Heat is an ever-present concern for K9s and SAR dogs working in warm weather, but there are several ways handlers can prevent heat stroke and even death.
It’s unclear how often heat emergencies occur among these dogs because there is no national database, says Rick Ashabranner, president of the North American Police Work Dog Association. While separate agencies or regions might track their own data, there’s no way to get a national picture.
“That’s the hard part,” Ashabranner says, “but I do know it is a very common concern. It definitely does happen—we have some dogs go down on occasion, more often from heat exhaustion than heat stroke.”
Ashabranner advocates the use of technology to help handlers care for their animals. A commonly used device that he recommends is a heat alarm, such as those by AceK9, which senses the temperature in the handler’s vehicle. If necessary, the device will automatically roll down the windows, activate the horn, siren and light-bar, and notify the handler.
“A large portion of officers across the country are utilizing these,” Ashabranner says.
Another type of technology that he’s heard of, but has never seen used personally, is a sensor that is implanted in the dog surgically to continually monitor its body temperature.
With the recently announced Blueforce system, the implanted sensor communicates the data to a receiver attached to its gear. The receiver relays the data to the handler’s smartphone and will alert the handler if the dog’s body temperature exceeds a safe limit.
“I think it would be another useful tool,” Ashabranner says. He suggests handlers utilize all the electronic options available to them. “Anything they can do is going to be a plus.”
The risk of a dog having a heat emergency depends on the environment, and very much on how well the animal has been acclimated to working in hotter temperatures, he adds.
“A lot of people don’t get their dogs acclimated to the heat,” Ashabranner says. It’s common for handlers to keep their animals cool too often by keeping them in controlled temperatures and by training outdoors during cooler hours. However, that leaves the dogs unprepared to respond to a call in the high heat. They do need appropriate exposure to the working conditions they will face.
Proper acclimatization will prevent reasonable heat from having an adverse effect on the dog. “If they do that, most dogs can work through pretty extreme temperatures,” he says.
His advice: provide dogs the opportunity to train and rest outdoors with cover from the sun, ample water and breaks. In vehicles they should have outside airflow as well as air circulation from a fan. However, handlers shouldn’t take the cooling too far.
“Keep the car cool but don’t overdo it so it isn’t a shock,” he says, going between hot and cold temperatures. “The odds of going into heat exhaustion or stroke will be slimmer.”
He notes the body temperature of dogs is already higher than that of humans at about 102, and that since they don’t sweat, it’s harder for dogs to cool down. “When you see a dog panting extremely hard and can see their back molars, you know they’re under stress,” he says.
“There are good electronic devices out there. If they can be utilized that’s good, but you’ve also got to recognize the signs yourself.”