Dogs and cops. Cops and dogs. Owners and agencies. They seem to be coming into conflict far too often these days.
Are dog shootings rising? Are there more threats to police officers, and are they valid? Is this conflict a long-standing one that is being broadcast more because of the power of social media, blogs, and the opportunity for everyone to be heard by a large Internet audience?
To understand the potential reasons for conflict here we have to first understand what we are talking about. In my classes we often talk about aggression. What is it? Why is it? What do we do about it?
This is information that all of us, police officers included, need to better grasp to understand how we can avoid needlessly escalated conflicts between dogs and people.
So let's first look at what aggression is-and isn't.
Aggression ISN'T: Meanness. Jealousy. Anger. A disease to be treated. A pestilence to be exterminated. Aggressive dogs are not evil, hateful, or natural killers.
Aggression is simply one behavior that a dog-or any organism-can use to change or manipulate it's environment. And behavior is just something that an organism does, an action. So aggression is nothing more than one possible thing that a dog can do to change the things around it.
This may sound pretty simple, but too many people miss this and assign aggression wider and deeper emotional baggage than it deserves.
Let's start with a simple case. An organism (we'll call it George) is happily bumbling through the forest. Suddenly something scary pops up. George doesn't know what it is but it's scary. So George's best response here to make sure he lives another day to make more little Georges is to RUN AWAY.
But George was not paying attention and he wound up right up against a BIG chunk of rock and has nowhere to run. The scary thing is between him and running room.
So George tries for a second to freeze and make believe he's not there, hoping the scary thing might not notice him. But George is purple and yellow striped with orange spots, so that's not gonna work.
So George has one option (other than, he fears, being eaten): Act as big and scary as he possibly can so the scary thing decides to run away and leave George alone.
So George acts "aggressive". He makes a lot of noise, shows whatever weapons he has at his disposal (like teeth, claws, a knife in his pocket...) and acts REALLY REALLY TOUGH. His body goes through some physical changes. His blood pressure goes up, his heart beats faster, his body systems change what they are doing to give him lots of energy to let him fight (or even better RUN AWAY if he gets the opening). Meanwhile inside he is really hoping that he doesn't have to prove any of this. After all, if you fight there is a really good chance that even if you win you will get hurt. And hurt is not fun. Hurt can make George incapable of making little Georges, which is the whole point of George's existence anyhow. Fighting isn't good.
There will be one of a few outcomes here. Either George gets seriously injured, killed, or eaten, OR George scares the scary thing back enough that he gets room to run away. Or the scary thing runs away. In either case, George goes one way and the scary thing goes another, and George lives to go home, tell his buddies the story, and make more little Georges. In technical terms, George's behavior has succeeded.
So what does this have to do with your dog? Your dog is George (minus the purple and yellow stripes with orange spots I hope). Your dog sees the world in similar basic terms to everything else out there. If you are scared you can either run away, freeze and hide, or fight. And if it comes to fighting, your best bet is to look REALLY SCARY so the other thing/dog/monster/person/scary thing figures you might be too scary to fight with and exercises it's own option to run away.
So that long explanation gives us a hint at what dogs want to achieve with an aggressive display (the fancy term for all the noise and bluster that they use to try and be scarier than the scary thing). They want to either get a scary thing to run away or get the chance to run away themselves. Or, as a last option, fight.
Now, what things make George, especially if he is your dog, even want to come across a scary thing? First off, he pretty much doesn't. George is going to be happy just dealing with Mrs. George and the little Georgettes-until they are too big to mooch off him anymore. George just has a few basic needs: food, water, shelter, security, access to Mrs. George. Basic survival needs. (We talked about this a bit two posts ago).
But George will take on scary things to insure that he has these basic needs. He will, in formal terms, protect his resources. He will defend himself against perceived threats. He will try to insure his own survival and the future production of more Georges.
When it comes to your dog and conflict with others, there are a lot of fancy terms and gradations that behaviorists, trainers, and others use to classify the types of aggression. Territorial aggression, "dominance" aggression, fear aggression; the list goes on depending on who is writing it. And there are, for treatment and analysis' sake, differences in the reasons for, and treatments for, the different types of aggressive displays. He will also occasionally have social disagreements with others of his ilk, but that is secondary to actual survival. All of this distills down, in simple, functional terms to this: the ultimate reason conflict happens is that your dog perceives something, or someone, as a threat to his or her safety or resources. Badda bing.
This we can understand. This is simple. Understanding this can make us, our dogs, and those who come into contact with either of us much safer.
Now let's put this into the context of our dog in contact with a police officer tying to do his job. The officer can basically come into contact with our dog in one of two manners; our dog is out running amok in the officer's world and brings attention to his presence, or the officer has to enter into our dog's world and brings attention to his presence. Either way our dog and the officer intersect. And the problem comes when that intersection causes conflict.
