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The surprising reason more police dogs are dying in the line of duty

U.S. Border Patrol officer Noe Bazan and his dog, Billy, compete in the 2015 Police and Fire Games in Reston. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

By all accounts, Wednesday's encounter between French police and a group of suspected terrorists in the Paris suburbs was an incredibly violent one: 5,000 bullets fired, dozens of grenades thrown, bodies so damaged that at first authorities were unable to say how many people had been killed.

So it's somewhat remarkable that there was only one fatality on the police side of the showdown: Diesel, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois police dog who was sent into the apartment at one point to check for survivors. The dog was killed when one of the people in the apartment detonated a suicide vest.

Diesel's death sparked a popular hashtag and an outpouring of respect and grief on social media. And it highlighted the role specially trained dogs play in often dangerous law enforcement situations in France, as well as right here in the United States.

It's unclear exactly how many police dogs are active in the United States. Jim Watson, director of the North American Police Work Dog Association, gave a "wild guess" of around 50,000 dogs in 2010. The dogs are deployed to various domestic law enforcement agencies, doing everything from bomb- and drug-sniffing to chasing down suspected criminals.

And, unfortunately, police dog work can sometimes be deadly. The Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks police fatalities in the line of duty, includes numbers on police dog fatalities as well. Their numbers show that in 2015 so far, 26 police dogs have been killed in the line of duty — a number that's up sharply over the previous two years.

In the most recent incident they've tracked, a dog named Hyco with the Anderson County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina was shot and killed while chasing a group of suspected carjackers. In September, a police dog named Ike in Washington state was stabbed multiple times while attempting to subdue a suspect and had to be euthanized due to the extent of his injuries.

But while a number of dogs have died at the hands of a suspected criminal this year, the ODMP's numbers show that canine officers face an even bigger threat: heat exhaustion, particularly from being left in a squad car on a hot day.

This year alone at least 11 dogs died from heat exhaustion, according to the ODMP. In August, two dogs with the Baltimore City Detention Center died when the air conditioning failed in a vehicle they were in. In Florida, an officer was suspended without pay in May when he inadvertently left two police dogs in a car at his home.

The heat deaths "happen at a pretty alarming rate," said Steve Weiss, an NYPD lieutenant who serves as ODMP's Director of Research. "I was surprised by how often it happens."

Weiss says that many K9 unit vehicles are now being outfitted with electronic systems that automatically regulate heat and humidity. Some systems can alert remote officers if the AC fails or the temperature gets too high, and allow them to immediately pop the trunk or doors to allow dogs to escape. More widespread adoption of these systems would cut down on the heat exhaustion deaths, according to Weiss.

Weiss says better laws protecting police dogs would help too. "The laws in many states involving the deaths of police animals are not very strict," he said. "Every state is different."

Update: This piece has been updated to reflect that authorities do not currently believe the woman in the apartment, Hasna Aitboulahcen, detonated the suicide vest.