What if I get bit by a police dog?

by Bill Lewis II

Looking back at 2009, I think there are three incidents that significantly standout to me that occurred within law enforcement’s K9 community with critical lessons to be learned and shared.  The three incidents all involve officers killing police dogs when each dog bites each of the respective officers.

“What if I get bit by a police dog?” is not a stupid question for an officer or deputy to ask.  It is stupid not to ask the question if any officer is planning to or preparing to deploy with a police dog in a patrol or tactical environment.  If the likelihood exists, it should be addressed.

I was speaking recently with a SWAT operator I just met and mentioned that I was preparing to write this article.  Without hesitation, this operator said he would kill a police dog immediately if it bit him during an operation.  The response initially disappointed me, but I attributed it to a lack of training and education about the potential situation and alternative outcomes.

In the K9 community, we have long been advocating strongly and consistently that police dogs are not deadly force and the courts have agreed.  However, three officers used deadly force against police dogs when the dogs were biting them.   Why did they do so?  Is deadly force by a police officer justified for a police dog bite?

The primary purpose of this article is not to point blame at those involved directly and indirectly with these three specific incidents, because there are many other incidents throughout the years where officers have been accidentally bit without killing the involved police dogs and I’ve investigated several.  The purpose of this article is to hopefully generate some positive discussion and encourage agencies to consider or re-examine policies and/or training to avoid similar situations.

Regarding these three incidents, each shooter’s role was different with respect to their relationship with each dog.  One officer was from the same agency as the dog.  One officer was from another agency.  One officer was the dog’s handler.

Incident #1

A police officer shot and killed a police K9 that “latched” onto her arm while she was preparing to search a building for a burglary suspect.  As the dog attacked the officer and did not heed the handler’s command to let go, the officer drew her handgun and killed the dog.  The officer, a two-year veteran, was treated for bite wounds.

Incident #2

During an arrest warrant service involving two agencies, an “entry team” from one agency is escorted to the front of the residence by the other agency’s K9 team.  The K9 team goes to the back of the residence.  The suspect flees out the back door of the residence, sees the K9 team and runs back toward the residence.  The police dog is sent to apprehend the suspect and does so.  The suspect and police dog go into the first residence as the entry team forcibly enters from the front.  The entry team sees the police dog biting the suspect and they physically take down the suspect.  The police dog releases from the bite on the suspect during the take down and begins to re-bite, making contact with one of the entry team members.  The entry team member being bit “believes” the dog biting him belongs to the suspect so he draws his handgun and kills the police dog.  The injuries sustained by the entry team member were described as “red marks and scratches” with no puncture wounds sustained.

Incident #3

A K9 handler sees one of three suspects inside a stolen vehicle that previously rammed two patrol cars and tried to run over another officer.  Two suspects flee the scene.  The remaining suspect “actively resists” and the handler deploys his police dog.  The police dog bites the handler’s arm and refuses to release.  After “several minutes” of trying to get free from his police dog, the handler shoots the dog.

Was it appropriate to deploy the dog in each of the incidents previously described?  Maybe, maybe not.  The debriefs have not yet been formally shared so that others may review the lessons learned.  However, appropriate deployment criteria should be established by an agency in a policy.  K9 handlers must be trained to react appropriately to a multitude of different incidents and scenarios per the deployment policy and applicable case law.  Training must include mental and physical challenges for the handlers so appropriate decisions are made during actual incidents.  The handlers must be mentally and physically prepared.

I believe the reasons for these three shootings are primarily attributed to three factors;  stress, poor decision making, and a lack of training and education.   I also believe accountability for each incident is shared amongst each shooter, each handler and each agency.

Training and Education

Are we properly preparing our personnel to deploy in the field with a police dog?   In SWAT, we advocate and teach that teams should not deploy with police dogs if they have not trained with them.  The same rule applies for patrol personnel and others who may deploy with a police dog.  There is no difference and the frequency of interaction and risk are much higher and more likely in a patrol environment.

Rule #1 – If you have not trained together, do not deploy together.

