When the Protectors Need Protecting: Cruelty to K-9s

Thousands of law-enforcement agencies across the country use working dogs called K-9s to help apprehend suspects, detect narcotics and explosives, and locate missing people. Although these dogs don’t sign up willingly, they do their best to please their handlers. K-9s deserve to be treated with the same respect as any other officers who put their lives on the line protecting their communities—but some agencies and training facilities still rely on cruel, abusive, and antiquated training methods instead of humane strategies with proven efficacy.

“I feel strongly that dogs should be treated with respect and this includes training them in a manner which puts their welfare above performance.”

—Guy Williams, Police Dog Trainer and Instructor

PETA works with and supports police departments all over the nation, often collaborating to investigate, charge, and prosecute animal abusers. We’ve directed campaigns at agencies and organizations across the U.S. in an effort to reduce the tragic deaths of K-9s in hot cars, and many officers have thanked us for looking out for their canine partners. We know that many—if not most—handlers truly respect and value their K-9s, whom they trust with their lives in dangerous situations. But some recently publicized cases show that certain handlers choose to treat their own partners with violence, so PETA is asking agencies nationwide to ensure that their officers use only humane methods to train their K-9s.

Caught in the Act: Officers on Video

When a California man working outdoors heard a dog crying in distress, he looked around for the source and saw a Vacaville police officer straddling a dog, later identified as Gus, and punching the animal in the face while forcibly holding him down on his back. The witness captured some of the incident on video but was afraid to intervene. The footage went viral, raising public ire and inspiring protests. An investigation by Anchor Therapy Clinic—a trauma-focused mental-health clinic in Sacramento led by a psychotherapist with experience as a military working-dog handler, trainer, and kennel master—revealed that Gus was fearful, engaging in avoidant behavior when cornered or leashed or when a handler attempted to touch him. He also didn’t understand or respond to basic commands or tasks and aggressively protected his food. The handler was removed from the K-9 unit, and the police department announced that it would implement the improvements recommended by the investigators.

In a similar case in Salisbury, North Carolina, a video was leaked to the media showing an officer lifting a K-9, later identified as Zuul, off the ground by the leash, swinging the dog over his shoulder, hauling him like this for several feet, body slamming him against the side of a police vehicle, violently shoving him against and then into the vehicle, and punching him with force. Onlookers who were apparently inside an adjacent vehicle with the camera that filmed the incident can be heard in the footage. One says, “We’re good—no witnesses,” then someone chuckles. Then one asks, “Is your camera on?” and the response is “Uh, no, my power’s off.” Someone then says, “I think mine’s on,” followed by, “Can you go flip my cameras off? Just the front camera.” The video quickly went viral, inspiring a local protest, generating national and international outrage, and prompting an external investigation. Based on the investigation, the handler, Officer James Hampton, was recommended for termination and subsequently resigned. Although the district attorney declined to bring criminal charges against him, the results of the investigation revealed that Hampton’s fellow officers thought that he had “disciplined [Zuul] incorrectly,” that the “discipline was excessive and not necessary,” and that the “discipline efforts went too far.” The president of a canine training facility stated that, in his opinion, “the incident was an overcorrection.”

In Beattyville, Kentucky, a witness filmed a police officer and his K-9, Sara (pictured below), during a traffic stop. While Sara was in a seated position, the handler kneed her in the back of the head (00:12–13 of the video here). He shouted a command for her to go into a “down” position, and once she had obeyed, he dragged her along the pavement by the leash and collar around her neck. According to the witness, the handler forcefully shoved Sara into the patrol vehicle, hit her with his hand once she was inside, and then shut the door against her backside. The witness stated that the other police officer at the scene blocked her from moving and wouldn’t allow her to film the handler’s treatment of Sara after he had dragged her along the ground.

Beattyville Police Department’s K9 Sara to get donation of body armor Beattyville Police Department’s K9 Sara will…

Posted by Beattyville Police Department on Saturday, January 4, 2020

In each case, PETA rushed a letter to the chief of police, condemning the cruelty displayed by the officer against their own K-9 and requesting that the dog be removed from the handler’s care, the handler be removed from the K-9 unit, an investigation be conducted into the incident, and a thorough review be performed of the department’s K-9 policies and procedures in order to prevent such abuse from ever happening again.

Old-School Tactics: No Excuse for Modern-Day Abuse

Methods considered standard for decades, such as throwing chains at dogs’ hindquarters, hitting them with leather belts, submerging their heads underwater, and “helicoptering” them—hanging them by the leash and spinning them in the air until they stagger around and vomit—are now rightfully considered cruel and ineffective.

“Some dogs could withstand being suspended by their neck longer than your arms could stand keeping them up there and then what do you do? Some people would walk over to the nearest fence and suspend the leash from that and hold the dog up. That would get carried away because now that you aren’t getting tired, and you’re a little ticked off, some people would succumb to the temptation to keep the dog up there longer.”

