Tools, training aim to curb dog fatalities

The snarling, unleashed, 100-pound dog locked eyes on its target: a Chester County deputy sheriff.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh poses with Mellie, a therapy dog. says it will be difficult to part with Mellie, The dog is living with Welsh until a handler is assigned.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh poses with Mellie, the department's therapy dog.

On April 2, 2014, Deputy Sheriff Cpl. Kurt Hansen was on routine duty to deliver civil papers when he experienced a decidedly uncivil welcome. He said he was too far from his vehicle to take cover when the Great Pyrenees started barreling toward him. Hansen said he drew his gun, but had noticed a child playing in the back yard and didn’t want to shoot someone’s pet.

Instead, Hansen struggled to push the animal away, sustaining two bites until the owner appeared and took control of the dog. And although Hansen landed in the hospital, the positive effects of his actions ultimately outweighed the pain. Not only did he receive multiple awards for his reaction, but he also set the stage for a Chester County training program that is poised to become a national model.

“He showed tremendous restraint,” Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh said at the time. “It could have been a very different outcome – and a tragedy for the family.”

But not everyone espouses that view, and an increase nationally in dog fatalities at the hands of law enforcement is generating concern, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Noting, a “disturbing trend,” the ASPCA said its review of public records indicated that 50 percent of all police shootings involve an officer shooting a dog.

“The ASPCA believes that most instances of police shootings of dogs are avoidable,” it states on its website.

The ASPCA and other advocacy groups, such as the National Coalition on Violence Against Animals and the National Law Enforcement Center on Animal Abuse, maintain that other options are available, and now they are looking to Chester County as an example of what can be done to reverse the fatalities.

John Thompson, deputy director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, is shown with Mr. Po.

John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, is shown with Mr. Po.

John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, acknowledges that he’s proof the statistics can be reversed. During three decades of law-enforcement work Thompson, who’s also co-chair of the National Coalition on Violence Against Animals, said a different culture existed.

“If a pit bull came charging at me, I would have shot it,” he said. “We viewed dogs as property. Things are different now. Many of these animals are important members of their family, and law enforcement needs to change how it reacts.”

Thompson likened the process to the evolution that occurred regarding domestic violence. “I can remember when many members of law enforcement couldn’t understand why a woman who was being beaten would stay in the situation,” he said.

He pointed out that it took considerable effort and education to ensure that victims of domestic abuse were treated with the empathy and respect they deserved. “It didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “I wish it had.”

Thompson said his odyssey to animal activism began when his daughter shared an article she had written that focused on how animal abuse often escalates into violence against humans. He said he began to do more research and suddenly found himself immersed in advocacy. A shih tzu named Mr. Po that he bought for his wife nearly 10 years ago intensified his resolve to change the culture, he said.

When Thompson learned that Welsh shared his views, it was inevitable that their paths would cross again on the issue. Welsh was elected as the NSA's the sergeant-at-arms in 2015, the first woman to hold an executive-level position in the organization.

“I’m excited that she’s taking the lead on this,” said Thompson. “She’s well-respected across the country.”

Thompson said he believes Welsh’s reputation will reinforce the importance of ensuring that members of law enforcement are prepared to deal with dog encounters in a humane way.

“If they don’t pay attention, it’s going to destroy communities,” Thompson said, referencing the many dog shootings that have prompted protest as well as litigation.

Welsh said she ended up on the receiving end of the public’s wrath after a Chester police officer shot and killed a family’s dog last year. She said she had to provide a geography lesson to many irate callers and emailers: Chester is a city in Delaware County and not connected to Chester County.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) and Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant pose with Mellie, the newest addition to the K-9 unit.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) and Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant pose with Mellie, one of the newer K-9 additions.

