June 14, 2014
The majority of shootings in most U.S. police departments involve animals, usually dogs, and experts say a new series of videos can help change often quick-trigger decisions fueled by fear.
"There will be times when police need to defend themselves because they are being attacked by a dog and don't have a choice, but that is the minority of cases," said Brian Kilcommons, a Southbury, Conn., dog behaviorist and trainer. He is featured in the five-part series that teaches officers to detect the warning signs of an aggressive dog and how to avoid using lethal force.
Efforts to change the way officers approach animals have emerged as dogs have become a central part of the American family and lawsuits have chipped away at the coffers of law enforcement agencies.
The free videos emerged from a 2011 study by a University of Illinois center and nonprofits including the National Canine Research Council, which promotes a better understanding of relationships with dogs. The U.S. Department of Justice helped. The study found a majority of police shootings involved animals, but it's unknown how many dogs are shot nationwide every year.
In Milwaukee, where a tally was compiled for a lawsuit, police shootings of dogs averaged 48 annually from 2000 to 2008. The number dropped to 28 in 2012, city officials said, as training increased.
Spread across the country, that's too many dog deaths, said Stacey Coleman, executive director of the New York-based National Canine Research Council.
Officers have a lot to process when they respond to something like a domestic violence report, but determining whether a dog is agitated shouldn't be overwhelming, said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
In the videos, Kilcommons teaches officers to survey canine body language and not to approach a fearful dog that's low to the ground with its tail tucked and ears flat to its head. He also says to watch for warning signs such as lunging, growling and exposed teeth.
There are ways for officers to avoid using guns, including putting an object like a trash can between them and the dog, carrying food that can be thrown as a distraction, blaring an air horn or using pepper spray, he says.
Officers "can't change their behavior unless they have the tools and understand what to do with them," said Kilcommons, who has trained 40,000 dogs and written nine books.