It was high noon and the asphalt was steaming, but the hulking black dog in a cruiser behind the Howard County police headquarters in Ellicott City was cool as a refrigerated dog biscuit.
And, yesterday, the police got some insurance that they hope will keep that dog and the other four members of the county's police dog corps cool under the collar, even if a cruiser's air conditioning breaks down in the middle of a searing August afternoon.
Three "Hotdog" temperature monitoring systems -- a gift from the VCA Lewis Animal Hospital in Columbia -- will be installed in patrol cars to protect the dogs in case of emergency.
If the air conditioning quits and the temperature rises, the new Hotdog alarm will lower the car windows, activate the horn and lights and page the officer.
"One of the biggest concerns to us, as canine handlers, is the heat. And this will be a way of making a fail-safe system," said Howard police dog handler Tom Harding. "They're our partners, and they mean a lot to us."
In extreme heat, a dog shut in an unventilated car can suffer from heatstroke in a matter of minutes, according to Dr. Anthony Kanakry, medical director for Lewis Animal Hospital. Every year, many animals die that way, experts say.
"On a day like this, we don't recommend pets even be outside at all," said Kanakry, who explained that dogs absorb heat quickly and have no way to let it out except by panting.
Kanakry emphasized that the heat monitors are not meant to be used by people other than police officers.
"We don't want people to be able to use them as a safeguard, while they're out running errands or something," said Kanakry. "No one should ever leave their kids or their pets in the car."
The Hotdog temperature monitors, which are made by law enforcement system manufacturer Criminalistics Inc. of Miami, have been used by police departments since they were developed in 1980. Criminalistics President Janet Worsham said the $350 to $500 monitors are used in at least one police department in every state in the country.
"We sell from 4,000 to 5,000 a year," said Worsham. She said that number has risen steadily since the devices were introduced. "Policemen value their dogs," she said. "The dogs are a big investment for them, especially considering they don't have to pay them a salary. And heatstroke is a dumb way to lose them."
Figures collected by the U.S. Police Canine Association in 1999 estimate that two to three police dogs die every year of heatstroke.