The first situation is easy to prevent: KEEP YOUR DOG HOME. The second takes some planning, but is doable.
Let's start with a common occurrence. A police officer is dispatched to your home because something has happened that you need to report. The officer's mission is to come over, get some information, and leave. He is not a threat to you, your dog, or the cookies in your cabinet. Your dog, though, wasn't given the memo. He is in the front yard and sees a strange person pull up, get out with funny clothes and stuff hanging all around his middle, and maybe even wearing a hat-which you never wear (you don't look good in hats-you don't have The Gift).
So George (minus the stripes and spots) sees the stranger open the gate. The stranger is coming into George's territory-the space within which George finds food, water, safety, and a comfy bed under which he hides his favorite toy. Since these things all mean lots to George, he is nervous that the stranger is coming to take one-or more-of them away. He may become anxious. He may even decide that the stranger is going to deprive him of something. So he runs out to check what the stranger is up to. He may even bark to warn the stranger that this is George's place and George is determined to keep all his stuff. Especially the toy under his bed.
The officer-the stranger-has choices. He can be aware of George's needs and the reason for his reactions and adjust his actions accordingly. An understanding officer who has been trained to be aware and compassionate will take a few seconds to interact with George in a positive manner. He will use his body position, his voice, and his overall actions to send a clear message to George: "I am not a threat to you. I am not going to take your food, shelter, or the toy you have under your comfy bed. I, in fact, might just add to the people who are your friends and just might have a cookie or a pet or a friendly word. We can be buddies."
George may or may not have had positive interactions with other strangers, but either way George will start to turn down his reaction. George is getting good messages from the officer. The officer is not approaching directly; he is not staring into George's eyes; he is not making sudden movements. In fact, the officer is sending neutral or even deescalation signals to George,and George begins to relax. At this point the officer has responded to George's signals, things are calming down, and everyone winds up able to continue their jobs. George has made sure his stuff is secure, the officer has taken his report, and at the end George gets to go back to his bed and snuggle with his favorite toy.
This contact is ideal, and it happens all over, every day, with all kinds of dogs and owners and officers and postmen and electric company workers and situations and homes and toys.
But sometimes it isn't George. It might be George's cousin Fred. Fred is not quite as accepting as George. Maybe Fred has had some bad experiences. Maybe Fred is just not as secure in his living space as George. Maybe Fred has a few issues. Either way, Fred isn't George. Fred is determined that the officer is a threat, so Fred takes things to a higher level. Fred puts on airs and makes himself look way scarier than he really is. He barks, growls, bares his teeth, and goes to fully scary mode. Fred isn't going to admit he would really rather be in Philadelphia. Is he dangerous? Is he vicious? Probably not unless you push him. He is lacking in coping skills and doesn't know better.
In this scenario the officer is aware and recognizes that Fred is a bigger problem. So the officer takes a really revolutionary step: he has dispatch call the homeowner and asks to have Fred put away. Sure, he could probably take time and make friends, but he has other things to do today. So on a good day the owner comes out, puts Fred up, and they take care of business.
But what happens if Fred's owner doesn't answer? Or even worse, what if the officer is there on, say, a silent alarm or a disturbance call and calling ahead isn't in the books?
A well trained officer has a backup plan. Pretty much every police officer out there today carries pepper spray, what is technically called Oleoresin Capsicum spray. Or OC. And if they don't carry it they bloody well should.
OC is EXTREMELY effective in dissuading dogs. A spray of about 2 to 3 seconds directly in the face will pretty much deter any dog from closing and engaging with a person. And yet, the OC spray does not do any long term damage and the dog is fine in about 30 or 45 minutes.
The trained and sensible officer uses this information and plans ahead. He puts the spray bottle in his weak hand (so he can still get his gun in case of a real bad guy). He watches Fred, uses the body language skills he has learned to tell Fred he really isn't so scary, and uses his head to employ the other avoidance skills that he has learned. Simple things like giving Fred room and keeping something between him and Fred. Using any opportunity to separate Fred by closing gates. Worst case, if Fred does come too close, the officer uses the non-lethal OC spray and sends Fred into a safe corner of the yard. No harm, no foul. Fred still has his resources, the officer has done his job, and everyone goes home with no new holes.
This strategy even works if a situation is more rapidly developing. Say Officer Friendly has to arrest Fred's owner. Fred is likely to take umbrage. Officer Friendly is taking his person (his resources) away. Even though Fred's person may not be the finest in the neighborhood, Fred's person has at least fed and watered Fred to some extent. Access to crummy resources is always better than no access at all. So Fred gets excited. And the owner is excited too. We as police officers are taught that the best situation is one that is not excited, but sometime we don't have that choice. But the non-lethal option is still top on the table. If the officer sprays the dog AND the owner-such is life. They will both be fine.
