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With so many reports of police officers gunning down dogs in recent months, it’s hard to understand why law enforcement agencies don’t appropriately train their staff in how to deal with animals they encounter in the line of duty.
Surprisingly few police departments in the United States have offered any notable training for police officers in dealing with dogs. A Pennsylvania patrol officer who is a 12-year police veteran told Pets Adviser that at his department, “We did not receive any special training in the academy…. Our department has no special procedures for dealing with dogs.”
This doesn’t mean that officials aren’t aware that family pets are killed unnecessarily. The federal Department of Justice had its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services distribute a nationwide guide — “The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters” [PDF]. Complete with illustrations of dog postures, this indispensable guide is designed to better inform police officers of the intricacies of human-canine relationships and dog behavior.
Here are two excerpts from the guide:
“In fact, dogs are seldom dangerous. [Around the same number of] people are killed by lightning each year than by dogs. Despite the increase in the number of dogs and people in the United States, dog bite-related fatalities are exceedingly rare and have not increased over the last two decades.”
“Dogs respond to us by communicating through their own body postures, facial expressions, and vocalizations. Without staring at [the dog’s face], the officer should look at the entire dog, checking both for behaviors that show the dog is uncomfortable and feeling threatened and for behaviors that signal comfort and friendliness. An officer should look quickly at the whole dog to get an overall impression of the dog’s state of mind.”
The guide also dispels myths concerning dog aggression, bites and whether certain breeds are more likely to attack than others. Unfortunately, since its publication in 2011, the guide remains unused as standard officer training among most police bureaus in the country.
Where to Draw the Line and When to Draw the Gun
There are cases where shooting a dog may be seen as justified in the line of duty — the dog is charging, truly vicious and doesn’t stop short (as most do).
“I have never had to use deadly force against a dog; however, there have been times where I have had my gun drawn because of one,” said the Pennsylvania patrol officer, who asked to remain anonymous. “I would use deadly force if my or someone else’s life were in imminent danger.”
A Bronx police officer with the New York Police Department told Pets Adviser that the NYPD includes some training on how to handle encounters with dogs. He stressed that it’s drilled into officers’ heads that using lethal force is “always a last resort.”
Indeed, a review by Pets Adviser of department guidelines shows they state that firearms should not be discharged at a dog except “when there is no other reasonable means to eliminate the threat.” NYPD documents state that “in rapidly evolving situations,” alternatives such as batons, OC spray and tranquilizers “are not always prudent or possible.”
The NYPD is certainly not immune to police shootings of dogs. Last year, after a pit bull named Star was shot in the head in the middle of a New York City street (caught on video), a petition with nearly 700 signatures was sent to the mayor’s office urging better training of NYPD officers.
In a separate incident just last month in a crowded park on Staten Island, two officers fired multiple times on a dog that was apparently running away from them. The dog, Baby Girl, later died after hanging on for a few days. Trisha Ratz, Baby Girl’s owner, organized a petition — now with more than 118,000 signatures and counting — urging that the officers be fired and the NYPD institute new policies against the use of deadly force on animals.
“Baby Girl was a good girl. She never did and never would hurt any human or any pet,” Ratz told Pets Adviser. Police officers such as those who killed her dog “need to be stopped from shooting first and then questioning after,” she said.
They “will be held accountable,” said Robin Menard of SNARR (Special Needs Animal Rescue Rehabilitation), the group that had adopted out Baby Girl.
A Small Start Could Make a Huge Difference
The good news: In the past year or so, a handful of police departments in the United States have responded to public scrutiny and criticism of the apparent “shoot first” mentality when a dog approaches an officer. The progress is incremental, but more police officers across the nation are beginning to get the training they deserve.
For example, after the shooting death of a family’s pet dog during a routine traffic stop in 2003, the state of Tennessee passed a law known as the General Patton Act, which mandates training in understanding animal behavior. Not only do measures like this help protect dogs and cops from potentially dangerous situations, but they also demonstrate that the police are taking their community into consideration.
