Preventing Cops from Shooting Dogs

Have you seen the recent headline in the Denver Post "Colorado Senators To Introduce Bill to Require Cops Take Dog Training"?  Makes me want the Rocky Mountain News back more than ever.  What a misleading headline!  If the goal was to spark controversy and debate rather than reporting in an information-only manner about a problem that needs solving, the Post certainly accomplished their goal.

The impetus for the bill was two recent shootings of dogs by police in the Denver area.  In one instance an officer shot a dog after it was restrained on a catch pole by an animal control officer (See Commerce City officer who shot Chloe story).  In another incident, police went to the wrong house and an officer shot the home owner’s 8 year old Border Collie who had managed to live it’s entire life without threatening or hurting anyone (See Police Shoot and Kill Dog Going to Home by Mistake). Unrelated to dog shootings, the picture of the officer posing with the elk he shot in Boulder is disgusting, as are the details of the case.

But the bill introduced in the legislature has nothing to do with teaching police how to train dogs, despite what the Post’s headline would have one believe.  The headline of this article is misleading and we are disappointed in the Denver Post for phrasing it this way.

While we’ve not seen the bill, later in the article it was described as taking "canine classes" – also a poor choice of words. This has nothing to do with dog training, but everything to do with understanding dogs and how to avoid the use of lethal force. Many police departments across the country have had in-service trainings on how to understand canine communication, how to use alternatives to lethal force when encountering a dog that appears threatening, and to learn how their own behaviors can strongly influence what the dog does.

Before someone says "this is stupid, you don’t have to take classes to know if a dog is showing his teeth he’s likely to bite you" – that’s not necessarily true, nor is that the point.  Recent research has documented that most people in general are not good at interpreting canine body language, – especially signs of stress, anxiety and fear – and that’s what the training should be all about.

With a huge percentage of households owning dogs, it’s only a matter of time before any officer encounters one that is not friendly – just in the course of performing his/her duties. Officers receive training on how to recognize the body language of people that indicates they are likely to ‘go off’, how to respond to those people to try and defuse the situation, and how to use non-lethal force. Why not train them to learn the same skills for dogs ?

Whether legislation is the right answer is another question, but as more and more police departments require their officers to have this sort of training, it becomes the "standard" in the field, and those departments who do NOT offer it would be viewed as not up to par or following the "standard of care" in the field, should a lawsuit arise. Police departments that don’t address this issue will not fare well in the public’s eyes, and ignoring the issue will undermine the trust we should have in officers responding appropriately to people as well – a point made by Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Debate Series.

The bill should require dog behavior training that is based on science and delivered by people who are scientifically trained, as well as have hands on experience with dogs.  It should NOT be delivered by canine police officers or police trainers or by anyone without the highest credentials and experience in dog behavior.  Otherwise we will get the dominance myths perpetuated, have officers being instructed to yawn at dogs, and the validity of the training questioned in a future court case. 

The overwhelming majority of dog owners view their pets as family members and training officers on how to avoid the use of lethal force with this population of family members should be just as important as training for responding to any other type of  "special" populations such as those with any sort of physical or mental illness or disability.

See our DVD on Canine Body Postures, programs on Canine Behavior for the Veterinary and Shelter StaffBite Prevention for home service workers, and our work with 9News on a dog bite prevention series after the bite to their news anchor Kyle Dyer last year.


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