—Steve White, Expert K-9 Trainer

According to one study, these forceful handling techniques are more likely to yield negative results, rather than improving a dog’s “obedience.” According to an international symposium of veterinary and behavioral experts, dogs learn and maintain desirable behavior most effectively when they’re trained with a reward-based system—frightening or traumatic events and/or treatment frequently induce anxiety and even panic. Additional scientific research on working-dog training techniques indicates that dogs whose handlers subject them to aversive stimuli, such as pulling on the leash, hanging the dog by the collar, scolding, and hitting, didn’t perform as well in exercises and were more distracted.

According to expert K-9 trainer Deborah Palman of the Maine Warden Service, the advantages of not using force include less stress and fewer injuries for both dog and handler, increased dog and handler cooperation, time saved in training, less retraining in obedience work, and decreased aggression. Seattle-based expert trainer Steve White emphasizes that using positive reinforcement instead of force means that dogs learn to trust their handlers, developing a stronger working relationship so that handlers—who, statistically, are involved in more gunfights than any other members of their departments—can count on their dogs to obey commands at critical moments.

People depend on their local police to keep their communities safe and are acutely aware of incidents of excessive police force—and studies have shown that those who are violent toward animals tend to be violent toward other humans as well.

Humane training methods protect both K-9s and the communities they serve. For more information, check out PETA’s factsheet. To request a print copy to share with your local law-enforcement agency, please e-mail [email protected].

Cases of K-9s Being Neglected, Abused, or Killed in the Line of Duty

June 2024/Newberry County, South Carolina

The Newberry County Sheriff’s Office announced that local deputies working with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) were attempting to serve a felony warrant when the suspect, James Robert Peterson, shot SLED K-9 Coba, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois mix. Peterson was hiding in his mother’s house, where Coba and his handler, along with a deputy sheriff, confronted him in a hallway. After Peterson shot Coba, the team returned fire. Coba was rushed to receive emergency veterinary care but died of his injuries. Peterson survived and was taken into custody on the felony charges. An outside agency was engaged to investigate the shooting and death of Coba. PETA sent our sincere condolences to those affected by the tragic loss and requested changes in SLED protocols to help protect K-9s from such fatal encounters.

April 2024/Sussex County, Virginia

The Associated Press reported that Virginia Department of Corrections K-9 Rivan, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, was killed after he was “violently and repeatedly stabbed and kicked” by inmates affiliated with MS-13. Three inmates had attacked another one, and Rivan and his handler were responding to try to stop the altercation. His handler sustained no serious physical injuries during the incident. The offenders were incarcerated for numerous violent offenses, including first-degree homicide, kidnapping/abduction, and malicious wounding. PETA wrote a letter to the Sussex County Commonwealth’s Attorney requesting that the offenders receive the maximum allowable penalties for killing Rivan. We also wrote to the Virginia Department of Corrections—which deploys patrol dogs to attack incarcerated people exponentially more often than any other state prison system—asking the agency to stop using K-9s in prisons and reallocate funding to alternative methods of population management, including adequate human staffing, protective equipment, advanced monitoring equipment, and early detection and treatment for inmate mental-health issues.

November 2023/Riverside County, California

A YouTube livestream caught a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy abusing his K-9 partner during an encounter between law enforcement and a resident. The handler and dog have been tentatively identified as Deputy Shane Day and K-9 Owney. The video shows the handler holding the dog slightly off the ground by both the collar and the handle on the dog’s harness. The K-9—who appears to be stressed and overstimulated—rears his head back, nipping at the deputy’s right hand. The officer reacts by lifting the flailing animal by the collar and harness up toward his own chest and slamming the dog’s entire body onto the ground, forcing him onto his side, while shouting “no.” He lifts the flailing K-9 back up, body suspended with rear paws barely touching the ground, and pulls him back toward the rear of his vehicle. While the handler turns around, he pulls his right arm back, makes a fist, and forcefully punches the dog in the head or face before putting him into the vehicle. This page will be updated as more information becomes available.

November 2023/Davis County, Utah

According to KSTU-TV (FOX 13), on November 9 Cpl. Timothy Robinson of the Davis County Sheriff’s Office was charged with a Class A misdemeanor for an incident that had occurred in August during a training exercise, when Robinson allegedly assaulted his K-9 partner in front of other law-enforcement officers. Witnesses stated that when K-9 Rolf began to urinate in the training room, Robinson pulled on his leash “aggressively” to yank the dog out of the room while hitting him “about five to ten times.” Robinson was seen “punching Rolf with a closed fist multiple times.” A state K-9 training instructor was consulted during the investigation and stated that “striking a police dog is not taught or allowed … as a corrective measure” by the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Peace Officer Standards and Training. Once the incident was reported to the sheriff’s office, Rolf was taken to the county animal shelter for evaluation and Robinson was placed on administrative leave. While Robinson remains on leave, Rolf has returned to active duty with a different handler. To avoid a conflict of interest, the Bountiful Police Department is investigating the incident.

