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Protecting Lafayette’s Four-Legged Finest

Purdue provides training to save police dogs from opioid overdoses

As a K9 Tippecanoe County Community Corrections veteran, 6-year-old Belgian Malinois Vasco is trained specifically to smell illegal drugs. But because of his high-risk job going into the homes of suspected drug offenders, he is at considerable risk for drug exposure.

So, the veterinarians at Purdue Veterinary Hospital provided K9 police officers with training on the emergency drug Narcan to keep police dogs like Vasco safe.

Narcan is an opiate antidote that can reverse symptoms of an overdose, giving emergency responders more time for life-saving treatment for victims. Municipal Narcan programs for humans are commonly carried out under training provided by medical doctors. But to provide the necessary training in K9 programs for dogs that might be exposed in the line of duty, programs need veterinarians.

Current trends are demanding it. Fentanyl, a pain-relieving opioid usually used in cancer treatment, is made illegally for its heroin-like effects. Both fentanyl and a similar drug called carfentanil are especially dangerous because of their astonishing potency — a lethal dose of fentanyl looks like a few granules of salt, and is so powdery it can float in the air. It takes even less carfentanil to induce an overdose.

Since 2015, several emergency responders in Greater Lafayette have been carrying Narcan with them to use in cases of human narcotic overdoses. The drug has been credited with a steep drop in heroin deaths in Tippecanoe County over the last year.

But with the frequent use of K9 officers in houses and cars where drugs might be present, area police saw the need to train officers in Narcan’s use for their dogs. Sergeant B.T. Brown, a Lafayette Police Department supervisor who oversees the Tippecanoe County Metro K9 unit, heard reports from around the country where police dogs, exposed to fentanyl during a routine drug search, had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment for opioid overdose.

"We haven't had an exposure problem in Greater Lafayette with the dogs yet, but we need to be prepared in case we do," Brown says. "It's without question that opiate-based drugs have had a huge influence on the Lafayette area. We see it literally every day."

Paula Johnson and Elizabeth Thomovsky, along with their emergency and critical care team, were ready to help police with expert training. "We gave the officers hands-on training on how to give intramuscular injections and intranasal administration after a lecture," says Johnson, clinical assistant professor of emergency and critical care. “The risk for a dog is not just oral ingestion [of opioids]. The drug can be airborne, or there could be dermal exposure if some lands on the dog's coat. Any of the powder that they're exposed to can be ingested later while the dog is grooming or just walking around. It can even be absorbed through their paws."

A dog exposed to opioids will display a wide range of symptoms, from stumbling and sedation, to excitability and nervousness, which can change the preferred Narcan administration method in the moment — either as a nasal spray or by intramuscular injection.

Having this particular training gives officers comfort and confidence that they can care for their esteemed dogs in a crisis. Greater Lafayette police officers say it's a particular honor to be a K9 handler. Experienced police officers undergo a long application process to become a handler, and must be willing to commit years of their lives to living and working with a K9 partner every day. The dogs undergo years of expensive, focused training, learning specialized search and tracking methods. And once they’re deployed, they live with their handler and work as that officer's primary police partner until the dog's retirement. At that point, the dogs usually live out the remainder of their lives with that officer.

"This is a lifetime commitment,” Brown says. “They're not only working dogs, but our friends."