How Police Agencies Can Help Prevent K-9 Duty Deaths

A police K-9 is not just a member of the department—they are also a family member of the handler. Handlers and their K-9 partners basically spend their lives together—off duty and on—for many years. Most handlers keep their dogs after the animal is retired from active duty. The bond between a handler and "man's best friend" is truly unique. When a police dog dies in the line of duty, the emotional impact is just as difficult—albeit decidedly different—as when a human partner is killed.

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Boston Police Department K-9 "Rush" died on October 1st as a result of exposure to chemicals in late September. Rush and his handler were clearing a building after responding to reports of a burglary in progress, according to ODMP. During the search, Rush ingested—or inhaled—toxic chemicals that were present in the building. Rush then went into respiratory distress. Rush died at a veterinary hospital eight days after the incident.

K-9 "Fang"—of the Jacksonville (FL) Sheriff's Office was fatally shot the previous day—September 30. The three-year-old German Shepard was killed while attempting to apprehend an armed carjacking suspect.

On September 1, Refugio County (TX) Sheriff's Office lost two treasured partners—K-9 "Grunt" and K-9 "Nell"—when both dogs were strangled to death by a suspect they were tracking after 16 illegal immigrants fled into a marsh near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Nell and Grunt—who were trained to track at-risk missing persons—were let off leash as deputies followed them on horseback, according to ODMP. The dogs—not trained to bite, but to track and find people—reportedly located a suspect. Deputies entered the brush and took the subject into custody. Nell and Grunt were found with their tracking collars twisted tightly around their necks.

That's four police K-9 fatalities in one calendar month.

So far in 2018, ODMP has recorded 21 K-9 duty deaths. Four have been fatally shot. One was ejected from a patrol vehicle involved in a collision. Others have been struck by vehicles.

Two K-9s died in "hot cars" this year.

On July 28, K-9 "Turbo"—of the Columbia (SC) Police Department—was euthanized as the result of heat exhaustion two days earlier. Turbo had been left in a police vehicle with its air conditioner on and its windows rolled down, but when the handler returned to the car, Turbo was showing signs of heat exhaustion.

Two days later, K-9 "Midas"—of the Hancock County (WV) Sheriff's Office—died from complications of heat exhaustion suffered after the air conditioning and "failsafe unit" (designed to roll down the windows and activate an alarm if the air conditioner stopped) failed to activate in a patrol vehicle.

Thankfully, "hot car" K-9 duty deaths are down this year. Eight K-9s died from heat exhaustion last year. Twelve dogs died this way in 2016.

Two is a hell of a lot better than eight or twelve—but two is too many.

Invaluable Assets

It can cost up to $10,000 to purchase a police K-9, and another $20,000 in initial training before the animal can be put out on patrol. Then there is the annual upkeep—food, shelter, veterinary care, continued training, and whatnot.

Big money.

However, one cannot place a dollar value on a police K-9—they embody the very definition of invaluable.

Police K-9s routinely help police officers return lost at-risk children to their homes. They find illegal narcotics. They sniff out hidden explosives. They apprehend fleeing fugitives.

Myriad law enforcement missions are accomplished with the assistance of a four-legged LEO.

For example, late last month, K-9 "Titan"—with the Pasco County (FL) Sheriff's Office—apprehended a man in a wooded area who had reportedly climbed into a second-story window, grabbed a child, and fled.

In May, K-9 "Rye"—with the West Covina (CA) Police Department—sniffed out 60 pounds of methamphetamine on his very first day on active duty.

There are countless other examples of K-9s—and their human handlers—fighting crime on America's streets.

They are very definition of invaluable.

Protecting K-9s

Police K-9s need human help in protecting them from injury and/or death. This help primarily comes from the K-9 handler, but the department can have an enormous impact on K-9 safety.

For starters, departments can make budget dollars available for K-9 vests. Most officers don't have the resources necessary to purchase a bullet/stab resistant vest for their K-9 partners, so it should be an accepted related cost for the agency to fund those purchases.

If your department simply cannot make those funds available, check out Project Paws Alive, a 501(c) non-profit organization that helps to fund the purchase of K-9 vests. They also help agencies obtain K-9 first aid kits, cooling vests, and oxygen masks, and patrol vehicle heat alarms.

Speaking of vehicle heat alarms, the National Police Dog Foundation has a program that agencies can turn to for help in receiving grants for K-9 vehicle heat alarms.

SIDEBAR: The National Police Dog Foundation has myriad resources to help agencies start and maintain an excellent K-9 Unit—from purchasing and training the dog to providing ongoing veterinary care. Civilians accidentally coming across this column are encouraged to make a donation to this excellent organization.

Further, departments can equip K-9 handlers with Naloxone kits especially designed to save K-9s from accidental overdose due to exposure to heroin, fentanyl, or other opioids. In early August, a deputy with the Clackamas County (OR) Sheriff's Office helped save the life of K-9 "Abbie" after the dog was inadvertently exposed to heroin spilled from a container.

Finally, departments can help handlers by funding regular visits to the vet, purchasing high-quality food—ordinary 'kibble' is not sufficient for a working dog—and other seemingly "ordinary" expenses.

Ultimately, the health and welfare of a K-9 falls on the shoulders of the dog's handler, but those officers can use a little more help from the agency—and the community—they serve.

Family Members

The bond between a K-9 handler and "man's best friend" is truly unique.

A police K-9 is not just a member of the department—that dog is also a member of the handler's family.

Handlers and their K-9 partners basically spend their lives together—off duty and on—for many years.

Most handlers keep their dogs long after the animal is retired from active duty.

When a police dog dies in the line of duty, the emotional impact is just as difficult—albeit decidedly different—as when a human partner is killed.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the handlers who have lost their K-9 this year—and in years past.

This column is dedicated in honor of those fallen K-9s—and their handlers.

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