Say it’s a sweltering August afternoon and the sidewalk is hot enough to sear a New York strip. You walk by a parked cop car, and are startled by a deep bark emanating from behind the heavily tinted windows.
There’s a police dog in the vehicle. And although it’s a highly trained dog, it’s still a dog, and still susceptible to the same heat exhaustion any other animal — or person — would experience if left in a hot car.
Every year, thousands of dogs die when left in vehicles, even for as little as 15 minutes — and even in the dead of winter. If the vehicle’s cabin heats up in the sun and there’s no way to cool it down, it’s far more than a dog’s furry body can withstand.
It’s easy for tenderhearted passersby to assume the worst when confronted by this scene. But cops have put a lot of thought into keeping their four-legged partners safe. Even in blazing temperatures.
Just ask New York State Police trooper Charles Kaplan. He’s usually accompanied on the road by his partner, Liam — a 4-year-old German shepherd trained to detect narcotics, find cadavers, search buildings and keep Kaplan safe.Willi
When they’re in the field, Liam can spend a good amount of time in Kaplan’s SUV. Even when the officer leaves the vehicle, the engine stays running and the air conditioner is left on full-blast for the canine inside.
That’s great, but engines can stall, and it could take that vital air conditioning with it. Dogs don’t sweat. They pant to expel heat from their bodies, Kaplan explained. But just like an unlucky guy stranded in the desert, there’s only so much the body can do to regulate temperature.
“Every state police canine unit has a door popper equipped,” Kaplan said. “I can push a button, my pager goes off, and it pops open.”
What if he’s not near the vehicle to push the button? Enter a temperature monitor and alert system — or something the law enforcement community has affectionately dubbed the “hot dog” system.
“All dogs wear a pager on their collar,” Kaplan said. “If it gets too hot in the vehicle, the pager goes off, the windows drop down, and the horn starts sounding. That’s obviously to alert the public or to alert the handler, ‘Hey, go check on your car.’”
When the system is triggered, a slim profile fan installed in the open rear window starts running, drawing cool air into the cab. The device can save the dog’s life.
“This is the system we have in place for all of (our) canines across the state,” Kaplan said. “We monitor our trucks and we monitor our dogs. There are local police agencies that have the same system. Obviously, a dog’s temperature to us is critical.”
These aren’t just working animals. They mean as much to their handlers as a family member.
“That’s your partner,” Kaplan said. “They live with us in our homes. You take them home, you feed them, you take them to the vet.”
Liam lives with Kaplan, his family and their other dogs. When he’s off duty, he can relax and be a dog. But he’s also more than pointy ears and a waggly tail. He’s one of 100 police dogs — from a Belgian Malinois named A.J., to Wink, the dappled German shepherd — in the state police’s canine unit.
Each dog is named for a state police officer killed in the line of duty. Liam’s named for Trooper William McDonagh, who was shot when responding to a call on Dec. 14, 1975.
Roughly half the dogs are trained to sniff out explosives and carefully alert their handlers — a method called “passive alert.”
“They’re trained to sit when they detect the odor, whereas the drug dog has an aggressive alert,” Kaplan said. “They scratch, they sniff. They’re going to find an odor, they’re going to start scratching or biting or barking at it. Whereas a bomb-dog, you don’t want them to interrupt an explosive device.”
The other half of the state police’s dogs are trained to find drugs, search for bodies and track. A dog’s nose is hundreds of times more sensitive than a human’s at picking up and identifying scents. They undergo extensive training to recognize scents and bring them to the attention of their handler.
Keeping a dog cool is actually vital to keeping their scent sense at peak performance. Remember that a hot dog is a panting dog? That dog won’t have the same sniffing power if he’s not using his nose to breathe.
If the temperature is hot, Kaplan and Liam might only be out searching for 20 to 30 minutes before the need to cool off diminishes his sense of smell.
Technology like the temperature monitor and alert system can save lives, not just of other dogs, but of babies and toddlers left in vehicles accidentally by parents. Car manufacturers are beginning to build sensors and alert systems into new vehicles that can save parents and families from the unthinkable.
“There’s a great awareness because now there are more people saying they want to put safety sensors underneath child seats,” Kaplan said. “If you leave your child seat in there, it will give you an alert.
“But could it save a child’s life? Absolutely.”