University of Wisconsin–Madison

For the Dogs in Blue

If you ask Deputy Jason Behm about his partner, Harlow, he’ll tell you without hesitation that he’s the perfect K9.

“He’s the ideal blend of personality and — when it comes to work — intensity,” says Behm, a 16-year veteran of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

Off-duty or on, the 5-year-old Belgian Malinois-German Shepherd mix is an affection hound. When Harlow trots into a room, he makes the rounds, imploring everyone with his eyes for a scratch or a rub. And if that fails, he uses his muzzle, his tongue, his paws, and so on. It’s clear he thrives on interactions with people, and he returns the favor by making a difference in peoples’ lives through his work.

A prime example — last year, Behm and Harlow were dispatched to a missing person case, where a dog’s nose becomes invaluable. Harlow performed admirably, leading the search party through a forested county park where, sadly, they found a deceased individual. Despite a somber outcome, the bereaved family of the missing person was so grateful for Harlow’s help that they mailed a thank you letter to the Sheriff’s Department shortly after the incident. That Christmas, they sent a donation to the K9 unit.

Like so many police dogs, Harlow’s contributions are remarkable. But in late 2016, his career was in danger of ending early. Harlow began experiencing severe stiffness in his joints as well as extreme lethargy. After initial treatments at his primary care clinic were not entirely effective, he was referred to the Small Animal Internal Medicine Service at UW Veterinary Care (UWVC).

Following an ultrasound, X-rays, and a series of blood and fluid tests by the clinical pathology team, clinical instructor Hattie Bortnowski and resident Allison Leuin confirmed that effusion (swelling) in multiple joints was causing his symptoms. More specifically, analysis of fluid samples from Harlow’s joints made them suspect immune-mediated polyarthropathy, a condition in which a dog’s immune system triggers an antibody response that causes arthritis in more than one joint. Fortunately, the treatment they prescribed, a course of common steroids called prednisone, has worked well to reduce the swelling.

“It helped us save his career,” says Behm. “He’s bounced back to a point where he seems better than he was as a puppy.”

Harlow, a K9 with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, waits patiently during a follow-up examination at UW Veterinary Care. (Photo: Nik Hawkins)

In seeking help for Harlow, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office benefited from a new effort at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) to make care even more accessible to K9 units in Wisconsin.

“In the past, students, employees, and friends of the school have banded together to raise funds for protective vests for K9s,” says Ruthanne Chun DVM’91, associate dean for clinical affairs and director of UWVC. “But, to really recognize the crucial role police dogs play in law enforcement, we wanted to be a more intentional sponsor for them, and in a formal way.”

To that end, in late summer 2016, UWVC sent letters to nearly 130 law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Those in Dane County, UWVC’s primary service area, were offered $5,000 in credit for services at regular rates and a 50% discount on any service beyond that for each calendar year. Agencies outside of Dane County were offered a 50% discount.

UWVC has built the credited services into its budget, and the SVM covers all discounted costs using its unrestricted gift funds. As of February 2017, 45 agencies have taken advantage of the offer by signing agreements with UWVC.

“It’s a tremendous help,” says Behm, whose K9 unit has three dogs. “Without it, a more complicated health issue could break our budget.”

For the Madison Police Department, which raises funds for its eight-dog unit through a non-profit organization called Capital K9s, the credited and discounted services go a long way. In addition to veterinary medical care and training for their dogs, the unit has to fundraise for specially outfitted squad cars, computers, and other capital expenses. Any money they can save at the animal hospital can be redirected to these other areas.

“In this environment, where money is so tight, every penny matters,” says Sgt. Jeff Felt, who supervises the MPD’s K9 Unit. “From the standpoint of the care the dogs receive, which is first priority, and from an expense standpoint, it’s been absolutely beneficial.”

Other local veterinary medical clinics have also provided discounted services for the MPD, and several vendors have donated food as well. Without their generosity, and that of the SVM, the K9 Unit would not exist, Felt says. But the true beneficiaries are the communities the dogs serve.

K9s take part in a wide range of police duties. They are perhaps best known for tracking and locating armed suspects and missing persons. But they also prevent potential confrontations with suspects by barking warnings to officers or simply by encouraging a surrender through their intimidating presence.

Police dogs also help law enforcement agencies engage in better ways with their communities. Felt and the MPD K9 Unit give more than 100 public demonstrations each year, and nothing reaches people who may be skeptical or untrusting quite like a friendly nuzzle or a palm lick from a dog.

“These are challenging times for law enforcement,” says Felt. “It’s amazing how the dogs have the ability to break down barriers. It’s quite powerful to make that connection.”

A large portion of the work done by K9s is conducted behind the scenes. For example, prior to major events like concerts, athletic competitions, and visits from dignitaries, specially trained police dogs and their handlers sweep through venues, looking for bombs and other dangers.

“They make our jobs safer,” says Felt. “But more importantly, they truly help us keep the community as safe as possible.”

More SVM Support for K9s

The UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) has found other ways to support local K9 units beyond credited and discounted services at UW Veterinary Care.

For example, police dogs suffer stab or gunshot wounds in the line of duty each year, but many law enforcement agencies do not have the additional funds necessary to purchase canine body armor. In recent years, students, staff, faculty, and friends of the SVM have pooled together donations to fund protective vests for five different police dogs from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Madison Police Department, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department.

This effort helps keep K9s out of harm’s way, but injuries are inevitable in a line of work as dangerous as law enforcement. So knowing how to perform basic first aid on a dog in the field could be a critical, life-saving skill for police officers and emergency medical technicians.

Recognizing this, the Dane County Sheriff’s Department reached out to the SVM for veterinary medical training for their deputies and medics. In February 2017, Jonathan Bach, clinical associate professor of emergency and critical care, volunteered his time to demonstrate basic first aid as well as triage techniques.

He walked deputies through the fundamentals of injury assessment and treatment, such as checking vital signs, recognizing bloating and heat stroke, and responding to more serious trauma, such as tourniquet application. For medics, Bach discussed airway management, administration of intravenous access (IV), chest compression techniques, the use of splints and backboards to secure long bone fractures, and wound treatment. He also covered ways to prevent heat exhaustion, proper dosages of anesthetics, and how to use Narcan to combat an overdose in the event a drug-sniffing dog is exposed to an opioid.

Nik Hawkins