October 2023/New York, New York

Gothamist reported that, according to a department spokesperson, a dog named Ryder in the New York City Department of Correction K-9 unit died after she was found unresponsive inside a department vehicle at the Rikers Island jail facility. Ryder’s handler, who allegedly had left the dog in the vehicle unattended for several hours, is not facing disciplinary action at this time. A necropsy is underway to determine the cause of death. An investigation is also underway to determine whether the heat-alert alarm system installed in the vehicle was working or had malfunctioned. According to the New York Daily News, Ryder was a female German shorthaired pointer trained to sniff out contraband substances.

September 2023/Monroe County, Wisconsin

NBC15.com reported that a Monroe County Sheriff’s Department detective had resigned following the death of his K-9. The handler had left K-9 Kolt in a squad car for four hours on a day when the temperature surpassed 80 degrees. Veterinary records indicate that Kolt endured kidney failure—a common result of heat stroke—and was euthanized to end his suffering. Following an external investigation, the handler was charged with “mistreating animals – intentional or negligent violation.”

September 2023/Fairmount, Indiana

FOX59.com reported that a Fairmount Police Department officer had resigned after his partner, K-9 Zeusz, died in the back of his patrol vehicle. According to reports, the vehicle was equipped with a temperature alarm, and a necropsy found no obvious cause of death. The Indiana State Police investigation into the death is ongoing.

Update (June 2024): On June 6, 2024, Zeusz’s handler, Kyle James Vincent, was charged with cruelty to animals for the death of his K-9 in the back of his squad car in 2023.

August 2023/Lake Station, Indiana

In July, APnews.com reported that at least eight dogs who were not yet on active duty had died and many more suffered from heat exhaustion following the malfunctioning of the air-conditioning unit in a cargo truck that was transporting them to a K-9 training facility used by law-enforcement agencies in several states. The owner of the facility is a retired police officer, and his employees are either active or retired officers. Following relentless demands from PETA and outraged members of the public, local officials engaged the Indiana State Police to perform a third-party investigation, which is ongoing.

August 2023/Wicomico County, Maryland

WBOC.com reported that a Wicomico sheriff’s deputy had left K-9 Roxy unattended in a vehicle at his home while the heat index exceeded 100 degrees and he threw a child’s birthday party. Roxy was later found dead inside the vehicle. The deputy had failed to plug in a temperature-monitoring heat-alert alarm system specifically designed to protect her by rolling down the windows and turning on the siren if the interior temperature of the vehicle climbed too high. The criminal investigation of this incident has been completed and turned over to the Dorchester County State’s Attorney’s Office. The deputy has been reassigned and is not working with K-9s.

August 2023/Parsons, Kansas 

KOAMNewsNow.com reported that Devin Wisdom, a Parsons Police Department officer, had found K-9 Karim deceased after leaving him in his kennel for an undisclosed length of time after a 12-hour work shift. Following the results of the necropsy report, which revealed that “extreme heat was the sole factor contributing to K9 Karim’s passing,” the officer was placed on unpaid administrative leave. The Labette County Sheriff’s Office has submitted the case to the Labette County Attorney’s Office with a request to charge the officer with cruelty to animals. The investigation is ongoing.

August 2023/Derry Borough, Pennsylvania 

TribLive.com reported that K-9 Smoke had been euthanized after being involved in a dogfight at the home of his handler, Derry Borough Police Chief Randy Glick, whom he bit and who used a taser on the family dog who had attacked K-9 Smoke. Although K-9 Smoke sustained severe injuries to his rectum and anus, he wasn’t taken to a veterinarian until three days after the incident, and the attending veterinarian recommended euthanizing him. The Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office completed an investigation but didn’t file charges, and the Derry Borough police dog program was disbanded in the wake of growing outrage from residents.

August 2023/Katy, Texas

According to public records obtained by PETA, a Brookshire Police Department officer—who had been assigned as but was neither trained nor certified as a K-9 handler—had been in the hospital when a family member left his K-9, a young Belgian Malinois named Luca, outside unattended in record-breaking temperatures with a heat index of 110.1 degrees. The person returned more than four hours later and found the dog unresponsive and apparently dying of heat exhaustion. The dog was rushed to the vet and later euthanized. Luca’s death wasn’t announced publicly until a city official confirmed on social media that he had died. The official only knew about the death because the city council had been asked to reimburse a $4,000 veterinary bill. PETA has confirmed with the city that the incident is currently under investigation.

