Are Dogs the Newest Victims of the Opioid Epidemic?

A grain of fentanyl the size of a poppy seed can kill a police dog.

Posted Jun 14, 2018

U.S. Army photo — Public Domain
Source: U.S. Army photo — Public Domain

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national opioid epidemic is claiming in excess of 115 human lives every single day in America. However, there is growing concern about another group of potential victims.

Some of these new victims get into trouble simply because of the environment that they find themselves living in, while others are in jeopardy because of the work that they do. As an example of the first category, in Vancouver, British Columbia, a nurse named Sarah Gill was working at Insite (the supervised injection facility in the downtown area) when a couple brought in a friend who was suffering from symptoms of an opioid overdose. It turns out that their friend was an eight-week-old pit bull type puppy. The couple believed that the pup might have licked a cooker (a small tray used for mixing drugs) that someone had just used in their house. The fear was that the dog had ingested fentanyl. The puppy was certainly showing symptoms of an opioid overdose. Gill contacted a veterinarian and learned that treating the dog with Narcan (which also goes by the generic name of naloxone) would help reverse the effects in the dog as it does in humans. Therefore she administered a dose of it which fortunately saved the pup's life.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the accidental overdoses of dogs living with drug users is the fact that now, police service dogs are having their lives threatened by the increasing presence of very powerful narcotics as well. The culprits are the synthetic opioids that drug dealers are sprinkling on heroin in order to boost the high that users get. The two main culprits are fentanyl (100 times more powerful than morphine) and carfentanyl (which is 10,000 times more powerful). To understand what this means to a drug detection dog you must understand that a bit of powdered fentanyl, the size of a poppy seed or a grain or two of table salt, is enough to kill a 75 pound drug detection dog. The seriousness of this threat first became apparent to police officers when a detection dog in Broward County, Florida, showed signs of overdose after he assisted in a federal drug raid. Loss of motor function, gradual loss of consciousness and unexpected collapse are typical symptoms in such cases. Fortunately, if dogs are treated soon enough they will recover completely.

Police officers working in an area where the presence of fentanyl is suspected can wear breathing masks and use gloves to protect themselves from contact with the drug. Unfortunately no similar protection exists for the dogs who actually must get close to the substance to detect it. A few grains of powder absorbed into the mucous membranes of the nose, or around the eyes, may be enough to place the drug sniffing dog in peril. So police officers are changing their tactics somewhat. They now keep the dogs on leash in areas where they expect such opioids are going to be found. In addition canine handlers are now carrying Narcan, either in the typical injectable form, or as a nasal spray which can be administered to dogs if police suspect that they have been affected by these dangerous opioids.

However to see another aspect of the scope of this problem one must shift from a consideration of how a dog is worked in the field, to thinking about the problems associated with training a dog to detect these substances. Remember that only a minute amount of these drugs may be enough to place a dog in danger, so how do you train a dog to recognize the smell of such substances without risking its life? It is extremely important that the dogs be able to target fentanyl and its related compounds specifically, since recent data has shown that fentanyl has played a role in nearly 80% of recent drug overdose deaths.

Fortunately the problem of training service dogs to find synthetic opioids has recently been solved by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at their police dog training facility in Innisfail, Alberta. First the law enforcement scientists developed a technique to transform pure fentanyl into a diluted liquid form. A few drops of this substance can be placed on a gauze pad which then serves as the target that the narcotic detection canine must find. Without any powder granules involved, the dog can learn to detect the odor of such drugs without any risk. Also, instead of being trained to rush up to the location of drugs that they have detected and to dig at that place with their paws, the dogs are now trained to simply sit and look directly at the location where they have found the scent of drugs. This means that the dog will stop at a safe distance away from the lethal drugs, allowing their handlers, who may be wearing protective clothing, to safely apprehend and remove the lethal substances.

Initially there was some skepticism as to how effective this form of training might be, but that was put to rest when one of the first three dogs trained in this way was sent to British Columbia and his performance was assessed. At the time of this writing he has already intercepted in excess of 12,000 tablets of fentanyl, greatly improving the potential safety of many citizens in that province. With this evidence of the potential usefulness of their newly developed form of training the RCMP has decided to train all 139 of their existing narcotics detection dogs in this way. They have also made their techniques (and their training facility) available to a number of other police forces around the world.

For this breakthrough in safely and effectively training of drug detection dogs, the RCMP was honored by receiving a US Homeland Security Award in a ceremony in New York City. Out in the field where fentanyl is increasingly being found, these service dogs are still at risk. However these training advances have reduced this risk. In addition, the enhanced performance of such dogs should ultimately reduce the risk of human opioid overdoses by detecting these dangerous drugs and allowing them to be removed from circulation.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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