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6 ways to protect your K-9s on the job

From vet visits to ballistic vests and drug detection tools, here’s how to promote the health and safety of your four-legged officers

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Help your K-9 partner enjoy a long, healthy career and retirement with regular veterinary care, a good diet and special protection against threats like armed suspects and narcotics.

Sponsored by Smiths Detection

By Rachel Zoch for Police1 BrandFocus

K-9 officers are a vital part of many police agencies, assisting with suspect pursuits, narcotics investigations and much more. Caring for these animals requires more than the basics of looking after a family pet.

Here are six things you can do to promote the health and safety of your four-legged officers:

1. Get Regular Veterinary Care

While regular vet visits are a must for any working animal, they are especially important for police dogs. Basic K-9 care should include standard vaccinations and flea/tick repellent, as well as specialty shots for risks like rattlesnake bites, depending on the threats in your community.

Officer Luis Galeana partners with K-9 Puskas in Santa Ana, California. Since Puskas was bitten by a rattlesnake, all of Santa Ana PD’s K-9s now get a rattlesnake shot as a precautionary measure, he says.

“I took him to the veterinarian in time and they were able to give an anti-venom shot” after the bite, Galeana said, “but that [preventative] anti-venom shot slows down the process and you get more time.”

Ask your vet what threats might apply in your area, and make the most of your K-9’s check-ups by asking questions so you know what to do in case of emergency:

  • How much time do I have if my dog is bitten by a rattlesnake? What should I do?
  • How much time do I have if my dog accidentally ingests any kind of narcotic? What are the signs? What should I do?

2. Take Precautions Against Narcotics Exposure

K-9s on the narcotics unit are especially at risk of life-threatening exposure to fentanyl, which can be deadly when inhaled, as well as other dangerous substances. Police dogs face the same hazards that human officers do when it comes to these drugs, and it’s important to take precautions.

Galeana recommends asking questions before deploying a K-9 if drugs are suspected to be present, such as:

  • What kind of drugs are we looking for?
  • Where are the drugs?

“I would even talk to the person that they’re arresting and explain, “Hey listen, if my dog ingests something or gets sick or anything, you’re gonna get charged with a crime,’” he said.

Watch for signs of drug exposure in K-9s on scene, including rapid blinking and head shaking. The antidote naloxone works for dogs as well as for humans. Ask your department to provide naloxone kits, and make sure you know how to administer it.

Some departments no longer field test drugs or unidentified substances to reduce exposure risk. Handheld detection tools like the ACE-ID from Smiths Detection can bridge the gap. These devices can definitively identify fentanyl and other dangerous substances in less than a minute without requiring dangerous handling by officers or sniffing by K-9s.

3. Provide Ballistic Protection

K-9s also face the same gunshot risks as their human counterparts. For K-9s involved in suspect pursuits or in situations where suspects are known to be armed, outfitting your K-9 with a ballistic vest can be a literal lifesaver.

Most K-9 ballistic vests protect the dog’s torso and slip on over the head like a harness. Santa Ana PD has a handful of these vests that were donated by concerned citizens.

“God bless people – they love animals, and they want our dogs to be safe,” Galeana said. “The only thing with those vests is that they’re not breathable, so they will keep the dog very, very hot.”

The vests are also heavy and cumbersome for the dogs, so Galeana and his colleagues use them sparingly. They incorporate the vests when training their K-9s to acclimate them to the added weight and heat, but only use them in the field if it’s likely the K-9 will encounter an armed suspect.

4. Perform Regular Physical Inspections

It’s easy to think you’re covered with the three areas described above, but Galeana recommends frequent physical inspection to keep a small injury, like a thorn in the paw, from becoming a major problem.

“When we give them baths, we always feel for lumps or any abnormal mass in their bodies,” he said, “and then if they do have one then we can address it with the veterinarian. It’s all about prevention.”

Galeana recommends incorporating a nose-to-toes inspection into your K-9 care regular routine – daily brushing to cut down on shedding and monthly baths to keep the dog clean without drying out its skin. Be sure to pay special attention to their paws, ears and eyes.

You can also brush your K-9’s teeth to fight “puppy breath” and keep its mouth and teeth in good shape.

“Some guys think I overdo it, but I brush my dog’s teeth once a week to help with plaque,” he said.

Bacterial infections from periodontal disease can flow into the bloodstream and damage vital organs, so a clean mouth is essential.

5. Provide Proper Nutrition

Think of your K-9s as performance athletes. Police dogs are always running and jumping, and hip dysplasia is a common problem for German shepherds, a popular breed in law enforcement. A human athlete wouldn’t perform well eating junk food, and neither does your K-9. Look for high-quality food and supplements that meet their nutritional needs with real ingredients like chicken or beef, and avoid grain fillers like cornmeal.

“We try to preserve our dogs and keep them healthy by feeding them correctly with the right food,” said Galeana. “They have a tough job, it’s very demanding, and we want to give them a really healthy retirement. We give our dogs an extra glucosamine pill with their food to help with their joints so that when they’re done with this job, they can be healthy, pain-free and injury-free.”

6. Keep Your K-9 Cool and Hydrated

Dogs don’t sweat (they cool off by panting), and we’ve all heard the warnings about the dangers of leaving kids and pets in hot cars – so it’s critical to provide climate control for your K-9 in the cruiser, especially during the summer. A variety of special air conditioning systems and alarms are available to keep the vehicle’s interior cool when parked and to alert the officer if the temperature reaches a certain level.

“If my car ever gets above 90 degrees, the windows on the back roll down automatically,” said Galeana. “There’s an internal fan that turns on to circulate air, and then my lights and horn start blaring and honking so it’s very obvious something’s wrong.”

All the department’s K-9 vehicles come with rear air conditioning for the dogs, he says, and the officers stay close by so they can take care of the dog in case something goes wrong.

Also be sure to provide water, as this will keep your K-9 hydrated and help with cooling.

By following the six steps described above, you can help your K-9 partner enjoy a long, healthy career and retirement.