As a K9 officer, my K9 partner and I encounter many dogs (stray and pet) in the course of our duties. Sometimes we have seconds to determine the demeanor of the dog and prepare for the proper course of action when confronted. I know that through my training in evaluating a dog’s body language, I am better prepared than the average uniformed patrol officer to determine the dog’s motivation. The average patrol officer also encounters dogs daily in the course of their duty. They have no extra training in this area, yet they have to make split second decisions if confronted by an aggressive dog.
In my agency, there is no “use of force continuum” which is defined as “an escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation” when dealing with dogs. I received no training in dealing with aggressive and/or defensive dogs during my cadet and rookie years. Many agencies have no extra time to do so. I was raised with dogs and have no instinctual fear of them. This coupled with my K9 training and experiences will always inspire me to try to use other means, if possible, to detour an advancing dog.
I think one would agree that a bite from a dog, be it stray or pet, could potentially be a career ending injury for an officer depending on where the bite or bites was received. Such a bite could have a long recovery time as well as a painful one. What about rabies? Is the dog vaccinated and what is the potential for capturing the dog to test for same? Was this dog intentionally sent to bite the officer or is this merely a defensive dog defending its territory?
All of these questions have merit in deciding how to deal with the dog’s advancement. It is easy to “Monday morning quarter back” an officer’s decision to shoot a dog in the course of duty. What you can’t replicate is that officer’s perspective, his/her experiences with dogs and his/her fear level at the time of the incident. All of these will dictate the officer’s course of action. I will not judge an officer’s decision to shoot. I will merely offer some alternate ideas when dealing with dogs.
As officers, we routinely approach houses in the day and night time hours. We walk tall and proud and have a command presence when approaching any given situation. We approach through back or side yards for officer safety. A 911 hang-up call, a disturbance call or any call we receive can be a life ending event and we better treat each call tactically. We are constantly alert for anything going on around us. We make upstanding, law abiding citizens nervous. So it could be said a dog could definitely detect their owner’s nervousness at our approach as well as have its own fear.
A dog is instinctively territorially and protective of their owners and houses, some more than others. Some dogs are nervous around strangers and some are very vocal, barking and running to greet people. Some advance on people as a means to detour their approach. Can you tell the difference between an aggressive dog and a dog reacting from fear? There are too many physical clues to go into to so I will merely pass on some observations I have learned.
I am routinely in people’s back yards with my K9 partner. Before I enter, I will check for dog yard signs. Is there a dog house in the backyard or a conspicuous track through the yard? Are there dog toys or balls lying scattered in the yard? Even if there are no clues to a dog’s presence in a yard, I will gently rattle the fence if circumstances allow and I always leave myself a quick out if the need may arise. If I am unsure of a dog’s presence, I will already have my ECD (Taser) drawn.
The easiest and best physical sign for a dog’s motivation is the tail. If the tail is tucked, body crouched and the ears are folded down, the dog is in fear or defense aggression. Most likely he will retreat at a sharp command from the officer unless the dog is cornered. Is the tail up and forward with raised hackles and direct eye contact? This dog is offensively aggressive and is a potential problem. The best bet, even if a dog is exhibiting some of the above signs, is a wagging tail.
Some things you must do when encountering a dog potentially aggressive is the following:
- Do NOT make direct eye contact with the dog
- Stay calm and do NOT scream, jump back or run
- Turn your body slightly to protect your vital parts
- Move very slowly away from the dog
- If you speak, it should be in a calm command voice
- Do NOT lean over the dog
LEO’s do not always have the time or luxury to do these simple things due to our very nature. We have to move quickly, dynamically, or stealthily. Sometimes another person’s safety depends on us reaching our destination quickly without hindrance. Some agencies carry an ECD (Taser) which is effective in halting a dog’s advancement if there is time to draw it. Sometimes just the noise alone will deter the dog. Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper spray) is also sometimes effective in deterring a dog. This, once again depends on how quick you can draw it and your aim is crucial. An ASP baton can be used as well and can be equally effective. Any of these defenses can be rendered ineffective and the officer need always be ready to escalate.
As a pet owner myself, I understand the best safety measure for my dog is ME. My dogs are always leashed when taken out, they are obedient and social. They are not left alone with small children, even my own. They are fed in a quiet area by themselves. If someone approaches my dogs while out walking, I watch my dog’s body language at all times. I have a short and firm lead to deter any lunging on the dog’s part. I do not allow anyone with law enforcement issues at my house (regardless if I was an officer or not). Therefore there are no unexpected backyard visitors. My fenced back yard is clearly marked to not enter due to the presence of dogs, is the appropriate height for my dogs, the bottom is re-enforced, and the gate is padlocked as well.
As an officer, I am aware of my oath to protect a life, all life to the best of my ability. I also know as a member of the law enforcement family, that any life taken in the performance of our job is not done lightly or without regret, including that of a dog. It is a team effort from the dog owners and the LEO community to work with each other to keep our dogs safe.
Master Deputy Charlotte Raschke has worked in law enforcement since 1988. She started her career in Detention Services and worked all phases of patrol, street crimes, crime prevention, property detective and the K9 unit. She has been in K9 for 13 years as a handler, working three patrol utility/narcotic dogs and a single purpose EOD dog. Master Deputy Raschke is currently a K9 trainer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, FL. She was twice awarded the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, the Deputy of the Quarter, and four lifesaving awards. She is an adjunct Instructor for St. Petersburg College’s Multi-Jurisdictional Counter Drug Task Force. Master Deputy Raschke serves as Law Enforcement Today’s K-9 expert.