Years ago, my department started conducting a “post-academy” for new recruits that just graduated from the police academy.  The purpose of the initial 40-hour, then later the 80-hour post-academy was to familiarize the new recruits with agency-specific requirements, policies, procedures, reports, and specialized units, prior to their field training assignments.

The K9 Unit once was responsible for two hours of familiarization that included deployment guidelines, search demonstrations, and “arrest and control procedures during a K9 apprehension” with recruits involved in actual hands-on training with the police dog and a “suspect” so that they would be more familiar and knowledgeable of the tactics and procedures in the field.  That training was later reduced to one hour and eventually eliminated, despite protest and justification from the K9 Unit, because the “training staff” didn’t think K9 familiarization and the associated liability was a priority nor as important as other subjects.

Rule #2 – Personnel who have not worked or trained around a police dog in a tactical situation or K9 apprehension and/or have not worked well in those situations should not be deployed in any situation where that potential exists.

Every person who might be present and/or required to assist with a search, an arrest, or apprehension must receive formal and documented hands-on training with a K9 team the same as the standard “arrest and control” training and handcuffing procedures without a police dog.   This training is essential in addressing competence, familiarity and reducing risk and liability for an agency.  After formal training is conducted and documented in an agency ‘s training file, impromptu training and scheduled updates can be conducted in the field and at roll call training as “refresher” training and recorded on a handler’s training log.  The time commitment is minimal.

Rule #3 – Whenever the potential for a police dog deployment occurs, personnel must know how to properly react if the dog attempts to or makes an apprehension and who will be ideally controlling the situation.

Training with patrol personnel serves two purposes simultaneously; it familiarizes patrol personnel with the K9 team and provides the K9 team the opportunity to train with patrol personnel.   The more often a police dog works and trains with patrol personnel, the more comfortable the dog becomes working around the personnel.  And, coincidentally, the more times patrol personnel work and train with the police dog, the more comfortable they are working around the dog, particularly during stressful encounters and high risk apprehensions.

If an agency does not make sure its personnel are properly trained to work with a police dog and document the training, the agency assumes the risk and liability that could be associated with a potential lawsuit.  And, like handcuffing and other “arrest and control” training, it is important that K9-related training initially consist of both lecture and repetitive hands-on training.

Stress

It is a common phenomenon in training and the real world that the insertion of a police dog into a tactical situation can often create unnecessary stress for those not comfortable working around dogs.  Personnel who have not been properly introduced to, trained with or worked around a police dog during an actual apprehension and arrest will experience some level of stress.  I believe the stress level is doubled during a K9 apprehension if the personnel on-scene have not received any hands-on training.  I believe the stress level of an officer is quadrupled if that police dog is biting that same officer if that officer is not properly trained.

The stress of an encounter may not be completely eliminated, but it should be significantly reduced and controlled with proper training as well as mental and physical conditioning.

Article Update on October 30, 2018:  Prior to deploying my police dog on patrol searches, as part of my routine briefing for a deployment, I would tell the backup officers;  “If my dog bites you, remain calm, do not fight the dog, and I will remove him as soon as possible.”  My dog never bit an officer and I never thought he would – but it was important to let others know how to properly react should that incident occur to minimize the risks and clearly state the action to be taken.

Decision Making

Police dogs are expensive to purchase and train.  Training a K9 team is expensive and time consuming.  Police budgets today are tight and cannot afford to be subjected to unnecessary expenditures and losses.

It is, perhaps, easier for us that have been bitten by police dogs or other dogs to readily weigh the consequences of a dog bite versus a life-and-death struggle with a suspect.  It is a decision that will be made in a split second, but it is a scenario that can be rehearsed mentally many times in advance so the appropriate decision is made at the appropriate time.   

The tactical decision to draw a service weapon or utilize a shoulder-mounted weapon to shoot a dog (police dog or other) during a close quarter encounter with a suspect because the dog is biting you simultaneously while you are physically struggling with the suspect to control and subdue the suspect can have negative consequences or repercussions to you or others on scene and on the perimeter.

Rule #4 – Personnel must be properly trained in tactical decision-making under stress to enable them to remain in control and react appropriately so they are able to make the right decisions during stressful situations. 

