The importance of police dogs and the role they play in keeping American communities safe is not often taken for granted, but a new report suggests officials may need to reevaluate how they keep four-legged officers safe from a preventable tragedy.
This year, at least 12 K-9 officers have died after being left in vehicles that reached deadly temperatures— matching the record set last year, according to records kept by PETA.
“The number might be higher, but it’s already broken last year’s record — probably because six of those dogs were killed in one incident,” Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of cruelty investigations at PETA, told InsideEdition.com.
In the July 8 incident, six crated German shepherds and Belgian Malinois were put in an air-conditioned van as their kennels were cleaned by employees at Academi Training in Moyock, N.C., according to reports.
But when the dogs were checked on 35 minutes later, they were all dead. The air conditioning in the van had apparently failed and the dogs died from the heat, which had reached 90 degrees outside that day, officials said.
“All of us have gotten into a parked car during the summer, and we know what that feels like,” Nachminovitch said. “The thing with dogs is, they’re not physiologically capable of sweating. All they can do to try to cool themselves is pant. That’s not an effective way of cooling their bodies.”
What follows, when a dog is left in such a state, is a painful and slow death.
“It’s agonizing; they lose control of their bladders, they vomit blood. They cook from the inside out,” Nachminovitch said. “They bleed spontaneously from the skin. Their kidneys and livers fail. Their hearts stop. Fluid builds up in the lungs. While the car heats up very quickly, they suffer greatly before they die.”
An investigation into the July 8 incident determined it to be accidental, but two employees who handled the dogs were reportedly fired for violating a rule that determined only four dogs at a time can be taken out of a kennel.
Their manager and the program director were fired as well.
That incident was one of eight in which a dozen dogs lost their lives as a result of being left in vehicles, according to media analyzed and referenced by PETA.
“These things don’t happen on purpose,” Nachminovitch said. “I have no doubt the people responsible for those accidents are never the same thereafter. These dogs are highly intelligent, depended upon and valued… We want governments and government officials to take these seriously enough to put in place preventative systems.”
Advancements in heat-alert systems available to police departments make it possible to avoid such tragedies entirely, authorities said.
Kyle Heyen, a former police officer and K-9 handler who now serves as a consultant on police dog issues, said systems to keep the animals safe while serving and protecting are not always a priority.
“A lot of departments don’t think about it to begin with, and then something happens and they start to blink a bit, and they go, ‘Oh, maybe we should think about that,’” Heyen, director of Detector Dogs International, Inc., told InsideEdition.com. “Budgets get so tight, [they think] ‘How are we going to get the funding to pay for those devices?'"
Systems on the market range from $500 to $1,500.
One system, the AceK9’s Hot-N-Pop Pro, monitors temperature sensors and vehicle battery voltage, providing the information on a display. If conditions are such that an alarm needs to be sounded, the unit activates an SOS horn honk signal, siren, light-bar activation as well as opens two windows.
That system costs $1,299, officials said. The cost of bringing a K-9 officer onto a force varies, but experts estimate it to be at least $14,000.
“It’s definitely cheap insurance, and it’s humane,” Heyen said of the systems available. “We all know if ‘John Citizen’ has a dog in his vehicle and windows are rolled up and it gets too hot, people call it in. Animal Control is probably going to write him a ticket — if the dog’s alive — so law enforcement can’t be held to a lower standard.”
In raising awareness of the issue, PETA hopes to not raise the punishment for such incidents, but show people what can be done to prevent tragedies from occurring in the first place, Nachminovitch said.
“This is an issue where speaking up can very, very well make a difference,” she said. “It’s important for people to keep in mind that dropping a line, making a phone call [asking] local law enforcement agencies if they have these systems — that can make a difference. It’s taxpayer funds. It’s not small potatoes.”
Heyen agreed, saying that looking out for the dog in the car is as significant in its overall well-being as its time outside of the car.
“I’d speak to dog handlers, and when training them I’d say, ‘You've got to keep an eye on them; you’ve gotta work them, but you can’t work them too much,” he said. “Dogs in law enforcement, their drives are high. Literally like a horse, they will run themselves to death.
"You’ve got to know [when to say], 'No we cannot do this, we have to stop and we have to take a break.’ Pay attention and prevent [tragedies from occurring]. It’s a lot less to prevent than to try and replace or fix.”