COVINGTON - Because dogs can only cool themselves by panting and by sweating through their paw pads, a closed, hot car can be like an oven, allowing little ventilation and suffocating heat.
The recent death of a Conyers K-9 service dog, left for hours in a hot car, has served as a stark reminder to police and civilians that a dog can die of heat exhaustion if left in a car on a hot summer day in less than 15 minutes.
“Imagine standing outside in a fur coat,” said Holly Cripps, executive director of We Ride to Provide, “that’s what a dog is doing.”
According to the PETA web site (www.peta.org), temperatures inside a car on a mild 73-degree day can reach 120-degrees in 30 minutes; on days like those metro Atlanta experienced last week, where temperatures routinely hit the high 90s, the interior of a car can reach 160-degrees in less than 10 minutes. The incident in Conyers is not the only heat-related death of a K-9 service dog. According to PETA, there have been at least 20 K-9 deaths after being left in patrol cars on hot days.
Most people don’t routinely travel with their dog in the car. A K-9 service dog is with its handler all the time, said Sgt. Gene Nuqui of the Covington Police Department. “I handle a lot of other calls that don’t require a K-9—say a domestic dispute or if there’s a traffic accident. You don’t bring a dog in there.”
In situations like that, he said, the dog remains in the car, which is left on with the air conditioners running. Most of the K-9 units in Covington, Porterdale and Newton County have temperature monitors, sophisticated systems that track temperature within the vehicle and set off alarms, turn on fans and lower windows if the temperature reaches a certain level. Newer versions also page the officer, warning them of the danger to the dog.
But even with the air conditioning and the temperature monitors, Nuqui said, he keeps a close eye on his dog to make sure it is not suffering from the heat. “As far as caring for them in the heat, it’s a lot of common sense and keeping an eye on them, just like you would do with a person you work with.”
Nuqui said that part of the initial training for K-9 handlers includes first aid for the dog. Corp. Wesley Atha of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office is the supervisor of the K-9 units.
The responsibility of caring for the dog is with the handler, he said. “Things happen and it’s tragic. But the first step is not overworking a dog. Every dog is different, just as every person is different.”
He said that the sheriff’s office has three blood hounds and a German shepherd, who will soon retire. The bloodhounds track humans—missing children, a wandering elderly person or a suspect who runs during a routine traffic stop. When outside temperatures are hot, handlers must decide whether or not its safe for the dog to track. “If it’s a missing person, they’re tracking no matter how hot it is,” he said. “If we have a suspect who runs during a routine traffic stop, and if it’s hot outside, we’re not tracking.”
The rule of thumb, he said, is not to risk the life of the dog if the public isn’t in danger.
He said that another precaution the sheriff’s office takes is to do regular inspections and maintenance on the officer’s vehicles.
“If there’s any chance the vehicle’s air conditioning isn’t working properly, they go home immediately and they don’t come back until the vehicle up and running again,” Atha said.
Porterdale Police Chief Jason Cripps said there’s no magic involved in caring for a canine partner. “When she’s in the car, I leave the car running.”
Cripps said if he is going to be in his office working for a while, the dog is kept in a portable kennel.
“When you get home, you can’t just unrobe. You have to take care of your partner,” he said. The dog is kenneled, given cool water, and when appropriate, hosed down with cool water.
“The dog is your partner and it’s your responsibility to take care of that animal,” he said. “If you do it right, if you put your heart and soul into it, the dog will be fine.”
Cripps’ wife, Holly, said that if the dog has to be outside “in this nonsense, she has a galvanized tub in her kennel. We hose down her chest and feet.”
Don’t, she said, hose the dog’s entire body down. The water traps the heat, making it hard for the dog to cool down. Instead, apply cool water to areas like the paw pads or chest, where there’s little hair.
Handlers are trained to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion, which can include excessive thirst, thick saliva, heavy panting, lethargy, rapid heartbeat, vomiting, and lack of coordination.
“You can actually feel the inside of the gums, and if they have a tacky feeling to it, [the dog is] overheated,” said Atha. “You have to get them hydrated.”
We Ride to Provide has donated first aid kits to K-9 units around the world. According to Holly Cripps, the kits have been responsible for saving the lives of four working police dogs—two in Georgia. The kit contains alcohol, which can be applied to the dog’s paw pads and chest to cool them down. It also contains peroxide, anti-biotic ointment, antihistamines, vet wrap, pads, diapers, and a digital thermometer. And in honor of Spartacus, a K-9 service dog from Woodstock, Ga., who died of heat exhaustion in 2013, the kit contains a sticker that asks, “Where is my K-9?”
“One of the stickers goes in every kit that goes out,” Holly said.
She said there is always an increase in requests for first aid kits and stickers when a dog is saved by the kit, or when one dies. “It brings awareness to the issue,” she said.
For more information on how to assemble a first aid kit for a canine companion, visit the PETA web site at http://www.peta.org/living/companion-animals/create-canine-first-aid-kit/.