More recently, the police department of Arlington, Texas, instituted a training program that includes videos, classroom instruction by the department’s K-9 unit and a written test, all concerning animal handling. The mandatory training for officers follows the senseless death of Bucky, a therapeutic pet who was shot five times as the family’s children watched in horror.
While nearly every police department in the country refuses to admit there’s any problem with unjustified police shootings of dogs, Sgt. Christopher Cook of the Arlington Police Department’s media office made some rather remarkable statements during a news conference announcing the training. He said the new program will “better equip our workforce with options in dealing with animals rather than always resorting to deadly force.” He added, “While there are some isolated incidents where aggressive dogs that are not restrained do attack officers or citizens, we believe that it’s not the norm.”
The police department in Fort Worth has also started training its officers for dog-handling scenarios. Mark and Cindy Boling have had a lot to do with this: They started advocating heavily for the police training after their Border Collie Lily was shot to death by a police officer investigating a theft — at the wrong residence.
“[The officer] wasn’t thinking,” Cindy Boling told the Fort Worth Weekly. “If he would have had training, he would have been thinking.” She has said Lily was simply running up to greet the officer.
At the Bolings’ request, the Fort Worth Police Department now requires officers to attend an eight-hour course in which they learn proper techniques in dealing with dogs, placing much emphasis on using lethal force only as a last resort. The course insists that officers can defend themselves with a police baton, “clipboard, flare… whatever,” says Jim Osorio, who leads the training. “And trying not to show fear… that’s the biggest thing.”
The Bolings continue to push for more training and encourage others to create similar changes in their city and state legislatures. “There are many of us mourning a loss of a [dog] under similar circumstances,” Cindy Boling wrote on Facebook.
Just last month, the state legislature in Colorado passed SB226, also called the Dog Protection Act, in response to dog shootings, civil litigation, protests and public demand. One of those shootings involved a mixed-breed therapy dog named Chloe. Chloe was caught on a catchpole, hit with a taser and shot five times. A video showed the dog merely trying to get away — not lunging or biting as was suggested.
Chloe is but one of many names — each as individually important as the next — that are reason to push for state-mandated training of officers in canine behavior. Colorado’s new law (awaiting the governor’s signature on Monday, May 13) does exactly that, requiring that programs designed by veterinarians or animal behaviorists be taken by law enforcement officers to identify dog behaviors, become accustomed to alternatives to lethal force, work with animal control officers, and allow opportunities for pet owners to intervene and gain control of their dogs as the need arises.
Colorado’s groundbreaking Dog Protection Act is the first legislation of its kind to set forth required canine behavior training to law enforcement officers. That’s great news not only for Colorado pet owners but for pet owners across the country, who are hoping its passage will contribute to laws enacted in their own states.
Change starts with you. As Cindy Boling says, “Do something.” While civil litigation and large fines to police departments may be causing a lot more people to stand up and take a second look at this issue, the public needs to express its concern as well. Contact your local and state legislators. Respectfully explain the importance of this issue to you as a dog owner. Ask what their position is on required canine behavior training for police officers — and urge them to follow Colorado’s example to reduce the danger to our dogs.
One last request: Walk over right now and give your pet a great big hug. Life is precious — savor the moments you share together.
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This article was reported by Jenna Rohrbacher with contributions by Kristine Lacoste, David Deleon Baker and Sarah Blakemore.
Pets Adviser would like to give special thanks to: Cindy Boling, Kristin L. Hoffman, Stacy Fields, Natalie Yandle, Rita Hairston, Barbara Hinsz, Cathy Thomas, Trisha Ratz, Denise Lachance, Sue Davies and Scott Heiser for their help. We dedicate this report in memory of the pets whose lives have been lost.
Download the Ebook: The full PDF version of this report (including some new material) is now available for download. It’s free. You can print it out and distribute it freely; however, you may not sell it or republish it on your site. Our hope is that this report will be shared widely to raise awareness and build greater momentum for change.