by Jim W. Crosby
"As I mentioned last time I have broken up my posts on conflicts
between Police Officers and dogs into three parts. Last time we talked
about a very limited set of circumstances, primarily
high-risk raids where there are potentially-or for sure-armed bad guys
that probably have not been the most responsible dog owners. These cases
are rare, and no one should think that procedures used in these radical
situations to protect human lives should be the norm in day to day
encounters. They are worst case scenarios. I'm not going to dissect all
the potential causes of such actions (Are all drug dealers really
violent? Is the "war on drugs" effective?) as these questions are far
bigger than this column and deserve long, hard discussion.
post was an overview of the minority of cases. Most of the negative
encounters we hear about, most of the cases involving use of deadly
force by Law Enforcement these days, are centered around much lower
risk, day in and day out encounters. Here is where positive
intervention, training, and prevention strategies can make the most
Public Safety and Low Risk Encounters are probably
the most common cases where Police Officers and pets come into conflict.
Let's break these two down into their components first.
Safety cases are, obviously, cases where the Police have been called
because someone sees an animal, most likely a dog, and most likely
running at large, that they perceive is a threat to themselves or
others. There are two keys here that we need to note: the animal is at
large and the reporting person perceives the animal to be at risk.
Low Risk Encounters are those where Police Officers come across dogs in
the course of doing something else. These animals are most often not at
large but are on their own property. There is no reporting person
here-the Officer is the person directly involved in the contact-and the
Officer is the one directly perceiving the dog's behavior.
there are significant differences in the two kinds of cases, but there
are several commonalities that we need to recognize. The first common
quantity is this: WHY ARE YOU THERE? What is the reason the officer is
coming in contact with the dog, and what is the ultimate purpose of the
In Public Safety encounters it seems to be pretty
clear-the officer has been called to "protect the public". But protect
who from exactly what? Is it to keep a charging dog from ravaging a
schoolyard of kindergarten students, or is the goal a bit fuzzy? Is this
a frightened dog trying to get home? Is this an injured dog that is
reacting from the pain and fear of being hit by a car? Sure, the dog is
at large-and that is a human failure. The human(s) responsible for the
dog being uncontrolled should be held responsible for their actions-or
lack of action. But is the dog really a threat-and as perceived by whom?
Perhaps the goal here is really to stop the dog from running at large,
and in doing so keep the public, and the dog safe.
the stage with an example. A police officer is dispatched to a dog
running at large that is alleged to be "vicious". The officer gets on
scene and indeed sees a dog running loose. Say it's even a big dog. The
complainant comes up and tells the officer "The dog charged at me! Get
rid of it!" The person continues to make excited statements that the dog
is a danger, might bite someone, could kill all the children in the
town...you get the picture.
So our faithful officer chases
after the dog. The dog gets backed up against a corner. The officer
approaches and the dog growls, baring its teeth. The officer now
perceives a threat to himself, and with the excited allegations of the
original complainant, draws his weapon, carefully checks for a safe
backdrop, and when the dog again lunges towards him he fires once and
kills the dog.
Simple, right? Wrong. Lets look at this from the dog's point of view.
The dog is a pet, licensed and tagged, that has escaped from his back
yard because his owners have failed to secure the gate-or maybe the
cable TV guy left it ajar. The dog follows his nose, meanders around the
neighborhood, and looses track of where he is. He comes around a corner
and sees something attractive (Squirrel!) and runs for it.
Unfortunately, this dog has no experience with traffic and gets clipped
by a car going past. The dog is now mildly hurt and frightened. He runs
blindly. Running he rounds a corner and is confronted by a stranger (our
trusty complainant). The dog startles, barks, and backs off from the
scary person. Our complainant, not an experienced dog person, interprets
the dog's sudden approach and bark as a "vicious attack" and calls it
The officer gets there, spots the dog, and gives chase. Now
the dog is being chased by a new stranger, probably yelling, and
freaking him out. So he runs, and tries to find-refuge, home, anywhere
but where he is. The officer follows and the dog winds up cornered by
this stranger. So the dog does the only thing he is hardwired to do-he
backs up and gives clear signals in dog terms "You are scaring me! I am
hurt and want to go home! Back off! I don't want to fight but I will if
you push me!" The officer pushes forward again and the dog lunges,
looking for a way out. He just wants to escape to safety and go home. A
shot is fired and the dog is dead.
