Dogs in the Line of Fire

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Dogs in the Line of Fire

From The National Humane Education Society
October 2010

Canine language can be a bit foreign to us. Dogs wag tails and sniff inappropriate body parts (to us humans, at least). They bark and growl and sometimes raise their hackles. An exuberant or investigating dog can come across as threatening. A fearful dog can come across as submissive and safe. Misinterpreting these signals is often dangerous—for the dog.

Newspapers throughout the country report stories of police shooting and killing family dogs. The stories bring out strong emotions and stir debates. Whether the police officers are right or wrong in their decisions (and each case is unique), the sheer volume of incidents warns of a serious problem.

In Oakland, California, police shot and killed a Labrador retriever when investigating a possible burglary. A friendly, old mixed breed from Chicago, Illinois, escaped from his yard and was shot by police officers as a wandering stray. In Detroit, Michigan, police shot and killed a pit bull who was allegedly charging and barking. Two dogs, a Chesapeake Bay retriever and a Rottweiler, were killed after an altercation with another dog in St. Petersburg, Florida. Another Rottweiler, in Lexington, Kentucky, was killed in his back yard as police searched for an unrelated fugitive. In Washington, DC, a pit/Shar-Pei mix was shot after fighting briefly with a poodle.

These stories are only a small sampling of the numerous incidents reported in the nation’s newspapers. In every story, the family is left mourning the loss of its dog and others are left arguing over the necessity of lethal force. Doubtlessly, some officers shoot dogs when there really are no other options. The sad truth is that their job is dangerous; and in the same way a police officer must eliminate the threat of a dangerous person, he or she must also occasionally end the threat of a truly dangerous animal. However, the large number of cases points to a clear issue that should be addressed.

Do these officers need more comprehensive canine training? Are they aware of basic dog behavior and body language? Do they know how to safely restrain a dog? Officers need training for these situations. Included in this training should also be a cultivation of respect for animal life. People’s pets (and all animals) are not expendable and, despite what the law might say, are worth much more than personal property. Additionally, there should be clear policies and procedures in place when situations with animals arise. These should dictate how an officer should react to a dog as well as when an officer should back off and allow animal control to step in. Non-lethal methods of control, such as pepper spray, stunning, or a safe method of restraint, should be part of any policy regarding the control of loose dogs.