Update (May 2024): PETA received the final report from the official third-party investigation into the incident, which indicated that the chief of police, Clyde Miller, was ultimately at fault for the negligence and death of Luca. After his original handler left the department, Luca was housed at a boarding facility until he was reassigned. The next officer assigned to Luca, Maximiano Rodriguez, had no training in canine handling, had no interest in being a handler long-term, and lacked the physical capabilities required by the department’s policy to be a handler. Luca lost nearly 20% of his bodyweight while he was in Rodriguez’s custody. Rodriguez knew that he would be in the hospital ahead of time and allegedly requested that Luca be transferred into the custody of another officer, but the chief allegedly denied that request. Shortly after Luca’s death while in Rodriguez’s custody, Miller was forced to resign. Upon reviewing these records, PETA drafted a criminal complaint to request that local and state agencies with jurisdiction over this section of unincorporated Harris County investigate Luca’s death.

July 2023/Rowan County, North Carolina

SpectrumLocalNews.com reported that a Rowan County sheriff’s deputy had been out of town when a family member left his K-9, Kantor, in a car unattended. The dog was found dead in the vehicle when another member of the household arrived home from work. The car was reportedly left running with the air-conditioning turned on, but the engine apparently shut off and there was no safety equipment installed to monitor the temperature inside the vehicle. The death was deemed an “accident.”

June 2023/Rains County, Texas

KLTV.com reported that a Rains County sheriff’s deputy had been fired for violating the agency’s “canine operations policy and vehicle maintenance procedures” after he reported finding his partner, K-9 Kumo, deceased. The case has been referred to the district attorney’s office to determine whether charges are warranted. No details of how Kumo died are available pending investigation.

May 2023/Detroit, Michigan

WSPA.com reported that a TSA explosive detection canine handler at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport had been removed from handling duties after a traveler filmed him treating his K-9 roughly while on duty. The video shows the dog losing his footing and his handler aggressively jerking his leash, “yanking hard enough to swing the dog around” multiple times.

April 2023/Chapmanville, West Virginia 

KTUL.com reported that a former Chapmanville Police Department officer, Marcus Dudley, had reached a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to making false statements, obstruction, and cruelty to animals—all misdemeanors—in relation to the “disappearance” of his K-9, Chase. Since he first reported K-9 Chase missing, Dudley’s statements have been inconsistent, and “the indictment does not specify how investigators believe Dudley mistreated his police dog.” He is no longer working for the Chapmanville Police Department and is currently in jail awaiting sentencing in November.

April 2023/Boone County, Iowa

KCCI.com reported that a Boone County sheriff’s deputy had been charged with one count of “injury or interference of a police dog service,” which is a felony, after leaving his partner, K-9 Bear, inside a vehicle for 22 hours when temperatures exceeded 90 degrees, leading to the dog’s death. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation reported that cellphone data shows the deputy left the house twice while Bear remained locked in the vehicle without food, water, or ventilation.

January 2023/Rockdale County, Georgia

In June 2022, three companion dogs died after Eric Tolbert, a Rockdale County sheriff’s deputy, left them in an unventilated shed for two days when the heat index exceeded 100 degrees. Investigators found his agency-assigned K-9, Aegis, and another dog living in feces-filled pens with dirty water buckets. The Sheriff’s Office immediately removed Aegis from Tolbert’s property, reassigned him outside the canine unit, and performed a full investigation into the dogs’ deaths. After local judicial officials refused investigators’ request for an arrest warrant, PETA leaped into action, sending letters to officials containing sound legal arguments for such a warrant to be issued, held demonstrations, and encouraged supporters to take action. The case was finally brought before a grand jury, which found Tolbert “not guilty” for the deaths of all three brachycephalic dogs he had left crated inside an unventilated shed in the sweltering summer heat.

December 2022/Hampton County, South Carolina

WJCL.com reported that a Hampton County sheriff’s deputy had found his K-9, a bloodhound named Levi, dead on Christmas Eve after leaving him outside in an unheated kennel when the temperature dropped to 13 degrees. Instead of opening an investigation and instructing the deputy to take the dog’s remains to a veterinary hospital for a necropsy, the sheriff, who was nearing retirement, told him to bury the body on a former deputy’s property in Allendale County.

August 2022/Campbell County, Tennessee

WBIR.com reported that Lt. Nathaniel Bostic, a Campbell County sheriff’s deputy, had been placed on administrative leave after a training video of him violently jerking, hanging, and swinging his partner, K-9 Santo, by the leash went viral. PETA consulted expert trainers for their professional opinions regarding the deputy’s actions in the video, without identifying the agency or handler, and sent the information to the Campbell County sheriff. One expert opined, “My real concern here is that when the dog begins to whine, it tells me that the dog knows what is coming and that it is going to be painful because the dog has clearly experienced this behavior from the handler before.” No updates were ever provided regarding the internal investigation or whether Bostic was held accountable for this abuse.

Download PETA's 'Humane K-9 Training' Factsheet
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