Only one death has been directly attributed to a police dog bite. [Author’s 2018 update;  There have been several deaths attributed to police dogs since this article was first published.]  The bite occurred to the throat of a suspect concealed beneath a car.  A suspect has not died as a result of a bite to the arms or legs.  Police personnel accidentally or negligently bitten by police dogs have not died.  A dog bite can be extremely painful at first and recovery time may vary, but the pain is most always temporary.  Therefore, the circumstances and outcome involving the decision to shoot a police dog biting an officer must be addressed in advance by an agency and shared with its personnel.

During training, we recommend to our patrol officers to remain calm if bit, don’t fight or struggle with the dog, and verbally communicate the situation to the handler loudly and immediately.  In SWAT, we teach every operator how to physically remove (“strong out”) the dog from a bite.  We also tell (and remind) patrol officers and tactical operators the command for a “verbal out” prior to a deployment.  It is much easier said than done, as most of us involved with training know, and stress often makes recollection difficult for some in the heat of the battle.

Policy or Training

If your agency properly coordinates its training program and prepares its personnel to deploy with a police dog, officers should be ready to react appropriately if they are bitten by a police dog in most situations.  Handlers should know when it is appropriate to deploy a police dog, particularly if patrol personnel are deployed within the search or apprehension area, or actively engaged in trying to arrest and control a suspect who is physically resisting.

What is your agency’s shooting policy?  When are you authorized to discharge your weapon?  Does your policy address being bitten by one of your police dogs?  Does your agency provide guidelines or training in case you are being bitten or attacked by a civilian dog?

Your agency should have a policy, guideline or specific (and documented) training addressing the situation.  Some will say “Make it a written policy.”  Some will say “Let’s take care of it through documented training.”  Officer discretion should be considered and factored into a policy or training because each incident will vary but the general situation will not.  Regardless, documented training and education should be mandatory.

Can we tell our officers “If you are being bitten by one of our police dogs and it is not a life-threatening situation, do not kill it”?  Yes.  And, if we properly train our officers and prepare them, it will not be a difficult decision to make.

Serious injuries to suspects often are a result of resistance.  Many police dogs have “attempted” to bite a suspect unsuccessfully or caused abrasions and scratches in lieu of puncture wounds.  Some puncture wounds have required sutures, others have not.

Have you been present or heard about officers being accidentally struck by another officer with a baton once or several times while attempting to subdue a suspect?  Would the officer being hit be justified in shooting the officer using the baton?  Would the injury sustained from the baton be as serious as or less serious than a dog bite?

Are we contradicting ourselves if our policy, guideline, or training says it’s okay to shoot a civilian dog under the same conditions that prohibit shooting one of our police dogs?  Not necessarily.   The civilian dog can be an unknown threat and we may not know how it’s been trained and what it has been trained to do, particularly those described and/or trained as “attack dogs” or “guard dogs.”  Conversely, we should know the capabilities and limitations of our police dogs, how they’ve been trained, how they normally perform, and the type of injuries, if any, they normally inflict.

Article Update on October 30, 2018:  Never allow uniformed officers/deputies to be decoys for the purpose of receiving a police dog bite in training.  If we condition our dogs and train them that it is okay to bite a uniformed officer in training (with a sleeve), are we not also conditioning them with a picture that it will be okay in real world situations?

Are the shooters alone to blame for these three incidents?  No.  In my opinion, the three incidents described place primary fault with the shooters.  However, each K9 handler shares responsibility and one handler was a shooter.  And, as mentioned previously, if the respective agencies did not provide proper training and guidance, the agencies also share responsibility.

We cannot allow this tragic and costly trend, if it is a trend, to continue.  Agencies and handlers must address the situation through training and education now before another police dog is killed by one of our own.  Remember – pain is temporary, but killing a police dog is permanent.

Bill Lewis II © 2018

This article was originally published in K-9 Cop Magazine (April/May 2010) as a followup to an article titled “Tactical Considerations for K9 Deployments” previously published in K-9 Cop Magazine’s October/November 2009 edition.