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Healthcare For Retired Police Dogs Stalled In House

Benny the bomb sniffing dog.
Nick Evans

When Florida’s law enforcement officers retire, they get a pension.  Well, most of them do.  One lawmaker wants to extend retirement support to a group on the front line of policing that currently gets none—police dogs.

“I remember very clearly like it was yesterday,” Rep. Dave Kerner (D-Palm Springs) begins.  He represents the West Palm Beach area community in the House, but in a past life he was a police officer in Alachua.

“I got a call about two in the morning for a robbery in progress—an armed robbery in progress at a place called Sonic,” Kerner says.  “And I remember being very scared, we knew that we had an armed robbery in progress.”

“We go into the building,” he continues, “and the first person in that building wasn’t me, it wasn’t Officer Vargas, who was the canine handler, it was Nico.  Nico was our canine at the time.”

Now maybe you missed that, but Rep. Kerner referred to Nico as the first person to enter the building.  That kind of gets to the role law enforcement dogs play in their departments.  They’re a part of the team.  They’re valued for the unique skills they bring to the table—and there’s a lot of them. 

Dogs are used for pursuit and apprehension, or for tracking, for drug and bomb detection, and search and rescue.  When you think of a police dog the image that comes to mind is probably a German Shepherd or a Belgian Malinois—these dogs specialize in pursuit and apprehension like Nico.  But there are many other breeds, too.  Blood hounds are often connected with tracking, beagles are known for sniffing out drugs, and then there’s dogs like Benny.

Benny is a four-year-old yellow lab and he works with the Capitol Police.  His handler, Russ Clark, says Benny specializes in bomb detection.

“To the normal eye it looks like we’re walking the dog,” he says, “but we’re searching trash cans, and open areas, and just general security of the entire Capitol complex.”

Clark explains all dogs working in law enforcement put extra wear and tear on their bodies, but the impact varies depending on the work they do.

“His hips—that’s the main concern for a dog like Benny,” Clark says, “is the long term wear and tear on his hips.  That’s pretty much it for a dog like him.  For an apprehension dog you might have teeth problems.  They also have hip problems.”

And that wear and tear has an effect on a dog’s career.  Clark says apprehension dogs typically work around six years, but he expects Benny will be able to work for ten.  While the dogs are working, their medical costs are covered by the law enforcement agency, but when they retire, their medical needs don’t disappear, and sometimes the costs can be significant.  When dogs like Benny retire, they usually stay with their handler, and Rep. Kerner doesn’t want to put an undue burden on those families.

I don’t want any handler to ever have to choose between taking care of their dog or taking care of their family.  So this bill would go a long way for the police officers of our state, and just as importantly, would a long way to make sure these canines have the care that they deserve.”

Kerner’s bill would set up a fund administered by a non-profit that would reimburse medical costs for police dogs.  The annual reimbursement for any dog is capped at $1,500, and the non-profit would have to agree to audits, but Kerner says the outlook isn’t great.  It passed its first committee unanimously, but it’s currently stalled in the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee—largely over price tag concerns.  House staff estimates put the annual appropriation for the program at about $300,000, although Kerner says it’s not likely entire sum would be used in a given year.  Justice Appropriations meets Tuesday—probably for the last time this session—and Kerner’s bill is not on the docket.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.