Determining cause of death

Charlie Powell

The city of Moscow has appropriated money to purchase a trained canine for law enforcement. That dog will come with significant benefits and potentially some remarkable liabilities.

In most communities, law enforcement canines, or police dogs, bring mostly good will and capabilities to assist their fellow officers. In some jurisdictions, a police dog is the equivalent of a sworn officer and comes with all of the attendant legal enhancements if they are assaulted or killed, just as a human would.

News reports say Moscow’s dog will be a scent dog trained on three specific drugs — heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. That’s a good thing as these three drugs have a significant impact in the U.S. albeit less so than national averages locally.

In most communities, police dogs bring a lot of good public relations. Children love the dogs and the dogs usually do well with children and the public.

There is however the purchase price, continued training, and ancillary costs to consider. Those costs are steep and not getting less so. Optimal, documented veterinary care will be expensive but not as expensive as it would be for animals trained to pursue and take down suspects or locate potential burglars hiding in false ceilings. Those animals get hurt a lot and their time of service is less.

Optimal veterinary care? Data compiled by both large corporate veterinary practices and animal food companies shows clearly that dogs taken to the veterinarian once or twice a year for wellness checks versus “illness” checks will live longer and overall cost less than waiting until they fall ill.

There are also several law firms out there that pursue cases against agencies that employ police dogs. Now most of these involve pursue-and-bite dogs, but some come after the drug sniffers, too.

Depending on how the dog is trained to convey an alert, it can make all the difference. If the alert is to sit and wait for a reward, that is one way. If the dog is allowed to go nuts, jump up on the car and scratch at the driver’s door, damages to paint and trim may result. Someone will have to pay, especially if no drugs are found.

Drug sniffing dogs are also vulnerable to counterattack. Drug dogs have been baited into traps where harmful chemicals or deadfall hazards are set to eliminate the dog. Oklahoma has a law specifically addressing the matter of booby traps set for police dogs.

Finally, there is the little issue of drug-sniffing dogs who alert on every vehicle or suspect. That provides probable cause for further search by the officers themselves.

This past May, Daryl James, writing for Reason Magazine in the Fourth Amendment section, had an article titled: “The Police Dog Who Cried Drugs at Every Traffic Stop.”

The piece details that from January 2018 until 2020, the Republic, Wash., dog Karma gave an “alert” indicating the presence of drugs 100 percent of the time during roadside sniffs outside vehicles. The police involved called him, “probable cause on four legs.” There are many more examples, too.

A 2011, a UC Davis study showed handler cues can influence drug detection dogs. When human handlers believed that narcotics were hidden in test areas, their canine partners were much more likely to indicate the presence of drugs — even when no drugs actually existed.

Lisa Lit, a postdoctoral fellow in the UC Davis Department of Neurology and the study’s lead author at the time said, “It isn’t just about how sensitive a dog’s nose is or how well-trained a dog is. There are cognitive factors affecting the interaction between a dog and a handler that can impact the dog’s performance.”

Nonetheless, I wish the Moscow Police Department the best with its dog.

Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.