How some police departments are trying to prevent 'puppycide'

A recent spotlight on the unjustified shooting of family dogs by law enforcement officers is causing police departments across the country to rethink training strategies. 

Julia Nagy/Lansing State Journal/AP/File
Rodeo, Labrador dog, was a stray from Detroit who found a new home in Grand Ledge, Mich.

On Monday afternoon, Buddy Blackmore became the latest dog to be fatally shot by law enforcement after officers responded to a domestic disturbance call at the wrong house. 

What ensued was the sort of "owner said, police said" situation typical of such cases. California's San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department officials described Buddy as "immediately aggressive toward the deputies"; Buddy's owner, Debra Blackmore of Hesperia, Calif., argued in a Facebook post that the Husky-Labrador mix "didn't have a chance to bark."

Buddy's story is a familiar one, as he's one of many dogs who have been thrust into the national spotlight after a fatal encounter with law enforcement.

Experts say the number of incidents have escalated in recent years. One specialist with the Department of Justice described these encounters as an "epidemic," estimating that around 25 to 30 family dogs are killed per day by law enforcement officers. 

Shooting is often "a knee-jerk reaction by an officer not familiar with dogs," said Randall Lockwood, an animal behaviorist who has worked with police agencies on dog-related issues, to the Los Angeles Times. "We have to acknowledge that there are situations where they have to shoot a dog, but we feel that's relatively rare."

Fatal encounters deemed unjustified are frequently shared on the internet in the form of viral videos or social media posts, often inciting public outrage. Pushback against the tragic incidents is abundant on the internet, where informal websites run by activists, such as the Puppycide Database Project, track the number of incidents that occur each year, and countless Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags demand justice for slain dogs. 

Richard Rosenthal, a general counsel for The Lexus Project, represents clients whose pets have been shot by police officers. He views such cases as indicative of a larger problem within law enforcement.

"Our police officers more and more are becoming paramilitary forces," Mr. Rosenthal said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "This is showing up in every facet of policing, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.... Nowhere is it more evident than in their dealings with dogs."

He says that while lawsuits against agencies for the unlawful killing of dogs were "almost unheard of" up until a few years ago, there are now suits pending in nearly every state. 

"It's unfortunate that there are so many of these cases. What is a good thing is that the courts, over the past number of years, have been changing with the times to view them much more seriously," Rosenthal said. "The amount of settlements ... has been going up almost exponentially, to the point where it is sending a message to the cities and police departments that the public, the people that they're supposedly supposed to protect, will not tolerate lawlessness by the police departments and the shooting of dogs simply because they can."

Both animal rights activists and law enforcement agencies alike agree that the primary reason for unnecessary shootings is a lack of adequate training for officers. 

"When we've asked police about these things, they, like most Americans, have dogs, and they hate it when this happens as well," said filmmaker Patrick Reasonover in an interview with National Review. Mr. Reasonover's recent documentary, "Of Dogs and Men," focuses on police shootings of dogs from all perspectives. 

"They're stuck between a rock and a hard place," he explained. "You go out. Something split-second happens. You're not thinking contemplatively. And if you're not trained, you just react." 

Of course, law enforcement officials say, sometimes deadly use of force is justified when dealing with an aggressive animal.

"Look at what our officers face," said Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell to the LA Times. "There are areas of the city where packs of dogs are running around loose, with no leash and no license. Often, vicious dogs are owned by people in the most high-crime areas that the officers are being called to."

Slowly but surely, police agencies around the country are starting to alter their training programs to help officers more easily determine when such force is required and when it is not. Rosenthal attributes this shift in part to the growing number of successful lawsuits brought against law enforcement by the families of slain canines. 

"Police departments are starting to take notice of what it’s costing them," Rosenthal said. "You're going to see them start to train because they can’t afford not to."

In an article published in Police Magazine, a publication aimed at the law enforcement community, dog behavior experts who have trained officers in cities all around the country suggest a number of nonviolent tactics, such as blowing a boat horn at an aggressive dog or shielding themselves with a nearby chair or garbage can. 

In 2013, the state of Colorado was the first to pass a law requiring all local police and sheriff's departments to provide canine behavioral training. Lawmakers said they came up with the bill after viewing a viral home video of an officer shooting a lab-pit bull mix named Chloe, which spurred nationwide outrage and protests demanding "Justice for Chloe." 

A similar law went into effect in Texas last year, mandating four hours of classroom instruction on understanding canine behavior for all officers statewide. The session includes lessons in distinguishing between friendly and aggressive dogs and using nonlethal defense strategies during a canine attack.

Cindy Boling, whose border collie Lily was shot by a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer in 2012, has worked with police departments across the state of Texas since that incident to prevent what happened to her dog from happening to other dogs. 

"We have made amazing headway," Ms. Boling told the Texas Tribune, adding, "I'm very, very hopeful."

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