Eileen Mitchell

Eileen Mitchell is a freelance writer and pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Cover Your K-9 EMT Course Aims to Save Police Dogs’ Lives
Law dogs have the Police and Working K-9 Foundation on their side.
k9 Police Photo by Rob Hainer

Your Corgi is stung by a bee. Your Pit Bull snorts a foxtail, ingests snail bait or breaks her leg. Whatever the situation, you rush your beloved pup to the closest veterinary hospital and return home with a hefty bill and—more importantly—your recuperating dog.

But what if you’re a law-enforcement K-9 handler out in the field and your partner is panting uncontrollably after chasing a suspect in sweltering 90-degree weather? Or maybe your K-9 returns from a search through the woods with a swelling limb or suspicious bite on the neck. You’re nowhere near an animal hospital and your partner’s life may be in jeopardy. What do you do?

Thanks to the Cover Your K-9 Emergency Medicine Training Course presented by the Police and Working K-9 Foundation, close to 600 K-9 handlers are better equipped to answer this question, armed with life-saving skills and tools needed to treat their fourlegged partners.

“Handlers typically have a couple of hours of instruction about caring for their K-9 partner that is offered when they take their basic K-9 training,” said Louise Tully, foundation president and cofounder. “We aren’t aware of a similar course that offers our type of extensive curriculum.” She added that some private companies attempt to fill the void by offering fee-based courses, but the foundation offers both the course and with it, their Custom K-9 Trauma Kit and K-9 Stat Pak (valued at $300) at no charge to agencies or handlers.

Twice a year, the all-volunteer foundation holds these emergency medical training (EMT) courses for up to 75 K-9 handlers from agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, California Highway Patrol, police departments, sheriffs’ offices and SAR teams. Covering subjects ranging from physical fitness and recommended treats to trauma, heat stroke and stabbings, the intensive eight-hour workshops and interactive labs provide K-9 handlers with invaluable nose-to-tail overviews on the care and maintenance needs of their working dogs.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Police and Working K-9 Foundation is dedicated to keeping police dogs safe while they protect their communities. Expenses for the workshops, which run approximately $22,000 each, are fully funded through “Cover Your K-9” fund-raisers. Donations also help provide essential safety equipment for law enforcement K-9s throughout Northern California, including bulletproof vests, patrol car heat alarms and a special fund that supports retired K-9s.

The workshops’ first five hours consist of lectures by veterinarians who volunteer their time to share their specific working-dog expertise. The final 90 minutes are spent in a hands-on lab with live—and very patient—canine models. In the lab, handlers practice life-saving skills such as monitoring vital signs, CPR and bandaging.

“It’s important to understand [the needs of] K-9 handlers,” Tully said, citing guest speaker Megan Davis, DVM, a critical care specialist in emergency care, as an example. “She sees dogs in their most dire state, so having her do the heat stroke and CPR segments was great.”

Heat Injury Happens Fast
In a recent session, Davis told the rapt audience that every year, more working dogs die from heat stroke than any other preventable cause. The combination of extreme environmental factors and heavy exercise, coupled with the dogs’ inherent desire to please their handlers, make them especially susceptible to heat injury. Very high-drive dogs will literally work until they drop, and agitated dogs heat up even faster.

“They often won’t show signs of dehydration or fatigue until it’s too late,” Davis warned. “Your K-9s rely on you to know when to call it quits.” She stressed that all phases of heat injury, from mild to severe, are life threatening and can occur more rapidly than one might expect. Immediate first aid includes monitoring vital signs and an external cool-down with water or wet towels. Ice or overly cold water should be avoided, since they can actually slow down the dog’s cooling process. All levels of heat injury require veterinary treatment.

For many handlers, the session on heat injury was an eye-opener.

“I knew how dangerous it is, but didn’t not realize how fast it can happen,” said Palo Alto PD officer Brad Young. “Symptoms range from subtle to extreme. Unless you’re aware of these signs and the factors that cause heat injuries, your partner could really suffer, or die.” Young added that he now feels better equipped to provide emergency medical treatment for his partner, K-9 Eddie. “These dogs become part of our family.”

Oakland PD officer Marcell Patterson, a senior K-9 handler and trainer, had recently completed the EMT course when Kosar, his two-year-old Belgian Malinois, was injured.

“He stepped on something and had a significant laceration on his leg,” Patterson recalled. “From my training, I knew how to stop the bleeding, wrap it up pretty good and make him comfortable until I could take him to the vet the next day. Without my training, I would have had no choice but to go to [a vet ER ], where the costs would have been astronomical.”

