The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the Friday death of a service dog, most likely from complications caused by heat exhaustion.
Robbie, a Belgian Malinois, served with his handler, Deputy Tommy Willcox, for six years before the incident. Willcox was placed on paid administrative leave Monday for circumstances not directly related to the incident with Robbie, said ASO spokesman Lt. Brandon Kutner. Kutner declined to elaborate on the specific circumstances relating to Willcox’s administrative leave.
While off duty at home in Newberry, Willcox responded to a call from the Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office Friday morning. Willcox brought Robbie with him to assist on the call, but it is unknown if he was used during the arrest, according to Kutner. Willcox later returned home, put away his gear and went to join his family for an outing.
That afternoon Robbie was discovered unresponsive in the back of the patrol car, Kutner said.
The high on Friday was 95 degrees with a heat index of 102.5, according to Weather Underground.
“At this point it’s pretty obvious that heat exhaustion is the primary cause, but we want to make sure there was no other medical complications,” Kutner said.
Doctor Marlene C. Pinera, owner of Affordable Vet Clinic in Newberry, said that on a day when the temperature is 96 degrees a dog left in a vehicle would experience complications from heat exhaustion after only three to five minutes. Even on a day when it’s only 70 degrees outside, the internal temperature of a car reaches about 89 degrees after 10 minutes.
ASO’s criminal investigation division is trying to piece together an accurate timeline surrounding the incident. The details regarding how he was left in the car and how long he was left in the car are currently unknown.
When handlers leave their K-9 partners in the patrol vehicle they are required to have it running and leave the air conditioning on, Kutner said.
There are heat sensors in patrol vehicles that will turn on safeguards if the internal temperature reaches between 87 and 91 degrees, depending on the sensor. The windows will roll down, a fan in the back of the vehicle will turn on, pulling in outside air, the horn or emergency siren will continuously go off and the handler will be alerted by a sensor that is clipped to their vests. These safeguards only occur when the patrol vehicle is left on however, a detail that ASO is hoping to find out through its investigation of the incident, according to Kutner.
“[Willcox] and his family are extremely heartbroken about this tragedy and it is weighing heavy not only on his family but the entire K-9 unit,” Kutner said.
Besides serving as an Alachua County deputy, Willcox is a member of SWAT and is in charge of K-9 training for the ASO. He had three previous K-9 partners: Jag, Kozar and Jet.
Jag retired and left ASO and Jet died of cancer after five years of being in service with Willcox.
Willcox kept Kozar, his second K-9 partner, after the dog retired. He was put down by a gunshot from Willcox during a K-9 training activity in 2008. Kozar was 13-years-old and was suffering from hip dysplasia and other medical concerns. Willcox faced criticism for this, but after an investigation, it was determined that no criminal violations were committed.
Since the incident in 2008, Sheriff Sadie Darnell made it policy that if a dog who once served with the K-9 Unit needs to be put down, it must be put down by injection from a veterinarian, even if it is owned as a personal pet.
Previous to Willcox’s time with ASO he was a military policeman through the Air Force and routinely worked with K-9 partners.
Once the investigation on the incident is completed, the report will be reviewed by higher-ups and given to the office of professional standards within the ASO.