Pa. K-9 officer battles cancer for the second time, stays on duty
“He’s ready to go to work,” Officer Jay Hatfield said. “And the supervisors know, as long as he’s ready to go, I’m going to be bringing him”
By Jack Panyard
LANCASTER, Pa. —He first felt the lumps around Zoltan’s collar line.
Lancaster city K-9 Unit police Officer Jay Hatfield, handler of 8-year-old purebred German shepherd Zoltan, thought the lumps on his partner’s neck were hotspots — irritated areas where harnesses and collars frequently rub.
But the reality was much more serious.
Zoltan, usually spry, alert and on a hair trigger for Hatfield’s commands, had been uncharacteristically sluggish, and a trip to the vet yielded a diagnosis of b-cell lymphoma: cancer.
Lymphoma is a common cancer in German shepherds, beagles, Rottweilers, Saint Bernards and poodles, and it attacks their immune system.
Dogs diagnosed with lymphoma typically have lumps around their neck, chest, armpits and groin. Untreated, the dogs will live about four to six weeks, but with chemotherapy, there is a good chance the cancer will go into remission.
Zoltan, a seven-year veteran, is the senior member of the city bureau’s four-dog K-9 Unit and has been with Hatfield since 2016. Hatfield, a 19-year veteran, said Zoltan loves his work and being in the field with him, but with cancer on the table, Hatfield was unsure of what to do. He asked the vet what would be best for Zoltan.
“‘I don’t want my dog to be in pain. I don’t want him to be suffering,’” Hatfield recalled telling the vet. “Her response was, ‘It is very important for us to keep this dog’s lifestyle and behaviors the same. So we want him to work through this.’”
Zoltan was put on a 19-week chemotherapy regimen — given intravenously and in pill form — and he worked all but one day until the cancer was officially in remission May 31.
By Sept. 18, the lymphoma had returned. And just as he did earlier this year, Zoltan is undergoing chemotherapy. And he shows no signs of slowing down.
“He’s running around the house like a superball,” Hatfield said. “Bouncing off the walls at work. He wants to go, go, go.”
Lancaster K-9 Unit
The Lancaster K-9 Unit dogs patrol with officers across the county, sniffing out drugs and bombs in a variety of often-hostile situations. Hatfield said the dogs are fearless, and deploying one of them in a dangerous situation, such as an armed standoff, can potentially save the lives of officers and suspects.
“We’re saving all these officers the risk of getting injured and or killed by going into this building,” Hatfield said. “And we’re doing it faster. And we’re saving, potentially, the citizens. Even though he’s a suspect, he’s still a citizen.”
Hatfield said the K-9 Unit is involved in at least two or three drug seizures a week in the county, and they accomplish tasks officers alone cannot.
Two months ago, Zoltan was involved in the search of a storage facility that reeked of marijuana. Instead of officers having to issue warrants for each unit in the complex until they could find where the smell was coming from, which no judge in the county would permit, the department unleashed Zoltan. He found the correct unit within minutes, resulting in charges against the owner.
Zoltan was brought on to a state police team a few years ago during a narcotics bust that resulted in him finding a half kilogram of cocaine in Lancaster Township. He has apprehended multiple suspects who were trying to get away from police and helped to track missing people.
The department works with a local agency to source their dogs from overseas, where they have long histories of being bred as work animals. Zoltan is from Hungary and is named after the founder and rhythm guitarist of the heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch, Zoltan Bathory, a favorite of Hatfield’s.
Zoltan is Hatfield’s first work dog, having joined the K-9 Unit after 12 years with the department. He was Hatfield’s first choice from the litter offered to the department, and he was eager to work with Zoltan because of his size, temperament and steady attitude.
“He just showed no fear,” Hatfield said. “He had everything that I was looking for.”
Hatfield and Zoltan went through four weeks of rigorous training together, from the time Zoltan was 15 months old. One of the biggest challenges, Hatfield said, was that he and Zoltan each had alpha dog attitudes. Convincing Zoltan to obey him was difficult at first, but now he understands who gives the orders.
Playing with a rope toy outside the city police department’s Chestnut Street headquarters, Zoltan was poised for each of Hatfield’s commands. Hatfield yelled in Czech, telling Zoltan when to retrieve, leave or hold the play rope.
Zoltan jittered with excitement, quietly whining, waiting for Hatfield’s next command. When he completed his tasks, he ran back to Hatfield for a playful tug of war, effusive praise and head pats.
The police K-9 and horse-mounted units are both funded by donors. Hatfield said many people give after they’ve seen the animals in action.
“Everybody loves the horses and the dogs,” Hatfield said, laughing. “They could care less about the handler or the rider.”
Zoltan at home
At home, Hatfield said Zoltan has been getting special privileges since his cancer diagnosis. He has gotten table food for the first time, has been allowed to sleep in the bed with Hatfield’s fiancee and creeps onto the furniture when Hatfield isn’t looking. Hatfield tried to stop Zoltan from forming these habits, but between the cancer diagnosis and a fiancee who dotes on the dog, it’s not likely to stop.
Zoltan is scheduled to complete chemotherapy by the end of January. Until then, he will continue to work full shifts. Hatfield said he seems chipper after chemo treatments, and some of the handlers say he is the second hardest biter in their training exercises, despite being the oldest on the team.
Hatfield said dogs usually last five years on the team, and from there they assess year after year. Zoltan, after hitting his seventh year, has not slowed.
“He’s ready to go to work,” Hatfield said. “And the supervisors know, as long as he’s ready to go, I’m going to be bringing him to work.”
To learn more about the Lancaster Bureau of Police’s K-9 and mounted units, visit their website at lanc.news/K-9Unit
(c)2023 LNP (Lancaster, Pa.)
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