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.

How to Report Cruelty to Animals

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind