Baltimore County police Officer Stephen Roesler spends more time with his 85-pound German shepherd than he does with anyone else.
When they are out on patrol, Roesler said, he trusts the drug-detecting dog with his life.
With the rise of powerful synthetic opioids across the state, Roesler said it’s vital that police officers know how to protect their K-9 partners should they be exposed to a substance such as fentanyl or carfentanil — both much stronger and more deadly than heroin.
Throughout Maryland, police departments have been training officers in their K-9 units on how to administer an opioid overdose reversal drug to their dogs in case they accidentally come into contact with these substances while sniffing for narcotics.
In Baltimore County, officers like Roesler learned how to use naloxone — known by its brand name, Narcan — on their dogs last year. It’s administered nasally, in the same way and with the same dosage officers are instructed to use on humans. County K-9 officers now carry two vials of Narcan with them, while other patrol officers hold just one.
“These dogs, partnered with their handlers, are in many ways considered police officers themselves,” said Lt. Joseph Peach, commander of the county’s K-9 unit. “Dogs need to be able to get medical remediation the same way a police officer does.”
A “microscopic amount” of these synthetic opioids would be fatal to a dog, said New York-based veterinarian Paul McNamara.
McNamara runs ODIN’s Fund, a non-profit that provides first aid training to K-9 units across the country. He said he’s been inundated with questions from police agencies recently about how to train officers to give Narcan to dogs.
“These dogs are on the front line,” McNamara said. “They’re the ones going into the car and sniffing for drugs, the ones we’re using to combat this epidemic. … I don’t want to meet a handler whose dog passed away, who we could’ve potentially saved if we’d only been more proactive.”
There haven’t yet been any K-9 overdoses in Maryland, according to Peach and other police agencies in the state. But the fear, and very real possibility, still exists.
“These substances are so volatile and dangerous,” Peach said. “We want to be out in front of this — there may not be time afterwards.”
Three dogs in Broward County, Fla., were sniffing out a suspect’s home in October when they got a whiff of some unseen fentanyl, said the county’s head trainer, Det. Andy Weiman. The dogs suddenly became unable to move or stand, their eyes fixed in a blank stare. Officers rushed the dogs to an animal hospital, where one was given a dose of naloxone. None had lasting effects from the exposure.
The risk of accidental exposure applies to humans, as well. Harford County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Kevin Phillips had to be given Narcan earlier this year, after coming into contact with a dangerous substance while responding to a house call for an overdose victim.
The substance found at the scene was a mixture of heroin, fentanyl and lactose, police said. It has not been determined exactly how Phillips was exposed, the department said in May. Fentanyl can be ingested or absorbed through the skin.
K-9 handlers in Harford County have been carrying Narcan for their dogs for more than a decade, said spokeswoman Cristie Kahler, though it hasn’t ever had to be administered.
Police departments said they’re taking precautions to mitigate the risk of exposure to dogs. Baltimore City police Officer Steve Sturm said he vigilantly scans his surroundings before bringing his K-9 in.
He said he looks for loose powder or residue that could be harmful to his nine-year-old dog, Abu.
In a video released last year, Jack Riley, a deputy administrator with the Drug Enforcement Administration, urged officers to take caution when their dogs may be near fentanyl.
“Fentanyl can kill our canine companions and partners just as easy as it can humans,” he said.
Maryland State Police — along with officers in K-9 units in Howard, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Washington counties — are also trained to give Narcan to their dogs.
Baltimore City police began training officers in how to administer it to K-9s earlier this year, said spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert.
The city is running low on naloxone, with only about 4,000 doses left to last until next May, city Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen said in June. More than 2,000 people in Maryland fatally overdosed in 2016 — a 66 percent increase from 2015.
About one-third of those deaths were in Baltimore, which has an estimated 21,000 active heroin users, according to the city health department.
State Del. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties, said the fact that dogs may require naloxone highlights the need for more doses of the antidote to be made available in the city and elsewhere. Lam sponsored legislation that will give -first responders new protection from liability when providing aid to animals during emergencies. The law takes effect Oct. 1.
“This situation is emblematic of the need for better resources in our communities,” Lam said. “That K-9s could be exposed to opioids is a reflection of the epidemic we’re seeing.”