WASHINGTON — A troubling number of police dogs have died so far this year in overheated vehicles, often as a result of forgetful handlers or malfunctioning air conditioning units, an animal rights group has found.
At least a dozen working canines have perished of heat-related conditions so far, the most since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) started tracking the incidents in 2012.
The excruciating deaths are prompting outrage among animal rights activists and law enforcement officials who have invested thousands of dollars in public funds in canine acquisition and training. The grim numbers long have loomed in the background as authorities grapple with even more profound losses of children in similar incidents. So far, 35 children have died in hot cars this year, compared with 24 in all of 2014, according to the National Safety Council.
Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's senior vice president for cruelty investigations, said the group's tally of casualties, drawn from a search of law enforcement documents and media accounts, likely significantly underestimates all such deaths because a national repository of death or injury reports does not exist for the hundreds of thousands of working dogs assigned to law enforcement, military and public safety agencies. The 12 deaths recorded so far this year are up from nine in all of 2015; seven in 2014; six in 2013; and seven in 2012.
"This is heart-wrenching for all of us,'' said Mike Johnson, president of the American Police Canine Association. "The biggest sin for us is leaving a dog in the car and walking off, and it's happening more than it should.'' Johnson estimated that as many as 600,000 canines are working various duties, including search and rescue, explosives investigations, drug detection, crowd management and other specialty assignments.
The July death of a Belgian Malinois, left for hours inside a sweltering patrol vehicle by a forgetful Florida handler, caused such an uproar within the association and the local Newberry, Fla., community that Johnson said the handler — an association master trainer — was not invited to the group's national conference last month in Indiana.
Describing the incident as a "tragedy,'' Alachua County, Fla., Sheriff Sadie Darnell announced the suspension of the handler Monday and his removal from the agency's canine unit following a two-month investigation.
"I am convinced that that there was no intent,'' Darnell said in a written statement, adding that the deputy "made a horrible mistake and continues to deal with great regret and despair every day.''
Nachminovitch said that the neglect — whether accidental or intentional — represents "inexcusable'' conduct, especially by law enforcement authorities.
"If these dogs cannot be protected by law enforcement officials, how do you expect regular citizens to do the right thing?'' Nachminovitch said.
Nachminovitch said the heat-related deaths have been especially disturbing because widely available technology exists to override mechanical breakdowns and simple human error.
Some warning systems, synchronized to rising vehicle temperatures, activate sirens and light bars, open vehicle windows and automatically switch on internal fans to fight extreme heat. The heat alerts are then sent to handlers' phones or department dispatch centers. While some alert systems only work while the vehicle engines are on, others maintain alarms when engines are switched off to notify handlers who may have become distracted by other duties outside the car or who have mistakenly walked away at the end of a shift.
John Johnston, whose Florida company AceK-9.com has worked with agencies across the south and north to Alaska, said law enforcement and the military has become more aware of the need the technology as the use of canines has been increasingly adopted across the country and beyond law enforcement.
While Johnston estimated that most agencies operating in warm-weather climates have such warning devices, the American Police Canine Association (APCA) said only about half of the departments nationwide are adequately equipped.
"There is no uniform policy across the country,'' Johnson of the APCA said.
"These dogs cost thousands of dollars to acquire and train, yet some agencies can't afford or won't commit another $1,000 to make sure they are not lost in this terrible, terrible way,'' Nachminovitch said. According to the APCA, working dogs generally cost between $6,000 and $10,000, while training can add $5,000 or more.
In the Alachua County, Fla., case, the Belgian Malinois, Robbie, was purchased in 2010 for $6,500 from a Pennsylvania kennel and was exposed to a range of training, from narcotics detection to tracking. His longtime handler was the agency's lead canine trainer, as well as a master trainer with the APCA.
While the handler's vehicle was equipped with a warning system, according to the agency's investigative report, it was an "old canine system'' that only worked while the engine was on. As a result, the deputy was not alerted when he rushed home to rejoin a family outing, forgetting that Robbie remained in the back of the agency-issued Chevrolet SUV. About five hours later, with temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, the deputy's father arrived at the house to borrow another vehicle and noticed the dog was not in the fenced yard.
A search led him to the back of the patrol vehicle where the father found Robbie's body "stiff'' to the touch. An attempt to revive the dog with water from a garden hose was "futile.''
When the deputy learned the news, while driving back home from a nearby boating excursion, he told investigators that he abruptly pulled off the road.
"No! No! No!'' the devastated handler called out from the side of the road, later telling investigators that he regarded the dog as his "best friend.''
A similar scene played out last month near Huntsville, Ark., where a Madison County Sheriff's Office handler left a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, Lina, in a patrol vehicle for between three to four hours in sweltering temperatures.
The dog, acquired three years earlier at a cost of about $6,000 in combined donations and other funds, was the agency's only canine and was used in drug investigations, Sheriff Phillip Morgan said, adding that the car was not equipped with an alert system.
A local prosecutor announced last month that the handler would not be criminally charged, but Morgan said the deputy has been suspended for 60 days without pay. In its own review, the sheriff's department said it would review officer fatigue after finding that the dog's handler had been typically working 10-hour shifts and responding to "call-outs'' during his off hours to assist with other investigations.
“It just killed me for this to happen,’’ Morgan said.