Patterson stressed the importance of this financial savings. Because his department’s K-9 budget is fragile, “It could be the difference between adding another dog,” he said. Their current K-9 department roster includes seven working dogs averaging $10,000 each.

Trauma and the Working Dog
What do you do if your K-9 partner is struck by a car or knifed by a suspect? In her session, Lissa Richardson, DVM, addressed potential scenarios such as chest and abdominal injuries, bleeding control, fracture assessment and treatment, and bandage-application tips. Handlers learned that blankets, towels and ponchos can serve as mock stretchers to transport an injured dog. And that, if alone, they should lift their dog by tucking the dog’s legs under the chest, wrapping their arms around the outside of the legs, and carrying their partner close to their body.

Handlers were also reminded that muzzling an injured dog is important because a dog in pain may bite. Mock muzzles can be created using a variety of materials, including belts and ties, Richardson said. She shared an incident in which she made a mock muzzle using the string pulled from a Good Samaritan’s hoodie for a dog who had been hit by a car.

When in Doubt, Get It Out
Because their partners are constantly exposed to a variety of situations and environments, K-9 handlers are particularly concerned about poison control. From acids, alkalis and sweet-tasting antifreeze to common poisons and drugs, the list also includes seemingly innocent products that came as a surprise to many, such as pennies minted after 1983. The latter are a threat because dogs’ stomach acids break down the copper, exposing the toxic zinc center that can result in a potentially fatal blood disorder.

Toxic foods include Xylitol, found in sugar-free gums and candies and now also added to many peanut butters; mushrooms, grapes and raisins; and onions, garlic and chocolate. Handlers were also warned about dangerous common plants like the azalea, lily-of-the-valley, foxglove, sago palm and oleander, not to mention the ever-dreaded “scourge of the earth,” foxtails.

Making it more of a challenge, treatment varies from product to product.

When a dog indicates signs of ingestion (weakness, tremors, seizures), the natural instinct is to induce vomiting, but the K-9 handlers learned that this may not always be appropriate. If the material is oily or smells like gasoline, it can be easily be drawn into the lungs. Caustic materials such as lye, acids and ammonia were cited as examples of things that “burn going down and burn coming up.” And if the dog cannot stand, is staggering, tremoring or seizing, he or she likely does not have a good swallowing or gag ref lex and could wind up inhaling whatever is being vomited.

“The decision to induce vomiting is influenced by what was ingested and how much and how long it’s been since the material was ingested,” said poison and drug exposure presenter Robert Lukas, DVM. “Generally, if it’s been more than three or four hours, the chances of it still being in the stomach are much lower and the benefits of vomiting lessen. In the absence of a known vet ER to call, or not getting a direct answer from a veterinary ER , a great first suggestion is to call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. There’s a fee for this service, but many times, they can give pet owners the complete story on the toxin and provide direction.”

Lukas told the participants to gather as much information as possible. This includes estimating the time of ingestion or exposure; taking photos of the product; noting inscriptions, colors and shapes; and saving the container or remnants of the product.

He emphasized that all information is critical because specific details help guide the treatment plan. “Rapid toxicity testing is very limited,” he said. “The more information we have, the better.” He also reminded handlers to protect themselves in the process.

The rule of thumb? “Whether it’s ingestion, inhalation or absorption, when in doubt, get it out, brush it off, rinse it off or rinse it out.” Lukas stressed. “And get to [a vet ER ] immediately. If possible, call ahead so they can prepare for your arrival.”

K-9 Stat Paks and Trauma Kits
At the end of every workshop, handlers leave with a Cover Your K-9 Trauma Kit and a portable emergency pouch, dubbed the K-9 Stat Pak, which clips onto the handler’s belt and contains essential medical supplies for those times when the handler is out on a search or when the trauma kit is inaccessible. Both items are assembled by Cover Your K-9 with the assistance of a veterinary specialist.

“The Stat Pak was inspired when Sacramento K-9 Bodie almost bled to death on his way to treatment after being shot by a suspect,” Louise Tully said. “We realized the need to have life-saving QuickClot Combat Gauze and pressure bandages with the handler at all times.”

Leaving the workshop, Sonoma County Sheriff ’s Office deputy John Cilia noted his most important takeaway: how to help his two-year-old Belgian Malinois, K-9 Sasha. “I don’t want to stand there and do nothing,” he said. “Now I know what I need to do while getting my partner to the vet.”

To make a donation or learn more about the foundation and what it has to offer, visit coveryourk9.com.

Culture: Stories & Lit
How Do I Love Thee?
A valentine from the heart.

