Dogs and Guns

Alright, this may get a little depressing and ranty, but I would really like to know wtf is up with dogs getting shot.  Seriously.

Think back to September of this year.  Calgary police shot a Rottweiler that was on the loose in the NE.  The media reported the dog was “aggressive”, citing that it had bitten one woman, and was subsequently shot when it began to “charge” at the attending officer.  The Calgary Sun – god love ‘em – reported the dog was “rampaging”.  It was shot three times.  It did not die right away, so the officer was then forced to chase the retreating dog for a couple of blocks and shoot it again. 

That incident took place the same month police shot a dog at amidst a crowd at the Adams Morgan festival in D.C.  The media, of course, did not hesitate to mention the dog appeared to be a “pit bull mix”, and there is a strong disagreement between the owner of the dog and the police as to what happened.  The dog’s owner (and one witness) believes he had the dog under control when the police took over and subsequently fatally shot the dog, while the police (and another witness) maintain the dog was certainly dangerous.

And this brings me to the latest, when on November 7 a two year old Newfoundland was shot four times by police in Washington state.  The dog (“Rosie”) had escaped from her yard and someone notified police of the loose dog.  According to the statements to the press, when police located and tried to approach the dog, she growled, barked, showed her teeth, and “charged”.  Initially, an officer deployed a taser, which caused the dog to yelp and run away.  The dog cornered itself in a residential yard where the officers determined lethal force was necessary.

Rosie the Newfoundland

So I will return to my original question:  wtf?  Do the officers involved really believe that shooting these dogs was the only or best solution?  If so, that illustrates a significant problem.  And why wasn’t animal control called in any of these situations?

Yes, police officers are faced with a tough job that puts them in close contact with a wide variety of unsavoury characters.  It’s a thankless career, no question.  And alongside encountering dangerous people, they will also encounter dangerous animals.  It comes with the territory.  And police officers do not draw their guns to wound.  Ever.  If an officer feels an individual is a threat, they will be shot. 

Dogs, however, are not people.  Actually, they’re technically property in the eyes of the law.  But instead of spiralling down into the abyss of legal technicalities and semantics, I want you to consider any time a moose or other wild animal gets loose in Calgary’s downtown core.  It does not get fatally shot; it gets tranquilized and removed.  So what’s with all the gunfire?

I suggest there are far better ways the police could deal with these sorts of situations that involve potentially dangerous dogs.

Consider the Newfoundland Rosie, for instance.  She was trapped in a back yard when she was shot.  How about instead of shooting her, they leave her there until animal services can assess and retrieve her?  Or until the owners can pick her up?  The homeowner of the residence where Rosie was shot told the media she’d have definitely preferred that sort of solution.  And then the authorities could have followed up with some dog-at-large fines for the dog’s owners, and any other penalties associated with animals on the loose.  They could have had animal services do a behaviour assessment, and designate her a “dangerous animal” if necessary.  But I would argue that shooting her four times was not the best solution.  Not even top 5.  Rosie was just someone’s pet who had actually not done any harm whatsoever to a human being.

I have the same criticism with the pit bull story: shooting was not the best route to take.  And in this case, the owner was right there.  Rather than taking his dog from him – and then shooting it – have the owner restrain the dog, remove it from the crowded premises, and then go through the necessary procedures with local animal services.  Deem it an officially “aggressive dog” if you must, but to kill it on-sight – really?

And finally, the Calgary case.  Of course, I was not there, so I will have to take the newspaper reports as accurate, but something did raise my eyebrows: the woman who was bit suffered injuries to her hand but “did not need to be taken to hospital”.  That means the injuries weren’t even worthy of stitches.  Perhaps I am treading in dangerous waters suggesting this, but in the event a large dog is really “aggressive” and truly determined to do harm, it’s going to send you to the hospital if you don’t properly fend off the attack.  The officer was certain the dog was aggressive, and this one had actually injured a person, but I’m still not willing to concede that gunfire was the right approach. 

All dog shootings seem to follow a similar pattern, wherein the attending officer encounters the dog, immediately perceives aggression or danger, and makes a quick decision to use lethal force. 

In contrast to this, as the Newfoundland Club of Seattle points out in its official response to the Rosie incident, “there are notably few incidents where trained animal control officers make the decision escalate a situation to the use lethal force”.  [Emphasis mine.]

What does this mean?  Well, it means more or better training is required for the front-line police officers who are likely to encounter these types of situations.  [Allow a pause for the collective taxpayer groan.]

If the officers in the cases noted above – and the several other dog shootings out there I have not mentioned – had even remedial training in dog behaviour and body language, these situations would have been handled differently.  Likely without shots fired.

Back to the Newfoundland Club of Seattle:

Implementing a training program for the police force would take a minimal effort, but could pay dividends to the force and community. The framework for such a program has already been implemented by the City of Oakland.  Responding to public outcry from a police shooting of a family dog, the Oakland police chief adopted a policy requiring that all of its police officers to receive training in animal behavior and proper methods for containing loose dogs. The program will be paid for by a partnership with a local humane organization. A similar program can and should be put in place in Des Moines and cities and counties throughout Washington. And after seeing the outpouring of support for Rosie and her family, we would venture to guess that there are droves of qualified dog behaviorists and trainers willing to take time to train police officers.

So how about it, Calgary?  Clearly our officers could use a dog behaviour primer.

On November 15, 2010 a vigil was held for Rosie. (Photo: Keith Daige, The Highland Times)


And, just as an aside in case you were curious, yes, the average citizen will be charged with aggravated animal cruelty if they shoot a dog.