Members of the Chester County Sheriff’s Office present plaques to doctors at Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern.

WEST CHESTER — A group of doctors at Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern received an unexpected tribute from the Chester County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, April 26 – a gesture with unlikely ties to a 2014 firebombing.

The staff at the emergency and critical-care facility was poised to host a first-aid symposium for a group of K-9 handlers participating in the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 patrol and narcotics training course. But first, Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh and members of the K-9 Unit had other plans.

The Sheriff’s Office owed a debt of gratitude to the doctors, which developed in the aftermath of a 2014 arson investigation in Norristown. Among the first-responders was John “J.D.’”DiBuonaventuro, who was deputized in 2012 with Leo as a K-9 arson investigation team for the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.

DiBuonaventuro explained that the relationship between Hope Veterinary Specialists and the Chester County Sheriff’s Office began when Leo developed a persistent, puzzling infection after responding to the arson call. DiBuonaventuro’s regular vet eventually referred the pair to the Hope specialists.

Leo was subsequently diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder. Research suggested the condition could be aggravated by the kinds of toxins the dog would have encountered at an arson site, DiBuonaventuro said.

He added that under the care of Dr. Kevin Shanley, Leo made a full recovery and recently earned “a perfect bill of health.” When DiBuonaventuro asked for the bill, he was told that there wouldn’t be one. Why? “The practice valued the community service the dogs provided,” DiBuonaventuro recalled being told. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Moreover, the doctors told DiBuonaventuro said they would be happy to provide trauma service to any of the K-9s, and they also offered to present the first-aid component to the certification program that the Sheriff’s Office debuted this past winter. Since then, two other K-9s – Jessie and Afra – have benefitted from the doctors’ critical-care expertise.

On Wednesday, Welsh and Lt. Harry McKinney, who heads the K-9 Unit, memorialized those interventions with four plaques, each of which featured words of appreciation, a sheriff’s badge, insignia and photos of the unit’s 10 dogs. Three of the K-9 teams attended the presentation: Deputy Sheriff Ryan Barr and Murphy, Deputy Sheriff Dan McCole and Nero, and Deputy Sheriff Mike Sarro and Dexter.

Both Welsh and McKinney praised the doctors’ skills and compassion.

“These folks have been amazing,” Welsh said of the doctors and staff. “Just like these wonderful dogs become part of their handlers’ family, we feel like family here.”

As the doctors accepted the plaques, they insisted they were getting the better reward.

“Don’t thank us; this is our pleasure,” said Dr. Dennis Burkett.

Shanley agreed. “This is like the perfect symbiotic relationship,” he said. “We’re thrilled to work with these dogs, and I sleep better at night, knowing I helped contribute to such a great public service.”

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