You may say "Well, that is
all good but you set this up to make the cop the bad guy." Sorry, but
no. This sort of conflict happens all of the time. And I am not saying
the police officer was bad-he just didn't see the situation the same way
the dog did. He probably didn't have the training to recognize the
signals the dog was giving, and didn't have enough knowledge of dog
behavior to understand what was really happening. He saw exactly what he
had been prepared-even briefly-by the complainant to see.
is a situation that we, as police officers, have to face every day with
human subjects. We are told by one party that the other person is bad,
evil, violent, etc. They want us to proceed on their information, and
often that information is deliberately slanted to favor their position.
We are trained extensively to be cautious of this-we are told "There are
three sides to every case: person 1's story, person 2's story, and the
In alleged public safety conflicts we have to bear the
same in mind. We don't know if our complainant was bitten badly as a
child and has emotional aftereffects of that incident. The person may
just not like dogs. The person may have what they feel are valid
concerns because they may not have extensive experience with dogs. Or
the dog may in fact be nasty.
But we have to return to the
question: why is the officer there? To protect the public, right? So
what strategies are available, and how many did the officer try before
proceeding to lethal force?
In this case there were numerous
possibilities, none of which the officer took advantage of. Protecting
others means isolating the danger from potential victims, in this case
the loose dog. How can we do that?
First, use situational
awareness. What is that? Look around. Pay attention to details. In this
sort of case, what does the dog look like? Is he relatively clean? Does
he have a collar and tags? Maybe this is a pet rather than a long-term
stray. If so, the dog is likely to have a positive relationship with at
least some people. Try letting the conflict de-escalate. If the dog is
in an area where there is room to back off, do so. Stop chasing. Slow
down. There is no hurry.
If the dog looks like a pet, try
getting the dog to come up. Relax your posture, present a less
threatening demeanor, and for crying out loud STOP YELLING.
Pets often like riding in the car. If you are driving a patrol car you
likely have a cage in the back. Try opening the back door and then get
away from the car to let the dog have a clear path to the open door. Try
saying "Let's go for a ride!" Lots of dogs love rides. Once the dog is
in the back seat the conflict is over-you now have a controlled
situation where you-or Animal Control, or a Vet, or even the owner, can
safely remove the dog.
Try an open can of dog food to attract,
and calm the dog. Even better a can of cat food. Dogs love cat food.
Stinky, nasty cat food. Toss the food near the dog to make friends.
Maybe even into your car. Just remember to get the little cans with the
pull tabs on top-this is no time to look for a can opener.
the dog is backed into an enclosed area, use that to your advantage.
Pull you car across the opening (and then maybe open the back door). Is
there a sidewalk table, or maybe one of those sign twirlers? Temporarily
appropriate the table or sign to contain the dog, keeping only minimum
pressure on him. Improvise with what you have. Let the dog retreat and
calm down. Is the dog in front of an open garage? THEN CLOSE THE GARAGE
DOOR! Even if the dog doesn't live there you have him contained. You
can then safely contact the property owner or resident at your leisure.
If the dog damages something in the garage, so what? Dog owners are
responsible, in most jurisdictions, for any damage their dog causes. The
report for chewing up someone's bicycle is a lot easier than the
paperwork-and extended drama-of using deadly force.
someone is always going to come up with a "But I did that and it didn't
work..." There's always one in every crowd. And honestly, every
situation is different, and I can't give "What if" responses for
But I can give you solid strategies to apply across the board:
1) Try and look at what is really happening-don't proceed with only one
account of the situation. Pay attention-use your eyes and ears-use
2) Try and understand from the dog's point of
view what he may be seeing and use that in your favor. Information is
strength. Try and reduce the stress the dog may be feeling and allow him
to deescalate his responses to threats he perceives.
the mantra of the military special units: IMPROVISE, ADAPT, OVERCOME.
You probably don't have access to the perfect tools when you need them,
but you do have access to the most important tool you can have-your
brain. Use it.
4) Remember why you are there. Your assignment is
probably not search and destroy. Your job is to contain the dog while
keeping others safe. Look to handle the real problem. Remember you are
there to drain the swamp.
5) Work with your Animal Control or
shelter personnel. Your immediate job is containment and separation of
the public and the dog. Let Animal Control deal with the capture. That
is what they are trained to do, and they honestly probably do it better
than you. Most Animal Control Officer are unarmed, so they have learned
ways to take in far more difficult animals in more circumstances without
resorting to deadly force. Let them do their jobs.
have noticed I changed the title of this to part 2 of 4 instead of 3.
This has run longer than I expected, so I am going to break here. I'll
be back-quicker this time-with Low Risk Encounters next time."