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Crossing the thin blue line

New training focuses on reducing deadly police-dog encounters

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

Teaching police officers effective, positive techniques for handling dogs makes communities safer for both law enforcement and pets.

Nearly half of all households own at least one dog, according to the American Pet Products Association. That means that if the police ever come calling, there’s a high likelihood that man’s best friend will be there to greet them.

When police arrive at a home or pull over a car, there’s often tension in the air already, for both the officers and the people being visited. In those circumstances especially, even a beloved (and usually friendly) family pet can be perceived as a threat, and police have on occasion used deadly force against animals thought to be on the attack. Officer-dog encounters can quickly escalate, ending in tragedy for families and public relations nightmares and expensive court cases for law enforcement.

It’s an issue that’s recently generated tragic headlines from across the country: “Michigan Police Shoot, Kill Couple’s Dog in Their Back Yard.” “Owners Have Questions After Police Shoot Dog in Home.” “Police Shoot, Kill Family’s Service Dog.”

Grieving families have accused officers of acting hastily, resorting to deadly force when it’s unwarranted. Police say they have to make split-second decisions, with human safety being paramount. Both arguments have merit. The reality is that police officers don’t want to kill beloved family pets, but often lack training necessary to take alternate actions.

A new resource from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) seeks to change that. “Police & Dog Encounters: Tactical Strategies and Effective Tools to Keep Our Communities Safe and Humane” is designed to provide officers with basic canine behavioral assessment techniques, as well as tactical options beyond the use of deadly force. Created in collaboration with the National Canine Research Council (NCRC) and Safe Humane (an organization that works to inspire positive relationships between people and animals), the five-part series is comprised of 10-minute videos hosted by Terry Hillard, retired superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

In the modules, actual Chicago police officers act out a variety of common scenarios involving dogs, demonstrating the basics of situational assessment, along with appropriate responses. Author and dog trainer Brian Kilcommons explains how to observe dogs’ body language to determine whether they present a threat, as well as how to approach canines in a non-aggressive way (which is opposite of the rigid posture officers are trained to take with humans). The videos also provide an escalating series of tactical options for dealing with dogs, ranging from tossing them treats or cordoning them off in other rooms to using a bite stick, tactical baton or even umbrella as a barrier to keep a dog from approaching, or as an object a lunging dog can bite.

A 50-page companion booklet (presented in PDF format), authored by representatives of both the animal welfare and justice systems, provides data underscoring the prevalence of deadly force encounters between police officers and canines and putting into perspective the actual risk humans typically face in these encounters. (For example, according to data from the government of Washington, D.C., in 2007, only 5.5 percent of all reported dog bites were classified as “severe.”)

It also details both human and canine factors that can increase or mitigate the likelihood of deadly interactions between the two. The guide includes agency-level information as well, from assessing the local landscape (e.g., What are current dog laws and ordinances and are they effective?) and identifying helpful resources (such as animal care and control agencies) to measuring programmatic effectiveness and developing community partnerships.

“We certainly don’t want law enforcement to put themselves at risk. At the same time, we also care about the welfare of dogs,” says Betsy McFarland, vice president of companion animals at The HSUS. “Hopefully, offering this training will help keep officers safe, as well as our communities’ dogs.”

Let your law enforcement partners know about this new resource. The videos and booklet are available free of charge via the COPS Office Community Policing Learning Portal.

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.