Webinar presenter John Thompson of the National Sheriffs Association answered a number of your questions after his presentation, "Officer, Why'd You Shoot My Dog?" Here are a few of his responses.
Audience Question: How do you begin this discussion with command staff to re-examine policies and training regarding those?
John Thompson: It starts with the leadership. If you have a law enforcement leader that doesn't see it as a problem, someone has to convince him/her that it is a problem. Unfortunately, as I see it today, a lot of them don't understand it. I had a conversation with a sheriff who I know very well who told me, "You got to be kidding me". I said, "No, I am serious". He's got 600 deputies, "You haven't seen it?", and he said, "No". Just that one conversation set him into have his command staff now look into it to see what they need to do. He asked for sample policies which I think we do have on our site and the training. Somebody has to get to the leadership, whether it's somebody internally within the agency, an advocacy group, or someone on the outside like us, the National Sheriff's Association or another organization.
The way you approach a police department or the sheriff's office is very important. You could provide this information to them if there is an issue and we need to do it proactively and positively rather than in a negative tone. What I found so far that most law enforcement, once they see it they get it — I don't see any resistance whatsoever in the last 5 to 6 years. It's just a matter of them understanding the problem. The light goes off and viola, the situation's resolved.
Audience Question: An animal control officer had some feedback that while they're not aware of law enforcement officers, police, sheriff, being killed by animals, there have been instances when animal control officers have been killed by dogs. That adds some context into this discussion.
John Thompson: It does. The animal care profession has really changed over the years. The whole profession has become more professional with training and understanding. You also have to understand that many of the animal control officers are sworn law enforcement officer or many of them work for law enforcement agencies. It still goes back to if that animal control agency is part of the law enforcement agency or a separate entity or a humane society. There is no one shoe fits all when it comes to that. I will say that even if we're not training animal control officers, I have seen that they're doing a great job themselves doing it. I haven't seen as much of a problem with them because they seem to understand it and they know it, and if they have to shoot a dog generally, it was probably a justified shooting.
Audience Question: As part of that policy, are departments requiring dispatchers to ask callers if animals are present and then including that information to the dispatch officers? Is it part of SOP?
John Thompson: We've always felt that the call taker either starts the ball rolling in the wrong way or the right way. They're the first ones to take the call. I don't think that there is. I think that's part of what our training is to make sure that call takers do that. As explained earlier with the lawsuit with the Hell's Angels is that lawsuit was won because they knew that they had dogs and did nothing about it. A call taker needs to ask that question as they have to ask many other questions to keep the officers safe and hopefully turn the situation into a good one. Right now, I'd say no, it's almost the same. If the agency doesn't have a policy, you can vet that the call takers aren't going to have a policy to deal with it.
Audience Question: Local private sector dog trainers express willingness to work with local agencies on dog handling and recognizing dog behavior and how to handle aggressive dogs. Are you familiar with any agencies or locations that might be able to serve as a model for this kind of partnership?
John Thompson: The Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA, there are many advocacy groups that do provide training for free for law enforcement — we have it. But if someone in a local community has like a shelter that have dog trainers, I'm sure it would be an excellent idea to have the dog trainer come in and meet with the officers. I think doing things and working together at a local level is much better than anything else that they could do. I would say if anyone's out there at an agency that could go to their shelter and talk to them that they would definitely step up to the plate. Please feel free to email me with any questions if you're in an area where you need some connections with folks to help, I'll be glad to help.
Audience Question: Do you have feelings or suggestions on whether or not catch poles should be part of the standard equipment for a vehicle?
John Thompson: Our poor officers have so many things that we have to put. I remember when I started, I had this .38 on my side and a radio. But as time passed, we've had the need to give officers more and more equipment. I think yeah, it should be part of their equipment, in the trunk. It doesn't have to be carried, maybe something a supervisor or somebody should have available. In the Police Academy training, the group that does it with us actually brings really nice leashes that they make out of really hard rope that they give to the officers to be put in their car. A lot of times you have a dog that's friendly but there's no way to contain the dog. Back to your original question, yes, I think catch poles are excellent. I think it's a good idea but I also say that if you're going to do that, the officers need to be trained in the use of it.
Audience Question: Does pepper spray have the same effect on a dog than it does on humans? Will the dog need follow-up medical care?
John Thompson: I am not a veterinarian and I've never been in a situation where I had to use. I've had people tell me that it does not work and the dog became more aggressive. I've had other people tell me that it has worked. I've also had people tell me that they used their fire extinguisher and that worked perfectly. It goes back to before you use force on a dog, we saw the video where the dog came running to the officer, he didn't have time to think. Could there been some pre-planning and him knowing the dog's in there, he could've taken different actions? Yes. But there are videos — I didn't show them all, where the officer actually went back to his car, came back out and ended up shooting the dog. If he had reached in his trunk and grabbed his fire extinguisher if he was trained to do those things. It would've been more helpful. Those are the type of things that we can do. It goes back to the use of force continuum — before you shoot, you try everything else that you can.
Audience Question: Have you ever seen any evidence or link between law enforcement officers who have shot dogs and how they behave towards citizens?
John Thompson: Based on the reasons we have why officers shoot dogs, we have a bad cop — yeah, you can have that. I don't think so. If you walk into an officer's shoes, it's really tough. What goes through our mind when we're put into those fight or flight, life or death situations, it's extremely hard on the body. Some people just aren't meant to be cops. People don't have the emotional make-up it takes to deal with stressful situations. It could be that it's not a bad cop situation, it's just a good person who shouldn't be a cop and they can't handle those stressful incidents that happen and sometimes makes the wrong decisions. I think could they be, yeah. If I see anything like that, no. I think each situation's different. Again, it goes back to what your beliefs and thoughts are. If you believe dogs are property, that they really have no worth, they're disposable, then you're going to shoot the dog because you see no other option. You don't want to get bit. That's more of an individual issue that again is correctible by training.
Audience Question: At least in Connecticut and Colorado, training and working with dogs, recognizing aggressive signs is part of the basic Academy curriculum. Would you know if there is a movement on trying to incorporate this as a part of the basic Academy training? Is that widespread or is it isolated to a couple of states?
John Thompson: We're trying to work with the Academy Directors Association to recommend that. If anybody out there knows the training being done in the Academy, I really would appreciate it if you would email me because I would like to know that, pick your brain so that we can also include that as we go around trying to get other Academies to do it. It's going to be a long time, Aaron, it's very few and far between that this is happening. There are some states like Colorado, Texas and a few states that mandated training. Some of them are a little loose, some a little more complicated in what they're recommending or mandating. I think what we're going to see especially as these shootings continue is that more and more states are going to mandate this training. As I said, as with domestic violence — when we first started learning about domestic violence, it wasn't mandated. If you want to go, you could and then it became mandated, we had to go. We had to take so many hours a year and we saw the profession change and start learning what that was about. I think that's where we're going to go with this. We're going to start seeing more mandates that officers have to have it. And then you're going to see a big change.