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.
By Eileen Mitchell, March 2016
k9 Police Photo by Rob Hainer
During the program’s hands-on sessions, handlers practice splinting, bandaging and wound management on canine volunteers.

During the program’s hands-on sessions, handlers practice splinting, bandaging and wound management on canine volunteers.

The foundation has provided more than 200 custom bulletproof and stab-resistant vests for California’s working K-9s.

The foundation has provided more than 200 custom bulletproof and stab-resistant vests for California’s working K-9s.

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.

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