If the situation keeps getting worse then the officer may have to resort to an impact weapon like a baton. Just like with a human target, the officer has the option to strike Fred and get him back. The officer has the unquestioned right to defend himself. However, we have to remember that the standard here is that the officer is restricted to using only the minimum force needed to accomplish the job and to protect himself.
Higher level situations are happily much rarer than the low-impact situation. Most situations never get to this point. Yet we still have to remember that Fred is only responding to the officer based on Fred's perceptions of the situation, not because he is inherently evil or mean or any of the other human categories we slap on him. Fred is acting....like a dog. Maybe a frightened dog, maybe a poorly socialized dog, maybe even an abused or mistreated dog, but a dog none the less. The violent or difficult person is a jerk. The dog is just a dog.
This is where process and practice seems to be breaking down. The officer has a job to do. Fred has his job to do. Fred only has a limited box of tools to use-his owner has not prepared him for calm and friendly interaction. And Fred is a dog. He can't go looking for classes and better tools on his own-his owner won't let him drive.
But the officer has never been provided training on just how to deal with Fred. I know myself that, to date, there is no training in the Police Academy on how to deal with dogs. Or cats, or horses, or other four legged creatures. Their training is crammed with stuff for dealing with two legged threats, but not four legs. And we have to remember that people in general have a vast array of experiences with animals in general and dogs in particular. They may have had bad experiences with dogs, just like Fred had bad experiences with people.
The average Joe may be able to make choices and take actions based on personal bad experiences, but as police officers CAN'T DO THAT. We are expected to be professionals. We are expected to be Superman. We are expected to disarm a crowd of hostile people with a glance. To arrest the worst of the bad guys with a stern talking to. To help little old ladies across the street and then get the cat out of the tree.
But we aren't currently being given the tools, a least with animals. We haven't been given the training. We are lost at sea when we run into a perceived threat from Fred, because we haven't been taught how Fred works. Or how to deal with Fred.
And a situation that should have been defused and deflected turns deadly. The poorly trained officer responds with needlessly excessive force and Fred (or even George) winds up shot.
Why? Some times the excuse is that the officer was "afraid". My answer to that: tough shit. There are lots of things that we as police have to face that are scary. As I have said before, I am not crazy about high, exposed places. Yet when my job takes me to the top of a building I have to just get over it. Big people with knives and guns are scary. But we have to deal with it. When we react based on fear that fear has to rise to the level that a well-trained, professional officer reasonably recognizes as a valid, imminent threat and that his or her only reasonable response was deadly force. Otherwise-use the tools and techniques you have been used to address the problem.
And that is where we have broken down. The tools and techniques have not been provided. Officers have not, typically, been trained to recognize the causes of aggressive displays by dogs, and have not been taught how to use the tools they already have to defuse the situations that arise. In fact, they are lacking in the training how to avoid those situations in the first place. How to use simple, low-tech, basic strategies to keep situations at a controlled level. Conflict resolution with humans is trained. Deescalation and control using less- and non-lethal tools is taught for human conflict. But we have failed to teach officers that similar, if not the same, tools and techniques work with dogs too.
What is the answer? It sounds trite and like a broken record, but training is the best answer. Training from the beginning, even before the officer hits the street the first day. Training in recognizing the basic reasons that a dog shows aggression. Some basic techniques that will help the officer keep the conflict at a low level, and a few reminders that the same tools and techniques they train and practice repeatedly with people with also work on dogs. Voice command (try yelling NO! SIT! at a threatening dog. Surprisingly often it works!). Body position and presence. Separation and control. Less- lethal force. Use the tools. And above all, USE THEIR HEADS.
And we as owners? We have responsibilities too. Let Law Enforcement know there are dogs on your property. Put up signs that say "Hi! A dog lives here! Bring cookies!" Keep your dogs contained on your property. Give your dogs an area where they can stay separate from people who approach your home legitimately. If you are expecting visitors, put your dogs up. Control them so they don't run out-so they can't run out-and surprise someone that is not properly trained. Ask to be allowed to put your dogs up if the visit is not expected. A reasonable officer should not only allow putting your dogs away, but should have the presence of mind to ask you to put your dogs away. And don't tell the officer "Oh, they don't bite". Of course they do-they are dogs. Put them away anyhow unless the officer expresses confidence that he or she can interact safely. And then still put the dogs away-accidents happen.
Above all, stress to your local police department that they need to give adequate training. They need to equip their officers to keep themselves and your dog safe. Remind them that the deployment of deadly force against a dog threatens everyone-the dog, the public, and the officer themselves. Officers have been killed by ricochets from bullets fired at dogs. So have citizens. And bystanders.
I support Police Officers. I am one. I also support dog owners. I'm one of those too. Help me help support both owners and officers. Let's work on reducing the needless loss of life. And the wasted time on the reams and reams of paperwork these situations create. Responsible manage your dogs while insisting on proper training for police. You can't expect people to do a job without the right tools. Insist that agencies provide the tools and then insist on their proper use.
End of rant for today.