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Could a harness protect K-9s in police vehicles? Experts say it’s impractical

Late last month in Oklahoma, K-9 Smokey of the Nowata Police Department was killed when an intoxicated woman opened the back door of a police vehicle, allowing the dog to run into the roadway where he was struck by a truck. And in Texas earlier this month, K-9s Grunt and Neil, who were trained to track critically missing persons with dementia for the Refugio County Sheriff’s Office, were strangled to death by a suspect they were tracking.

During the first nine months of the year, at least 19 K-9s have been killed in the line of duty nationwide, including Rocky of the Riverhead Police Department, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. After Rocky’s death — caused by a crash that occurred as his handler, Officer John Morris, pursued a suspect fleeing a DWI checkpoint — the public raised several questions about safety measures for K-9s as they’re transported in police vehicles.

For example: Should a harness be used to secure the dog, similar to a seat belt for a human?

Police K-9 experts say a harness is an unrealistic way to secure a dog in a police vehicle, and while K-9s do face risk every time they’re on the job, accidents are one of the least likely ways they can be killed because of the way police vehicles are outfitted to protect them.

Evan Anderson of the National Police Dog Foundation said that in most instances he’s documented involving K-9 vehicle crashes, the driver is at greater risk of injury than the dog.

“This is one of the few cases where I’ve heard that the driver was fine and the dog was actually injured or killed,” he said.

Of the 19 deaths so far this year, Rocky’s is the only one caused by an automobile crash. In the last five years, including 2018, there have been five total K-9 deaths from automobile crashes.

Stuart Cameron, chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, said he was unaware of any police vehicles outfitted with seat belts or harnesses for dogs. During a typical shift, the dog spends nearly the entire time in the vehicle. Chief Cameron said keeping a dog secured in one spot could do more harm than good.

“They move around a lot in the car,” he said. “Restraining them would be inhumane.”

K-9 Deaths In Line of Duty

2018 (to date): 19

2017: 24

2016: 35

2015: 27

2014: 20

Source: Officer Down Memorial Page

In responding to emergency situations, dogs also need to be deployed quickly. 

Suffolk police have 22 K-9 units who train in Yaphank along with the handlers and dogs from the East End departments.

Police K-9 vehicles are specifically equipped to accommodate a dog. The back seats are stripped out and a canine insert, which is like a cage, is built into the vehicle. Chief Cameron, who spent over 10 years working with K-9s in his career, said the designs have improved greatly since the early ’90s, when carpenters in the department designed the interiors. Now, they are customized with solid aluminum inserts and cage screens that are designed to protect the dog in event of a crash. But as in any crash, he added, there’s no foolproof way to protect a dog or a driver.

K-9s are “very aggressive, high-drive, working animals,” Chief Cameron said, adding that he’s even seen dogs attempt to eat the interior of a car that was not equipped with the insert — another example of why a harness is impractical.

Mr. Anderson said the canine inserts are the standard way K-9s are transported. The police vehicle becomes a home for the animal, he said, and the inserts feature a built-in water bowl.

“They very much enjoy it,” he said. “They associate that with fun stuff and going around.”

In the event of a crash, it’s also important for the dog to be inside the insert so first responders can safely attend to the driver without fear of the dog interfering.

The biggest threat to K-9s is actually heat exhaustion. Between 2015 and 2016, 24 police dogs died from heat exhaustion, according to stats from the Officer Down Memorial Page. To better protect dogs, vehicles can be equipped with heat alarms that alert the handler and can even automatically roll windows down a few inches if the temperature climbs too high. Mr. Anderson said his organization works with police departments to equip vehicles with the alarms.

Chief Cameron said Suffolk’s vehicles are equipped with the alarms. He noted that a common problem is the failure of a vehicle’s air conditioning system, which can quickly put a dog at risk on a hot day.

“Heat is a big issue,” he said.

Chief Cameron said the dogs not only work with the handlers, but live with them as well, so there’s a deep connection between the two. If there are ways to better protect dogs, he said, the handlers would absolutely pursue them.

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Photo caption: The back of a police K-9 vehicle is outfitted with a canine insert, similar to a cage, in which the dog spends most of its time during a shift. (Kaylyn Ahrenstein photo)