The unfortunate loss of a service dog in the line of action is not only a hit to the public service agency they serve in terms of lost resources, but also a hit to the agency in terms of morale.

To them, losing a service dog in the line of action feels like losing a member of their team or cohort, they say.

“It left a huge hole in our hearts,” West Jordan Police Sgt. Ken Dallholt said at a press conference Tuesday, sharing a painful incident that occurred in February 2022 when a West Jordan police K-9 named Maya was shot and killed while trying to apprehend a fugitive. “It’s immeasurable the pain that we felt from that, and we are still trying to recover from it today — we’ve done things to better ourselves, and this program is one of those things.”

In collaboration with local veterinarians, specialized animal hospitals, and public safety agencies, Intermountain Life Flight is breaking new ground by offering an effective solution to get service dogs injured in the line of duty immediate care — no such protocol existed before for K-9 units injured in the field.

Intermountain Health announced a program on Tuesday that enables its fleet of Life Flight air vehicles to assist Utah K-9s in need by providing emergency care and transport for police dogs when they are injured or fall ill in the line of duty.

“We give them the speed they need to get them to the care they need,” Tammy Bleak, director of clinical operations for Intermountain Life Flight, said during the announcement at its hangar in Salt Lake City. She explained that giving first aid trauma care to a dog and giving the same care to a person, operationally, aren’t as drastically different situations as most people would think. Life Flight crews have been trained to administer aid to K-9s injured in the line of duty and transport them to a veterinary facility for further care.

West Jordan K9 Reeta wears a Life Flight bandana in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. Collaboration with local veterinarians, specialized animal hospitals and public safety agencies, Intermountain Life Flight is launching a specialized K9 air transport service for public agency service animals who are injured in the line of duty. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Public safety agencies involved in the program have implemented new medical and first aid training in their K-9 training programs to prevent further tragedies like the death of K-9 Maya from happening in the future. The training and purchasing of dogs to become K-9s can cost tens of thousands of dollars per dog, so K-9s are an expensive asset. Even more so, though, the agencies that these K-9s belong to and their handlers consider their dogs to be valuable members of their teams.

“He lives with me, he goes to work with me every day, he eats lunch with me — he pretty much goes everywhere with me,” said Box Elder County Sheriff’s deputy Timothy Kennedy about his K-9 companion, a 20-month-old narcotics dog named Elvis. “Knowing that there is quality medical care available to him like there would be for you and I is a very big thing.”

K-9 handlers from multiple public safety agencies, including police departments from across northern Utah, fire departments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Utah Task Force One brought their K-9 counterparts to celebrate the announcement. These service dogs serve the state alongside their handlers in a multitude of ways and are regarded as one of the most valuable assets and a part of the team by their handlers and agencies.

Brigham City Officer Kyle Whitaker and his dog Rocco stand near a helicopter at Intermountain Life Flight hangar in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. Collaboration with local veterinarians, specialized animal hospitals and public safety agencies, Intermountain Life Flight is launching a specialized K9 air transport service for public agency service animals who are injured in the line of duty. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Some K-9 operatives are trained as patrol dogs that specialize in assisting officers in dangerous situations, some are trained to sniff out narcotics or follow the scent trails of missing persons and others specialize in locating people — both alive and dead — in emergency situations such as earthquakes or fires.

From a purely logistical standpoint, K-9 units are valuable assets that are available to the communities they serve in the event of an emergency. With a sense of smell 100,000 times more sensitive than that of humans, K-9s are indispensable for their ability to identify scent trails and follow them — a valuable tool in helping to solve missing persons cases.

“Our goal is to keep them healthy so they can go on to save human lives,” explained Dr. Laura McLain, the veterinary medical director for Intermountain Life Flight operations K-9 Transport program, at the press conference.

The Intermountain Life Flight K-9 Air Medical Transport Service is the third program of its kind in the country and has been in operation since Feb. 1 and has, fortunately, not yet been dispatched on a K-9 rescue — but should such a situation arise, K-9s injured in the line of duty and their handlers can rest easy knowing that help is not far behind.