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What's a dog worth? Colorado court says $262,000.

A Colorado dog owner received an unusually large settlement after a police officer shot his dog. As Americans become less tolerant of animal cruelty, new frameworks for animal law and police response are being developed.

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    One of the largest legal settlements of its kind, Gary Branson of Commerce City, Colo., was awarded $262,000 after police fatally shot his dog.
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A Colorado dog owner received $262,000 in a settlement over a police shooting of his dog, one of the largest-ever settlements in this type of case.

Officer Robert Price of Commerce City, Colo., shot and killed a dog in 2012 during response to a report of a "loose, vicious dog" while the owner, Gary Branson, was out of town, Allison Sylte reported for USA Today. The officer was found not guilty of animal cruelty, but a neighbor filmed the encounter, and the resulting video showed the dog, Chloe, cowering before three officers.

The large, monetary settlement comes as society is demonstrating a decreased tolerance for offenses against animals - and police use of excessive force generally. Earlier in January, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began the collection of data on animal abuse, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The FBI points to research showing criminals who harm other humans egregiously often begin by hurting animals.

Animal rights advocates and pet owners welcome the announcement, but a growing body of people say preventing animal abuse is a priority in its own right, the Associated Press reported. Police often do not report, much less punish, officers who shoot dogs, but laws protecting animals are beginning to change. Only seven states had felony charges for animal cruelty in 1993, but now 46 states have instituted such laws.

"The right category for pets is closer to children, who can't vote, can't own property but you can't inflict pain on them, either," Peter Singer, a Princeton professor and animal rights advocate, told Jeffrey Toobin for the New Yorker. "The law is catching up with societal beliefs."

Whether it is because they view their pet as a member of the family or their personal property deserving Fourth Amendment protection, there are now websites tracking police shootings of dogs and animal abuse, indicative of declining tolerance for such acts.

Even if the legal question remains ambivalent, is there a path to progress beyond penalizing the police or asserting a shaky animal rights position? Nathan J. Robinson, writing for The Washington Post, suggested police try tactics that have helped the post office:

Just like police officers, postal workers regularly encounter both vicious and gregarious dogs on their daily rounds. But letter carriers don’t kill dogs, even though they are bitten by the thousands every year. Instead, the Postal Service offers its employees training on how to avoid bites. (In addition, the agency keeps a centralized database of dog bites, a marked contrast to the lack of data on police killings.) At the sessions, handlers put postal workers through sample scenarios using live dogs, teaching them how to calm a dog, distract a dog and even fend one off if necessary.

To provide a similar resource to police, the National Canine Research Council published an hour-long training video. With help from the Department of Justice, the New York-based think tank produced videos to avoid, communicate with, or respond to dog encounters in the line of duty, according to its website. 

"First and foremost, Police and Dog Encounters is about staying safe," according to a news release. "It gives officers hands-on skills and information to protect themselves, the residents nearby, and the dogs they encounter in the line of duty."

The training videos can be downloaded free of charge and attempt to offer an alternative that balances the duty and safety of police with the growing interest of society in animal welfare.

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