Drug Dogs


Sylvia Longmire IHSBy Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security

Everyone knows a dog is man’s best friend. However, dogs enter an entirely different class of companion when they’re working as detection devices. Law enforcement agencies and military units around the world employ canines (a.k.a. K-9s) to identify residue of anything from drugs and explosives to smuggled cash and agricultural products. When they are killed in the line of duty, they are regarded the same as any other fallen officer. Sadly, one of the greatest drug threats to communities and law enforcement agents is now also threatening the lives of narcotics detection dogs.

Opiate overdose statistics are skyrocketing in some parts of the country (specifically the Midwest and Northeast states) due to the introduction of the synthetic chemical fentanyl into the U.S. heroin supply. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, as well as many times more addictive and deadly. Heroin doses are now often laced with fentanyl to get users more addicted, and thus more reliant on their dealers. However, some addicts are going straight to fentanyl when their tolerance for heroin maxes out.

Just A Few Grains Of Fentanyl Deadly To Dogs

Police officers conducting searches in places where the presence of opioids is suspected must use special protective gear to help prevent or at least minimize exposure to deadly chemicals. When drug dogs are employed at these scenes, the dogs can get exposed by getting even tiny amounts on their noses or paws. There have been several reports of municipal police department drug dogs overdosing and dying from exposure to opioids like fentanyl. Three police dogs in Florida were rushed to an animal hospital in 2016 when they ingested fentanyl during a search. Andy Weiman, a detective who trains dogs for the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office, told NBC4 News, “It’s such a small amount that it would take to overdose the dog — like two or three granules of sand.”

Some police department K-9 officers have started carrying naloxone, which helps prevent overdoses, for their dogs. The drug blocks the effects of opioids and reverses overdoses with few side effects. It has long been used by doctors and ambulance crews and more recently has been handed out to police and firefighters. Massachusetts State Police started carrying naloxone for their K-9s in March 2017. Police in Hartford, Connecticut, started doing so in January 2017. DEA Deputy Administrator Jack Riley urged police to avoid testing suspected fentanyl in the field and to instead take it to a lab, which would ostensibly prevent the need for naloxone at all.

CBP’s Fentanyl Detection Canine Pilot Course

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drug dogs are invaluable when it comes to identifying trace amounts of illegal drugs at ports of entry. Because much of the fentanyl that is manufactured in China enters the U.S. across the Mexican border, these dogs are potentially at risk of overdosing or even dying from exposure to smuggled fentanyl. Christiana Coleman, spokesperson for CBP, explained to In Homeland Security that the agency’s Office of Training and Development (OTD) CBP Canine Program delivered a Fentanyl Detection Canine Pilot Course in June 2017. That course included training officers and staff on how to handle fentanyl when discovered, and how to medically treat both officers and dogs after exposure.

Coleman also said the CBP Canine Program has incorporated the successful results of the pilot program into the basic canine detection course, and is currently training new Office of Field Operations (OFO) canine teams capable of detecting fentanyl. According to written testimony by CBP OFO Executive Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen on January 25, explicit instructions, including guidance to canine handlers, have been distributed to the field regarding the safe handling of fentanyl. In October 2015, CBP completed Phase 1 of a pilot program to train and equip CBP officers with naloxone. To date, OFO has deployed 1,119 two-dose boxes of naloxone to the field. Additional naloxone is being deployed to field offices upon request, as additional personnel are trained in its administration to both agents and their canines.