I have to admit that, for a few weeks following the adoption of my new dog—an ex-racing Greyhound I named Elvis (Hey! Costello, not Presley!)—I was a bit concerned. Not about him. He seemed like a nice enough dog.

No, it was me I was worried about.

After all, Elvis was well behaved. Gentle. Mild-mannered. Practically perfect. And he was certainly pretty enough, with big doe-eyes and an irresistible coat of honey and velvet. Why, it was enough to make anyone fall head over heels at first sight.

Except I didn’t. And I was confused. Where was that overwhelming rush of love I was expecting to feel when Golden State Greyhound Adoption (GoldenGreyhounds.com) first delivered my new dog to my home? Was there something wrong with me? Or was Elvis not the dog I was meant to have? Where was the bond? How could I not instantly love my new pet?

And therein lay the answer: He was new. How could I love a creature I didn’t know?

Ah, but today. Ask me today if I love my dog and I can rattle off a litany that makes my eyes mist over and my heart swell with affection.
How do I love him? Let me count the ways:

I love the happy little tippy-tap dance Elvis does whenever I ask, “Do you want…?” because he knows these words will be followed with the offer of either a cookie or a walk. In the eyes of Elvis, both of these are extremely good things and his transparent joy over such simple pleasures is a sight to behold.

I love the way Elvis greets me at the front door every time I walk through it. “You came back! You returned! This is so great! You’re home! Wow!” Whether I’ve been gone five minutes or five hours, his enthusiastic response never varies. He celebrates my homecoming each and every time, never letting me forget that, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere in my life, in this little corner of the world I am loved. Maybe I missed a deadline at work or was cut off on the freeway. Maybe I’m feeling tired or stressed, discouraged or alone. Never mind. When I enter my home and my dog leaps into my arms, I forget my worries and for that moment, am awash in pure joy.

I love the way Elvis sits alongside me while I work at my computer. Sometimes he rests his head in my lap. Other times. he just stares at me, his Bambi eyes brimming over with love. It occurs to me that if I could get a man to look at me the same way, I’d be the luckiest person on earth. And then my dog leans against me and sighs a contented sigh, and I feel like I already am.

I love watching Elvis sort through his toy basket. After selecting the toy he’s going to play with, he flips it in the air or dances around it, amusing himself no end. I find toys scattered throughout the house, evidence of his activities while I’m at work. His playtime concludes when he tires himself out and falls asleep in his La-Z-Dog recliner, often with his head resting upon a beloved toy.

I love to hear him snore. It reminds me that my dog is nearby, and that if I want tangible evidence of all that is good and right with my life, I just have reach down and stroke his silky neck, clasp his twitching paw or feel his beating heart. When he’s curled up like a doughnut on his pillow, his snoring is an affirmation of the deep sleep that comes with feeling comfortable and content. Elvis is a long way from the cold crate he once called home.

I love the back of his soft, floppy ears. No reason why. I just do.

I love the way Elvis trots alongside me when we go for a walk and he presses his head to the side of my thigh. Despite the freedom his leash affords, he wants to feel his human nearby. Occasionally my lovely, loving boy looks up at me with eyes so happy it brings a lump to my throat.

I love watching Elvis gallop across the dog park chasing other dogs. Not to earn money for a racetrack, but to play with his pals—fellow Greyhounds BJ and Champ, Sadie the Lab, and Rikki the Border Collie. My dog’s speed and grace remind me of his former life and how lucky I am that his final race was for my heart.

A race he won. Maybe not in record time, but definitely hands down.

Culture: DogPatch
Every Adoption is a Miracle
Why comedian Carol Leifer loves shelter dogs

Maybe you know Carol Leifer from her guest appearances on Oprah, Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. Or perhaps you recognize her as the comedic writer and producer of television classics such as The Larry Sanders Show, Saturday Night Live and, most famously, Seinfeld.

How about Carol Leifer, dog lover and animal activist? In her new memoir, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, Leifer talks about her love for rescue dogs, and the place her five Chihuahuas and two Terrier mixes hold in her heart.

“Every adoption is a miracle, because you’re taking something dark and horrible and making it light again,” Leifer says in a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica. She first saw her two older Chihuahuas, Cagney and Lacey, both 15, at a shelter, where she learned they were scheduled to be euthanized the next day. “When I called my partner, Lori Wolf, she said, ‘Absolutely not, we already have five dogs!’” But Leifer used her approaching birthday as a way to convince Wolf to agree to fostering the dogs until they could deliver them to Best Friends’ Utah animal sanctuary. “The dogs were jaded from having been in a shelter for so long—they had this “whatever” attitude,” Leifer recalled.

