Tales of Tails: Know what steps to take to rescue a dog in a hot car

The Santa Fe Fiesta Children’s Pet Parade is the perfect place to find a great story or two about dogs and people. Thus, last week Laurie and I got up early, drove to town and wound our way through the crowd to watch this traditional Fiesta event. Dogs! Kids in Costumes! Lizards and high school bands! (Go Capital Jaguars!)

We watched, took notes and then went to breakfast. I was testing ideas with Laurie, but nothing seemed to capture her attention. Of course, I was competing against Harry’s Roadhouse breakfast burritos.

But coming out of the Roadhouse, Laurie spotted two dogs sitting in a car, the windows cracked open.

It was 11 a.m., sunny and hot. Even with the windows partially opened, we could see that the dogs were hot. They were both panting.

I looked at Laurie and I could see her getting upset. This was a borderline situation, the windows were open and the dogs were getting air, but Laurie is the most passionate person I know about dogs in hot cars.

She turned to me and said, “You need to get me one of those window punches.” We use window punches at the fire department to quickly and safely take out a car window to gain access to victims after a car crash.

She was mad. But there was history here.

Two decades ago, we had been on vacation and had left our dogs with a house sitter. Somehow, our German shepherd had gotten into our parked car, got trapped and died of heat stroke. The house sitter had called us in hysterics after finding Riva dead. Neither of us has gotten over that. So, when Laurie asked for a window punch, I knew she was serious.

Here are the facts about dogs in cars: According to the Humane Society of the United States, when it is 80 degrees outside, the interior of a car can reach nearly 100 degrees in 10 minutes. At a balmy 72 degrees, a car can heat up to over 115 degrees in an hour. Cracked windows don’t do that much to help keep a car cool.

Don’t believe it? Park your car in the sun, open the windows an inch or so and then sit in your car for 30 minutes.

For most dogs, a body temperature above 103 degrees is abnormal, and if it reaches 106 degrees, heat stroke can occur. Heat stroke is when the body can no longer maintain a healthy temperature. Internal temperatures spike, organs fail, followed by a coma and death. It can happen quickly.

I’ve seen only one human case of heat stroke as an EMT. The patient went from talking to us in the Arizona desert to unconscious in 10 minutes. It was terrifying. Thirty minutes later in the hospital, her brain was swelling. She survived, but only because she had rapid and sophisticated intervention … something that will not be available for most dogs trapped in a car.

So here is Laurie’s dilemma: What do you do when you see a dog in a car that is in distress? Panting, excessively drooling, even panicked?

I start by asking, “What would you do if you saw an infant in an overheated car?”

First, I would call 911 and tell the operator what was going on and to have the police and fire departments respond. Then, I would get help. I’d find people to go into the surrounding stores and restaurants and urgently talk to the managers and let them try to find the vehicle’s driver.

Then I would I go back to the car. If I felt that the situation was worse, that the dog was in extreme danger, I would again call 911 and keep the person on the phone. I would make sure that I had witnesses to what I was going to do next.

As a last resort, with a dog’s life in danger, I’d break the window, just like I’d do for a child. And of course, there would be legal consequences. But I’m not going to let a dog die from heat stroke and negligence.

This, of course, is the extreme example. Hopefully the owner will be found in time and be apologetic. Hopefully, police and fire department officials will respond in time. Hopefully. But if not, Laurie’s and my plan is to never let a dog die in that situation.

So I got Laurie her window punch. And we both hope that she’ll never have to use it.

For more writings by Hersch Wilson on dogs, firefighters and life go to herschwilson.com. Contact him at hersch.wilson@mac.com.