Rarely do dogs show their true colors during a veterinary hospital visit.  Outgoing dogs may become timid, gentle dogs sometimes growl or nip, and normally obedient dogs frequently feign deafness (one of the reasons I rarely request anything from my patients before offering them a treat-being tolerant of me and what I’m doing with them is a trick in and of itself). This out of character behavior is why it’s always so fun for me to catch a glimpse of my patients’ genuine personalities when in their “own element.”  Never has this been truer than with Axel, a five-year-old Belgian Malinois.  Not only is Axel a beloved family member, he is also an employee of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.  He and his best buddy Sheriff Adrian Mancilla have been partners for approximately two years.  I first met Axel approximately nine months ago when he was a 50 pound dog living in what should have been a 65 pound body. Adrian reported that, although Axel’s appetite and enthusiasm seemed normal, he had been vomiting a few times weekly.  Diagnostic tests revealed that the cause of Axel’s vomiting and dramatic weight loss was inflammatory bowel disease, a syndrome in which noncancerous inflammatory cells infiltrate the lining of the intestines. 

© Susannah Kay 2010

Fortunately Axel has responded beautifully to a combination of medication and a novel protein diet.  He’s regained his missing 15 pounds and is back in full force on the force!  I recently had the thrill of witnessing this first hand while attending a competition for law enforcement dogs from all over California.  The first leg of the competition was basic obedience, followed by a rather daunting agility course including elements such as ten-foot vertical fence. Axel was a superstar and endeared himself to the spectators when, upon being released from the last agility element, he literally jumped into Adrian’s arms for a bear hug- his reward for a job well done!  

The “box search” was the third phase of the competition. Multiple closed containers resembling large trash dumpsters were scattered around a field. Only one contained a person sitting silently.  The challenge for the dog was to use his nose to identify the occupied box and then alert his partner in the shortest time possible.  Most of the dogs cruised the field checking out multiple containers before honing in on the correct one.  Not Axel- he apparently picked up the scent before Adrian released him and made a beeline (with the winning time) to the occupied box.    

© Susannah Kay 2010

The “protection phase” of the competition was the grand finale.  The dogs were required to pursue and subdue several “agitators.”  In the process, they were challenged to ignore a “dummy agitator,” jump through a screen of spraying water while in pursuit, and voluntarily release their hold on one agitator in order to subdue a second agitator (who happened to be attacking the dog’s partner).  Only a few dogs were successful with all three challenges and, you guessed it- Axel was one of them. 

© Susannah Kay 2010

Not only did Axel win the box search and protection phase of the competition, he won the entire competition’s top dog honors, known as the Maverick Award.  I feel enormously proud for Adrian and Axel. What a team- they share an indescribable bond whether on and off duty.  I felt privileged to watch them compete, and it was so thrilling to watch my patient doing exactly what his body and personality were designed to do- something I could never have fully imagined in the confines of my hospital exam room. 

p.s. Something only a veterinarian would notice- Axel was the only neutered dog in the competition, yet he was the top performer.  Hmm, food for thought…………… 

How does your dog’s behavior in a veterinary hospital setting compare to his behavior in his own surroundings?

Now, here’s wishing you and your four-legged best friend a most enjoyable and safe summer! 

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life

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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.

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5 Comments on “Axel

  1. Axel was neutered because he had a retained testicle. Although capable of breeding, this is a potentially inherited trait- the reason dogs with retained testicles should not be used for breeding.

  2. I really enjoyed this, up until the editorial P.S.

    Surely, as a veterinarian, you are aware of the ever-increasing body of knowledge which suggests neutering is not necessarily the healthiest or best option for dogs.

    As a dog fancier, I can only hope that – provided there is nothing in his pedigree or his medical status which would make it a poor idea – Axel was collected before he was castrated. Your appreciation of this animal is apparent. Where, exactly, do you think the next Axel will come from if all the Axels are rendered incapable of reproduction?

  3. I think rarely do we witness such a relationship as between K9 officer and their human handler/partner. I certainly admire those who take that responsibility on. As for getting out of the office to see how the dogs perform in their environment, we all could benefit from observing outside of the office. Thank you.

  4. I used to have a routine for my late beloved schnauzer mix, Missy. She hated being handled, but for some reason when I wasn’t in the room she generally put up less of a fuss. (I did mock vet exams with her at home daily for a few weeks before her annuals) She had to see me leave the waiting room for this to work, and I had to be sure not to say anything out loud while she was in the exam room. When the “big dog” of the family was nearby she was suddenly much braver!

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