MURFREESBORO -- Seated with his back up against a concrete kennel stall at Williams Animal Hospital, Rutherford County Sheriff's K-9 Sgt. Lee Young gently strokes the snout of his K-9 partner, Ely.
I've had him save my life several times," said Young, who has worked with Ely for the past 18 months.
Ely, a Belgian Malinois, remains in critical condition at Williams Animal Hospital after collapsing in 90-degree heat while tracking a shooting suspect Sunday.
"The biggest concern right now is that he could start bleeding, and he's got some signs of hemorrhaging in his eye, and his platelets are low from the heat stress," said Jean LaValley, associate veterinarian at Williams Animal Hospital. "He's still kind of touch and go for the next day or two.
"He's lost the lining of his intestines. Basically the temperature got too high, and the cells start dying off. They lose their ability to prevent infection from the gut. He was running a fever (Monday) but that is back under control. He's not dehydrated anymore, and his kidneys are doing better."
Four tracking dogs -- Ely and two other K-9s with Rutherford County Sheriff's Office and one with Murfreesboro City Police -- were called out Sunday to track two suspects in the shooting of Rachel Orman, 22. Orman was treated at Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and released Sunday evening.
Four dogs involved in tracking the suspects were rotated out due to the extreme heat and humidity. But Ely wasn't able to tolerate the temperatures after just 20 minutes on the track, Young said.
"About 300 yards into the track -- they pull like sled dogs, and you have to hold them back -- I took him off the lead and let him go at his own pace," Young recalled. "He started to have problems walking and we made it back to where we crossed the fence."
Then Young and other deputies picked up Ely and carried him to a hayfield where the dog received emergency medical treatment.
"They IV'd the dog, and we started watering him down, icing him, and called one of the vets (from Williams) who came to the scene, and here's where we ended up," Young said, who sat with his K-9 partner for several hours on Tuesday morning.
Young said he'd never had any of the dogs he's worked with for the past 18 years to suffer like Ely has. A few weeks ago, Ely was treated for a mild heat incident, which made him more prone to have another one, LaValley said.
"The problem is, dogs like him will work and work and work until they drop. And that's essentially what he did. He kept working and his temperature was probably going up. Lee realized it and kept making him stop, giving him water. Then at some point, he couldn't keep going," LaValley said.
"(K-9 officers) will run themselves to death for you. That's what he's done. They like to catch bad guys as much as we do," Young said.
LaValley said most pets won't succumb to heat as quickly as Ely did. But there are symptoms of heat exhaustion.
"You look for open-mouth breathing, having a hard time holding onto their toys, the tongue hanging out super far. As they get hot, most dogs will stop. But if they think they have a job to do, and for some dogs, throwing a ball is a job," LaValley said. "But not all dogs stop.
"A lot of dogs have heart, and they'll keep pushing and pushing and pushing and that's just the kind of dog Ely is."
After the incident with Ely, Sheriff Robert Arnold is looking at ways to keep the K-9 officers safe during hotter months.
"We're already in the works to find funding for cooling vests and ... cooling systems in the cars. But it may be to the point now that we'll need another dog," said Young, who will get to keep Ely, even if the K-9 doesn't get back to active duty. "Will he ever be the dog that he was? Probably not. We don't know what his future's gonna look like."