How to help your K9 beat the heat... A cautionary tail

Sept. 17, 2015
One officer’s close-call and the new products designed to prevent deaths

Any dog owner knows that their K9 lives to please. For a “working dog” this is perhaps even truer. These dogs are very skillfully trained, they are well-cared for, and they are on a mission day in and day out. If only everyone could have that sense of eagerness with each day on the job.

In the world of these public safety professionals—like any other—safety is crucial. We know these dogs often go up again the worst of the worst. They are outfitted with ballistic vests and are sometimes first to discover hazardous material or dangerous offenders. Still, one of the biggest threats to a K9’s health and wellbeing remains something so deceptively simple: high temperatures.

Doin’ what they love

Sgt. Steve Guggiana was a handler for seven years with the City of Concord in Contra Costa County just 30 miles east of San Francisco. While 50-degree, foggy weather is not unusual for San Francisco in the summer, temps in nearby cities like Concord often hike up to and over 100 degrees. Guggiana says their police dogs work off some very fundamental drives, and therefore they are always at risk. They work to hunt and to please a handler who treats them well, regardless of how they feel. He says, “You can’t leave the decision [to slow down or quit working] to the dog. It’s like letting your three-year-old child decide when to stop eating ice cream. It’s going to be too late. And the consequences can by way more serious.

“I’m sure handlers in Arizona or Alaska would laugh at our weather ‘extremes’, but to some degree dogs are like humans—we can acclimate to extremes, but it takes time and often some specialized equipment for those specific environments. In extreme environments this will include booties to protect paws and goggles for the eyes.”

Guggiana says the patrol vehicle is still the riskiest place for dogs. “Heat injuries, including death, tend to occur when left in a confined space, such as a car, for too long.”

Should an A/C unit malfunction and stop working on a hot day, the temperature inside a car climbs and the dog gets hotter and hotter. A handler may come back and discover his partner is dead or dying. A tragedy can happen so fast.

Almost too late

Ken Ballinger knows just how terrifying this situation can be. The second-generation handler grew up loving dogs and watching his deputy sheriff father train K9s. Eventually he became a trainer, and then an administrator, himself. Ballinger retired a year ago, after a little more than 23 years working with K9s.

But a year before he retired, Ballinger and his dog Blitz took part in a large-scale integrated training exercise involving the K9 unit, SWAT teams and Special Forces military group in Boston. It was an unusually hot day, and Ballinger had guys doing checks every 15, 20 minutes to make sure the cars were running properly. He returned (ironically) from a morning medical seminar when he realized something wasn’t quite right.

“When I opened my cruiser door my car was running like it should have been, but I noticed an abnormally hot blast of air. The next thing in that millisecond that stuck in my head was I didn’t hear the thump of my dog’s tail hitting the cage. Then I remember a super high-pitched whistling…and I realized that my air conditioning had shut down, and that my dog was in there and he was in a very bad way,” says Ballinger.

Luckily, the right people and protocols were in place: medics as well as vets were on-scene due to the nature of the day’s exercises. They raced Blitz in a [human] ambulance to a well-known veterinary clinic. During the high-speed, bumpy drive SWAT team medics placed lines in the much fatigued dog to try to sustain him.

It was touch and go for a while. Blitz was in a coma. He was blind, deaf and had suffered organ failure. However, six days later—luckily—he was able to stand up on his own and walk.

“Even though we had all the existing technologies and protocols and safeties in place, it still allowed for the situation to occur,” says Ballinger. “In my dad’s and my 35-plus years of K9 experience we had never had that happen before to one of our dogs, either on the training field or in a cruiser.”

Ground zero for distress

“Unfortunately, law enforcement loses dogs to heat every year,” says Sgt. Ron Baldal, founder of CoolCop, a company that manufactures heat management devices for inside cars. A number of products on the market today help keep K9s from overheating.

Most vehicles were not designed to house working dogs and do not have rear passenger A/C vents. CoolCop Body Armor Air Conditioning has been around since 2000. This device redirects vehicle air conditioning behind an officer’s body armor where the A/C can’t reach. It works well with kennel fans and temperature monitoring alarms. The K9 model has also been used for cooling and heat in prisoner transfer vans.

“A few years later, I learned K9 officers were using it to cool their police dog kennels, so I developed a specific model I called ‘CoolK9’,” says Baldal, who is also a retired sergeant with the San Jose PD.

Baldal says they are coming out with a new model that is built to fit the new Ford Explorer Interceptor. He maintains the solution is cost-effective. “Departments may incur bad publicity, lawsuits, and even criminal charges of personnel for animal cruelty if heat issues are not addressed. K9 performance is paramount when seeking a dangerous criminal; anything to help your dog stay at top performance is a critical tool of success.”

Another company, Monnit, released its first temperature monitoring solution in 2010. This product detects whether a vehicle is getting too warm and alerts officers immediately via text message or call. The wireless temp sensors are very small (about one inch by one inch) and can be mounted directly to the dog’s collar. Multiple sensors and gateways can be set up on an account (with up to 100 wireless sensors per gateway).

