An important officer for the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force is recovering well from a health scare that has kept her from duties for several months...
Sassy, a three-year-old Belgian Malinois, is a full time K-9 officer for the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, serving the Minnesota counties of Murray, Nobles and Pipestone. She joined the force in November 2014 and has proven to be a very valuable addition to the team as a drug detection dog.
She was diagnosed with heartworm after a routine screening during her regular checkup at Pipestone Veterinary Services came back positive. After a second positive screening, Pipestone staff also found a baby heartworm through a microscope.
Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets in the United States and many other parts of the world. It is caused by worms that can grow up to a foot long that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body. "Because Sassy is such an active dog who is driven and trained to work, we wanted to conduct additional testing to make sure she had the best potential for recovery and return to working status," said Dr. Nicole Weber, veterinarian at Pipestone Veterinary Services in Pipestone, Minnesota.
Sassy was taken to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center for an echocardiogram to look for any evidence of heart disease or other issues that might hinder her full recovery. "They only found evidence of a single heartworm and all the tests were good, so we are very optimistic about her chance to make a full recovery," said Dr. Weber.
Dr. Weber said that Sassy is following a 271 day treatment protocol recommended by the American Heartworm Society. It includes a regimen of oral medications to eliminate any young heartworms in bloodstream as well as injections to kill the adult heartworms in heart. She has responded well to treatment that began in May. The most challenging part of the treatment protocol is requiring that she be kept inactive and calm while the medicines are fighting the heartworms inside her. If she is too active, the dying heartworm could cause blockages in blood vessels or other issues.
"It has been a long four months for her to stay in the crate and kennel nearly all the time," said Edison Dengler, Sassy's handler and Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force agent. "She is an active dog and loves doing her job, so she has been frustrated with the limited activity."
Sassy lives with the Dengler family and goes to work with Agent Dengler each day. She has been able to come to work each day, but stays in the kennel specially built into the squad car instead of participating in normal activities. Sassy has become a tremendous asset for the Buffalo Ridge Task Force. She is trained as a 'passive alert' dog, meaning that when she finds drugs, she sits and stares at the object until a human officer comes to investigate. "It is like a game for her. She is excited to go to work every day," said Agent Dengler. However, he notes that her finds are definitely not play. She has been able to detect numerous stashes of drugs resulting in tens of thousands of dollars' worth of confiscated drugs, and helped keep human officers safe.
Dr. Weber and Agent Dengler credit regular checkups and preventative heartworm medications for Sassy's relatively mild case of heartworm and positive prognosis.
They believe that Sassy actually had been infected with heartworm before she arrived in Minnesota. Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitos and is much more common in southern states, where Sassy had been for her K-9 and drug detection training. However, it often takes up to seven months from the original mosquito bite for heartworm to be able to be detected through the regular screenings.
She had been tested in 2015 and received a negative result. She has been on monthly preventative medicines since arriving in Minnesota. "The preventative medicines may have helped prevent baby heartworms from surviving, which could be why we only found one worm in her system," said Dr. Weber. Although heartworm is relatively rare in northern states like Minnesota, Dr. Weber says she and colleagues are seeing more cases, and encourages regular screenings and preventative medicines. Like most dogs, Sassy didn't show any symptoms before the heartworm was detected, so screenings during check-ups are important.
Sassy is just one of two K-9 officers working in Pipestone County. Igor is a dual trained dog that has been working for about 8 years. He works on both patrol and in narcotic detection.
Agent Dengler says that the dogs are extremely valuable to the police force in several ways. First, they can help protect the safety of human officers to more safely take down suspects or investigate potential drug stashes. Especially in rural areas, they are able to help with tracking people - whether finding a felon, or locating a lost child or adult. They are also a good deterrent for criminal activity.
"If someone knows that there are two or three K-9 officers working in the county that can be brought in to detect drugs in a car or home, they are more likely to avoid bringing criminal activity here in the first place," he said.
Finally, the dogs are a good way to share information about the police and drug task force with the public. Officers take the K-9 officers to schools and other public events. "Kids relate well to the dogs and help build positive relationships with human officers and understand what we are doing to protect citizens," said Agent Dengler. Pipestone Veterinary Services provides veterinary care for Sassy, Igor and other K-9 officers in Pipestone and surrounding counties.