Once in Leifer’s home, though, the dogs morphed into frisky little puppies, and it wasn’t long before Leifer and Wolf failed Fostering 101. “We had to keep them,” she sighs. “I especially love the fact that they didn’t die as seniors in that shelter and are having a happy life, however brief it may be.”

Does Leifer subscribe to the theory that rescue dogs know they’ve been saved and are therefore grateful? “Completely!” she agrees. “You get any shelter dog or cat in your car and you can immediately see the change—they know something really good just happened.”

Another one of her passions is the fight to stop puppy mills. During protests, she often brings Albert, one of her adopted strays, to illustrate that potential dog owners don’t have to rely on pet stores for an adorable dog. “People think Albert is a designer dog because he’s very chichi and so damned cute, but he’s just a Terrier mix,” Leifer says, clearly amused. “When people see that you can get a dog like Albert at a shelter, they’re more likely to adopt.”

And it must be asked: Which does the comedian find funnier, humans or canines? “Oh, dogs!” she quips without missing a beat. “Only a dog can lick his privates and not feel the need to post it on YouTube.”

Culture: Stories & Lit
A Lifetime Dog
A companion, a friend and a source of joy

So there I was, alone, sitting outside Tully’s and enjoying a latte when a woman approached me.
“Excuse me,” she said, looking concerned. “Is your dog okay?”
Puzzled, I reassured her that Elvis was fine. He’d gone on a walk earlier and couldn’t be budged off his La-Z-Dog recliner.
I had to ask. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
“No,” she replied, smiling. “It’s just that I see you around town and you’re never without your dog. I wanted to be sure he’s okay.”

She was right. Elvis is such an integral part of my life that even strangers see me as incomplete without him. I’ve loved many dogs since childhood, but none has been like this one. To use an expression coined by A Good Dog author, Jon Katz, Elvis is my “lifetime dog,” a dog I’ll hold dear long after he’s gone and others have staked their spots on the sofa.

“So many people told me they had one dog in their life that meant everything to them, that stood out in their hearts and memories,” Katz responded when I wrote asking about the expression. “Sometimes it was a dog that entered their life at a critical juncture or changed their life. When people hear the term, they all nod. Loving a dog can be a powerful experience.”

Indeed. Because Elvis isn’t “just” a pet. He’s my companion, my friend, my joy. He isn’t a replacement for the husband I never married or the children I never had. Johnny Depp could be my betrothed and cherubs my children. I wouldn’t love this dog one iota less.

When Golden State Greyhound Adoption delivered Elvis to my home six years ago, I had no idea what a life-altering occasion it was. When I first met my trembling new dog, I was struck by two emotions simultaneously: first, delight that he was so pretty, immediately followed by sheer terror. How would I manage this horse in my house?

Today I would ask: How would I manage without him? I love that Elvis greets me at the door with a toy in his mouth, jumping with joy whether I’ve been gone 10 minutes or 10 hours. I love how he rests his head on my lap while I’m watching television, wanting nothing more than to feel my touch. I love how he guzzles his food with gusto and then, with kernels of rice still on his nose, does a happy little trot as though offering his compliments to the chef. I love how he meanders over to my bed every night and taps my face with his soft, wet snoot before retiring to his La-Z-Dog recliner.

I love caring for Elvis, stroking his knobby head, rubbing his velvety ears, observing him with other dogs, other people. Today, when I look at my beloved boy, who is now nine, I note his gray muzzle and eyebrows. Like his human, Elvis is showing signs of age. And unlike the life I might have enjoyed with that man I never married or those children I never had, I realize with an ache that our time together will be much too brief.

That explains why I’m so fond of one particular Twilight Zone episode. Titled “The Hunt,” it’s about a recently deceased man and his dog. As they amble down a country road in the hereafter, they come upon a gate. “Welcome to heaven!” the gatekeeper declares. Except for the dog, that is. “What kind of heaven won’t allow dogs?” the old man asks. “If he can’t come in, then I’ll stay out with him. He’s been my faithful companion all his life. I can’t desert him now.”

So the old man and his dog continue down the road. Later, they come upon yet another gate. “Welcome to heaven!” the gatekeeper greets both man and dog. When the old man inquires about the previous gatekeeper’s proclamation, he learns he’d been talking to the Devil. “He gets people who are willing to give up a lifelong companion for a comfortable place to stay,” the old man is told. “They soon find out their mistake, but then it’s too late.” And then man and dog pass through the gates, toward the light. Toward heaven.

When I cradle my dog’s face in my hands and look into his liquid eyes, so full of unwavering loyalty and love, there’s no doubt. Elvis is my faithful companion. My lifetime dog. And this is heaven.