“The first solution consisted of temperature sensors that wirelessly communicated with a USB gateway to transmit sensor data to the iMonnit online monitoring software,” says Matt Moulton, Monnit’s marketing manager. For example, if a temperature sensor detects conditions above the set limit (e.g. 85 degrees) the system will send a text message to the user’s cellphone. It can also be connected to a fan to control the device.

Monnit now has more than 48 different types of wireless sensors, wireless controls and gateways for different connectivity options. These sensors and gateways connect remotely to the iMonnit online monitoring software via cell, wired LAN or Wi-Fi connections; and software can be accepted from any Internet-enabled device like a tablet or smartphone. They have partnered with major cell carriers to offer packages at a low cost.

Monitoring from the inside-out

Another type of monitoring technology gives handlers the ability to keep track of a dog’s internal temperature, rather than ambient conditions.

At the time of the incident with Blitz, Ballinger was a major in charge of 120 other guys. The experience was nearly devastating on a personal level. But as an administrator, Ballinger says the harrowing experience left him wanting to ensure it never happened again. Soon afterwards he began working with the company Blueforce Development to create a product that would work to keep dogs like Blitz safer on the job.

“We went back to vets and asked, ‘What’s the most telling marker (of K9 distress)?’ And they said, ‘We want temp first…not only for the obvious reason, like the incident with Blitz, but also for early detection of infection,” says Ballinger. He encourages handlers to be in tune with their dogs’ natural temperatures and rhythms when they are well so they are more aware if something is ‘off’.

They came up with a surgically implanted device (this takes about 20 minute and the device is no larger than the tip of your pinky finger). The device sends data on the dog’s internal body temperate to a small receiver attached to the animal’s protective gear. If the temperature falls below or exceeds the number pre-set by the handler, they are rapidly notified. This is not like conventional chips used to ID lost dogs.

“What was supposed to be an hour meeting ended up as a ten-hour meeting at Blueforce Headquarters and the whole thing was born,” says Ballinger. It does more than warn a handler when a dog is overheating; it acts as a sort of thermostat. “Based on the conditions that day, month, week, or hour, in your cellphone you can set the threshold of when you want to get a test message” he says. Vets have recommended an internal temp “warning” number of 103 degrees.

“It allows you to set it where you want and that will trigger the warning system,” says Ballinger.
Should a handler miss the text message, supervisors will be notified (via text, vibration, e-mail, and ring tones). Think Facebook or other social media that shares information (photos, comments) selectively. “If you were the vet you could only see the health and wellness. If you were the sheriff of my agency you could see everything. It’s literally the swipe of a finger.” Warnings can only be shut off when one physically goes to check on a dog.

Ballinger says in his experience, high-risk events typically occur when there’s an interruption in the handler’s normal routine. And for LE, that’s just about all the time.

He calls the Blueforce solution the “modern Swiss Army knife of technology.” Ideally it will allow administrators to better monitor their K9s’ health and wellness, and ensure they are worked and trained with in proper and humane ways.

“It can happen to anyone”

Even without state-of-the-art tech one can make K9 monitoring a priority. “I would say redundancy, redundancy, redundancy,” says Ballinger. “I think it’s foolish to rely solely on one or the other—either protocol or technology—but I do think the combination of both [is effective].” Soon after he discovered Blitz immobile and struggling, another team member happened to have a frozen water bottle on-hand. Ballinger credits this seemingly simple thing with helping to stabilize his pup and quickly bring down his temp. It proves that even a little bit of preparedness can go a long way.
“Technology…is absolutely in renaissance time right now. One idea spins three more,” says Ballinger. “[Things like the Blueforce device and body cams] allow us to see into the future a little bit and be able to use our training, tech and tactics to prevent what otherwise would be a deadly situation.”

And keep in mind, never rule out a product that makes sense for your unit because of cost. “If it really is a financial big deal [to acquire effective solutions] then turn to the public. So many K9 units are fully funded through private donations it’s astounding,” says Guggiana.

Ballinger says accidents can happen to anyone. “We had every safeguard in place... I just remember that morning at 6:30 when it was already probably 87 degrees and we were doing this safety briefing and I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a SWAT guy; I don’t care if you’re a military guy; I don’t care if you’re a dog guy. Check the cars. Please. To make sure that the dogs are OK.’ And unfortunately my works became prophetic about an hour and a half later.”

Blitz just turned 8 years old. In addition to being a pioneer for the Blueforce implant, he’s been busy at work. About ten weeks after his surgery he led the team to a violent armed bank robber barricaded inside a house.

“It definitely made a difference. He saved our team that day,” says Ballinger.

About the Author

Sara Scullin

Sara Scullin was the Editor of Law Enforcement Technology magazine, a monthly business-to-business publication that covers technology trends and best practices for public safety managers. LET is part of SouthComm Law Enforcement Media, which also publishes Law Enforcement Product News and Officer.com. Sara had covered the law enforcement industry since March 2008.

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