack comes out, he is going to school. He acts as excited as he was when he would go on patrol.”
On a typical day, the students brush Yukon, soak his paws in Epsom salt, play with him, take him on patrols around the school, help him into and out of his wheels, feed him and also make sure he has plenty of treats. In return, Yukon has become the equivalent of a living classroom for the Veterinary Science students at TCHS.
“Since we hope to work with animals in the veterinary field, it really helps us to work with a special dog like Yukon,” said student Mia Savelloni. “As much as we may help him, he is helping us in so many more ways. He is really teaching us how to live in the moment, appreciate those around us and understand how important it is to really care for others.”
One of the initial challenges for the students was that, as a symptom of degenerative myelopathy (DM), Yukon lost mobility in his hind legs not long after coming to TCHS. As a result, he had to transition to using a set of wheels in order to get around. Aubrey Lonsinger, a senior in the Veterinary Science program, came up with a solution to help Yukon adjust to his wheels.
“He was struggling to walk when he first got his wheels, so I decided to experiment with booties that he was using to help give him more traction and after this adjustment, his mobility has really improved,” Lonsinger said.
One of the most difficult aspects for students caring for Yukon is the knowledge that degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a progressive disease that will eventually claim his life. Farwell said that introducing Yukon to the Veterinary Science students has been a valuable learning experience for them that goes far beyond clinical diagnosis and care.
“The students have learned so much about empathy and caring for a dog like Yukon, who is suffering from this progressive disease,” she said. “This experience is helping students prepare for the difficult, emotional side of being a veterinarian, especially when having to work with animals who you know will pass away.”
Once Yukon retired, the Retired Police Canine Foundation stepped in to help the Bolts with some of his medical bills, and Dr. Justin Yesilonis, a member of the Elk Creek Veterinary Services in Oxford, continues to sponsor some of his medical care. Lauren said she is incredibly grateful for the impact that the students at TCHS – and his other caretakers – have had on Yukon.
“If he wasn’t at TCHS now doing what he is doing, I don’t know that he would still be with us,” Lauren said. “The program has changed his outcome. They have helped him thrive and there is no way we can ever put into words how grateful we are for the students and all they have done.”
If you are interested in learning more about how to help to support retired K-9 dogs, please visit https://www.policek9help.com/
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.