According to People Magazine, this has not been a good summer for police dogs. The website reported yesterday that in the last five weeks, four of the dogs have died nationwide — not in the line of duty, but from being left in hot cars by their own handlers.
We’ve already reported on one of them: Mason, a K-9 officer in the police department of Gulf Shore, Alabama, died last month when his handler, Corporal Josh Coleman, left him in the back of a cruiser. At first it looked like there would be no consequences for Coleman, but public outcry forced authorities to call him before a Grand Jury.
However, Mason wasn’t unique. People reports on three other cases in a little over a month:
- June 30: Nitro, a K9 officer in Stockton, California died when the air conditioning in his car failed. At the time, his handler was assisting with an arrest and crowd control efforts.
- July 10: Baston, a 7-year-old German Shepherd for Savannah State University, died when his handler forgot him in the car while he ate dinner in his house. When the unnamed handler went back to the car three to four hours later, Baston was already dead.
- July 16: A K9 for the Conyers, Georgia, PD named Zane died when his handler, Corporal Jerahmy Williams left him in the car for 10 hours. Williams said that he had just come off a 12-hour shift. Feeling ill, he went straight home and fell asleep. Williams has been placed on paid leave pending investigation.
The death of Nitro seems to have been due more to a technical failure than to negligence, but it seems clear that it’s all too easy for police officers to forget their dogs, with fatal consequences. Stockton, at least, is trying to address the problem in the wake of Nitro’s death. People quotes spokesman Joe Silva on the first steps: “Handlers have been directed to leave their K9 partners at home on days the weather forecast calls for 100 degrees or more, until new vehicles are put into service,” he said.
From Silva also comes some wisdom about dogs and heat in general that everyone — police or otherwise — should take to heart: “Everyone needs to remember that dogs are more vulnerable to high temperatures than people,” Silva said. “Animals can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in just 15 minutes.”
It’s good to see that level of awareness from Stockton’s representatives, but other departments seem to be stymied by the problem. People notes that Georgia, site of two of the deaths, has no laws against officers keeping their dogs in their cars. In fact, television station WTOC quoted Jeff Schettler, CEO of Georgia K-9 National Training Center, saying that such a law would be impossible and counter-productive because officers need to be able to get in and out of their cars easily and quickly. “If there are going to be laws, it should be more about safety equipment for heat injuries for the dogs, not necessarily that dogs cannot be kept in their cars,” said Schettler.”If the heat in the car rose too high, we could get a signal from a pager and an alarm center would go off.”
Schlettler also echoes the Stockton spokesman in saying that there needs to be more education about the risks of heat to dogs. “What we have to do is mandate that there is training for every handler on health and welfare,” he told WTOC.
Both sound like excellent ideas, but they cost money, which makes them unlikely for many departments. Punishment probably isn’t the answer in most cases, since there seems to be little malice at work, only ignorance. It’s clear, though, that the status quo puts a lot of dogs at risk for no reason. Hopefully, police departments will start figuring out better ways to take care of their K9 partners.