Crime & Courts

Handlers work to keep K9s safe from increasingly deadly drugs

Potentially deadly drugs that are making their way onto South Carolina’s streets are posing new threats to the state’s fluffiest law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement officials in the Midlands say they have become more vigilant and careful when conducting drug searches with their K9 partners as dangerous opioids such as fentanyl continue to rise in popularity. After all, a police dog is trained to stick its nose in drugs. But just a grain or two of some the latest street drugs can be extremely dangerous to a person, let alone a dog.

That’s why many agencies now are making sure K9s handlers carry overdose-reversal drugs. And they’re even changing the ways dogs signal that they have found drugs.

“You definitely have to be more cautious with such a potent drug out there,” said Sgt. PJ Blendowski, of the Columbia Police Department. “But the officer has been trained to recognize the symptoms if a dog comes in contact with an opioid.”

In its purest form, fentanyl – and its even more lethal variant, carfentanil – can trigger an overdose by just touching a small grain of it. There have been reports of law enforcement officers suffering from overdoses while performing a car search during a routine traffic stop.

And in Florida last fall, three K9s had to be rushed to an animal hospital because they sniffed just enough of the drug to suffer overdoses, according to local reports.

None of the agencies that spoke with The State newspaper reported having to use overdose reversal drugs for their K9s, but they say they’re taking steps to ensure they don’t have to use the drugs in the first place.

Sgt. Alan Cox, a master trainer with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, said K9 handlers are trained to be on constant alert with their dogs. Because they spend so much time together, handlers should be able to recognize any change in behavior that could indicate possible exposure to a drug.

“I’m adamant that our dogs have access to Narcan just like our officers do,” Cox said. Because the overdose reversal drug simply inhibits receptors he said he’d rather it be used even if an officer simply suspects their dog has been exposed to drugs.

But how K9 handlers approach their job has changed depending on the agency. The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, for example, has abandoned field testing of drugs and is observing other departments that are exploring “booties” for dogs so that the drugs are not absorbed through their paws, said Capt. Adam Myrick, spokesman for the agency.

“It takes just a few granules,” Myrick said. “We’re reminding our deputies, ‘Don’t do any field testing.’ Out of an abundance of caution, ‘Double bag it and bring it in.’”

Like the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, Blendowski said Columbia police officers do not send their dogs into homes where drugs are in plain view. And the Richland County Sheriff’s Department is hesitant to have dogs search cars to avoid a potential overdose, Cox said.

It can happen “every stop we go on,” Cox said. “But we’re doing everything we can to make sure dogs are not coming into (contact with) fentanyl.”

There’s no one recipe on how each agency is going to operate in the face of opioids on the streets, said Cox, who has trained K9s for other departments as well. He said he no longer teaches dogs to indicate they have found drugs by scratching, to prevent drug flakes of a drug from going airborne. The dogs now sit as a signal.

Blendowski and Cox both said it’s all a matter of adjusting to the ever-changing climate of law enforcement.

“Having Narcan is just another tool to keep officers safe and keeping our police K9s safe,” Blendowski said.