Welsh insisted that being a dog-lover is not a requirement for working in her office, but the Chester County Sheriff’s Office is well-known regionally for the breadth of its K-9 unit. From a therapy dog’s stress-busting skills to a drug dog’s crime-busting expertise to a bomb dog’s penchant for sniffing out explosives, the unit has grown from two teams to 10 over the past decade.

But not all of the deputies’ interactions with dogs have been positive. Attacks like the one Hansen endured underscore the risks the deputies face on any given day and the need for special training and equipment, said Welsh. The attack on Hansen, the second time an animal had charged one of her deputies within a few months, prompted Welsh to focus on what could be done. In the process, she found plenty of disturbing material.

Graphic accounts and videos of dog killings abound on the Internet; many are difficult to watch. One case that sparked national outrage involved the 2012 shooting of a 3-year-old dog named Chloe in Commerce City, Co. After a neighbor’s video of the shooting went viral, Colorado lawmakers passed the “Dog Protection Act.”

The law requires local police and sheriff's departments to provide canine behavioral training to help officers better discern when a dog actually presents a threat. Earlier this year, Commerce City paid $262,500 to Chloe’s family, a settlement that avoided a federal civil trial.

A K-9 unit specializing in cadaver detection listens as the USPCA judges explain the certification process.

A K-9 unit specializing in cadaver detection listens as judges explain the certification process during regional trials held in Chester County.

The number of police-involved dog shootings is difficult to track, but Laurel Matthews, a supervisory program specialist for the Department of Justice’s Community-Oriented Policing Services office, has estimated that 10,000 pet dogs are killed annually by law enforcement officers, numbers that have been rising.

Welsh noted that coupling that number with the estimated 77 million dog owners in the country convinced her that instituting a training program was imperative, especially given the resources available in her own office.

Sgt. Janis Pickell, who handles training for the Chester County Sheriff’s Office, said she and a team of colleagues, including Lt. Harry McKinney and Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant, both K-9 trainers, worked for several months to create a four-hour training program. “It was definitely a group effort,” said Pickell.

Entitled “Law Enforcement and Dog Encounters,” the program includes a trailer from “Of Dogs and Men,” a documentary that focuses on dogs shot by police. “It’s emotional and pretty difficult to watch,” said Pickell, who added that some of the worst-case scenarios promote productive discussion.

Pickell said the training also explains dog behavior and body language. Knowing what signs to look for can help an officer defuse a situation, Pickell said, pointing out that an anxious dog is likely to become defensive, especially if an officer makes eye contact.

“A barking dog isn’t going to bite,” added McKinney. “It has to stop barking to bite.”

Two deputy sheriffs practice the operation of a control pole, using a balloon to gauge the correct application of pressure.

Two deputy sheriffs practice the operation of a control pole, using a balloon to gauge the correct application of pressure.

And just because a dog runs toward an officer doesn’t mean it’s a threat: It could be eager to greet the visitor. Learning how to interpret the dog’s tail, ears, eyes, paws, and mouth can help assess its intentions. For example, a frightened dog is likely to crouch with its ears flattened, its tail tucked, and its teeth bared.

The training also includes instructions on how to use an animal control pole, a metallic instrument designed to keep a threatening dog three to five feet away and to enable an officer to move the dog to a secure location, such as the back of a patrol car.

Pickell said balloons double as dogs in lessons on operating the pole, which has a collar attachment that goes around the dog’s neck. “If it [the balloon] pops, it’s too tight,” she said.

McKinney said the Chester County Sheriff’s Office received funding from the National Sheriffs’ Association to purchase enough Tomahawk Live Trap Model ACP-4 Animal Control Poles for every vehicle.

“We want our deputies to be safe – as well as the dogs,” Welsh said. “I think we’ve come a long way in this training process to accomplishing that.”

Thompson said he planned to visit Chester County soon to view the completed training program, parts of which he has already seen.

“I believe it’s the first office in the country to make sure everyone in the department has this training,” Thompson said. “We plan to post her policy on our website and use it as a national model.”

 

 

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