CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — We often hear about the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic here in Ohio, but one aspect of the epidemic that isn’t discussed as often is the risk to police officers and to their K-9 partners.
Narcotics K-9s are at risk for coming into contact with opioids and other drugs, such as cocaine or meth.
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What can happen
Detective Michael Twombly has been working with Ciga, a German shorthaired pointer, since 2013. The pair works parcel interdiction, checking for drugs in parcels that come through the mail or Fed-Ex. Like other narcotics K-9s, Ciga is trained to recognize the odor of narcotics.
“When Ciga smells the odor of a narcotic, he’s trained to sit,” Twombly said. “So he’ll sit and he’ll just stare, and what he’s actually staring at is really cool. He’s actually waiting for his toy to pop out of the box, or he’s waiting for the toy to pop out of the car, because the dog has been trained to associate that odor of a narcotic with his toy. So that’s what narcotics dogs think they’re finding. They don’t realize they’re finding narcotics.”
Ciga has never come in contact with an opioid while on duty, but Twombly said another K-9 who works at the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department with them did once.
“We didn’t know it. The dog started acting really sluggish and kind of out of it, to where we actually had to rewind what we did,” Twombly said. “What we found out was the K-9 alerted to a car, went in the car, found the narcotics [but] when he found it, there was either a hole in the bag or the K-9 may have punctured it with his paw, but he actually ingested some of the heroin.”
Situations like that put K-9 handlers on alert. Twombly carries an antidote kit, provided to him by a local veterinary clinic, that contains naloxone to reverse the effects of opioids. The kit also has antidotes for rat poison and materials for other injuries Ciga might experience.
“Every antidote inside the kit, if it expires, they call you,” Twombly said. “And it’s automatically put to the weight of your dog, so it’s kind of dummy proof. You just jab him and you just insert the antidote [for the opioid.]”
An ongoing concern
Twombly and other local K-9 handlers said the concern about narcotics dogs encountering opioids and other drugs on the job isn’t new.
“For years, it was always meth and cocaine and all that could also harm them,” said Patrolman Dennis Funari, a K-9 handler with the Westlake Police Department. “You just got to be careful. We just got to watch. As the handler, we’re the ones that are supposed to take care of the dog so we don’t put them in that position.”
Funari and his K-9, Cash, have many different duties, from narcotics searches to building and area searches. He said they can also search for a weapon or for a lost item, such as a ring.
Cash is one of three K-9s currently with the department, and the department said it is raising money to buy a fourth dog. Each dog costs about $15,000, including six weeks of training, plus approximately $20,000 more for a vehicle and equipment for the dog.
When it comes to drugs, Funari said, “we’re not gonna know at the time if it is a problem or not. That’s the biggest issue. If we’re doing a search warrant on a house, we’re gonna go in, and you’re gonna look first before you run them. A vehicle, you’re not going to be able to do that.”
Still, that means handlers must take precautions to keep the dogs out of unsafe situations.
“We take them around the car,” Funari said. “If they alert on the outside, we’re going to go in. So then we’re gonna put gloves on, just like if we’re patting down someone that we may arrest or a prisoner for anything, you’re gonna put gloves on cause you don’t know what you’re going to come in contact with.”
Funari said that if Cash got into any kind of drug, he would try to coat his stomach and get him to the vet immediately.
“They’re the professionals,” Funari said. “They’re the ones that are going to be able to find a vein to do whatever they need to do.”
Like many other K-9 handlers, Funari carries a first aid kid, as well as naloxone in case Cash were to encounter opioids. It’s an issue that he said does not come up in training, since the handlers know where the drugs are hidden for training exercises.
“I’ve been doing this almost 22 years,” Funari said. “Our group’s never had an accident. But we’ve just been lucky. Not to say it’ll never happen, but we’ve never had an accident.”
But when it happens in real life, the possibility is always there.
“That’s the chance we all take,” Funari said. “Not just dogs, us too.”
He noted that dogs are more likely to get hurt doing criminal apprehension or an area search than by searching for narcotics, but that those injuries are less severe than an opioid exposure.
How to recognize the signs of opioid or drug exposure in dogs
Dr. Phillip Lerche is a veterinary anesthesiologist with The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. He said veterinarians have concerns about working dogs, “for example, police dogs coming into contact with large amounts of fentanyl.”
“In those situations, those pets can become extremely sedate, and one of the concerns is that they would stop breathing,” Lerche said. “And then if they are not treated or have access to medical help, they could unfortunately die, so there are huge concerns about that.”
Lerche said the Veterinary Medical Center had been approached by police officers about what they could do in the field if their working dogs came into contact with opioids. He noted that intranasal naloxone spray works well for animals and people alike.
“It’s very easy. It’s just like taking a nasal spray,” Lerche said. “So it’s easy to administer, and it absorbs very well from the nasal mucus membranes.”
Lerche said recent research showed the drug does reach appropriate levels in dogs.
Asked what pet owners should do if their own animals accidentally ingest drugs, Lerche said they should first call a veterinarian.
“Make sure that you have what the drug is, what the strength was, so, in other words, the milligrams of the tablet,” Lerche said. “Try and see if you can figure out how many they might have eaten by mistake, and that information will be really helpful to your veterinarian to determine whether there is any action that needs to be taken.”
Preparing for the worst-case scenario
Shaker Heights Police Patrolman Chad Hagan works daily with his German Shepherd mix, Igor. Igor sniffs for narcotics but does other things, too.
“We can track anywhere from a suspect that maybe just robbed a bank or someone who is lost that ran out the back of their house,” Hagan said.
He said that concern about Igor coming into contact with narcotics is at the back of his mind.
“I hope that it never happens,” Hagan said. “I just hope that when or if it ever does happen, the right person’s there and they know what to do.”
In order to keep Igor safe, he has to take precautions.
“I can’t train Igor and say, ‘Hey, listen, go find this narcotic, but when you find it, don’t touch it,’” Hagan said.
That means he tries to find out what’s in a vehicle before sending his dog inside.
“Anytime that my dog is going to be used around a car, I ask if there’s anything that is going to harm my dog.”
It also means sometimes he keeps Igor out of a vehicle entirely, and he monitors Igor’s behavior closely for anything unusual.
“I’m with him every single day. I know he acts,” Hagan said. “Let’s say he’s acting drunk or drowsy or vomiting or anything like that. That’s not normal. You need to get some type of help.”
If Igor did behave in an unusual manner, Hagan said he would administer naloxone from a kit that was recently donated to his department. He would also get Igor to the vet right away.
Even though Ciga, Igor and Cash are working dogs, they spend more time with their handlers than anyone else, just like family pets. Their handlers know they and their K-9s have a job to do, but they hope to keep themselves and their dogs safe in the process.
“All fingers crossed everything will be the best outcome it can be in that terrible situation,” Hagan said.