15 min read

Why Are So Many Dogs Dying In Police Shootings?

It was a little after 8 o'clock, on a bright, typically sunny morning in a Florida suburb.

Gillian Palacios was loading her car and getting her little boy ready for school.

Then came a knock at the door.

Duchess, the family dog, leapt to the door, her tail whirring like a helicopter.

Gillian Palacios

Palacios opened the door, just a little at first.

The officer was passing by her home in Florida City. He thought the open car door was suspicious and wanted to check up on the homeowner.

Duchess poked her nose out.

"From the moment he saw she was sticking out of the door, he was already putting his hand on his gun," Palacios tells The Dodo.

Duchess slipped outside.

"The first shot hit her when she was a couple of feet from my front door," Palacios says, her voice raw with grief. Two more shots followed. When the woman's daughter leaned over Duchess, her tail was still wagging.

Gillian Palacios

"What the hell did you do?" a distraught Palacios screamed. But he was already returning to his car, where he immediately got on the radio. On the surveillance video that captured the incident, her daughter is seen weeping over Duchess, the dog the family took home after finding her abandoned at a gas station.

"I just never would have imagined that in a million years," Palacios says. "She wasn't barking. She wasn't growling. It wasn't in any kind of way an aggressive approach."

Gillian Palacios

The Florida City Police Department did not return The Dodo's request for comment, but since the incident happened last October, it has steadfastly supported the officer, identified as Detective Marcus Terry.

"We don't have the luxury of hindsight," spokesman Ken Armenteros told Local 10 Newsin October. "We have to use the information that is given to us in a split second. So, the officer has to make that decision with the information that he has available."

Duchess weighed around 40 pounds, and while her breed wasn't entirely clear, Palacios says she may have had some pit bull in her.

Gillian Palacios

A loose designation at best, the label can cover any dog from an American Staffordshire terrier to a English bull terrier.

What's clear, however, is a disturbing theme in police encounters with these dogs.

A family pit bull was shot by officers in Spokane, Washington, this week after the dog reportedly escaped from a house and attacked a police dog.

Earlier this year, a pit bull puppy in Clayton County, Georgia, was killed by police in front of neighbors and family.

Another police shooting, this time in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, ended a pit bull's life.

Indeed, the cases of dogs being killed by police are so numerous, a Facebook group has been set up to document them. So far, Dogs Shot By Police has drawn more than 15,000 members.

And, time and time again, pit bulls in particular are at the wrong end of those encounters.

While officers maintain they're protecting themselves, others suggest the breed is being unfairly singled out.

"There has never been a case of a police officer being fatally injured by a dog to our knowledge," Janis Bradley, director of communications and publications for the National Canine Research Council (NCRC), tells The Dodo.

But then again, an irrational fear of pit bulls may transcend law enforcement.

In an Arizona State University study, subjects were given two pictures of the same dog. They were told the dog in just one of those pictures is a pit bull.

The result? The dog with the pit bull label was invariably deemed more menacing.

"Once a dog is labelled as a pit bull," Bradley says, "People in general will perceive that dog more negatively than if that label had not been there with the exactly the same dog."

Being wary of a certain kind of dog is one thing, but when those humans are armed police officers, the outcome can all-too-easily take a turn for the tragic.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice reached out to the NCRC, asking the organization to create a series of educational materials for police officers to help them navigate encounters with dogs - a shrewd move considering that at least one in three U.S. households owns a dog.

"There has not historically been any specific training for police in how to deal with dogs that they encounter in the performance of their duty," Bradley notes.

"A very, very large percentage of people regard their dogs as a member of their family," Bradley adds, "which means that when there is an incident like a police officer shooting a dog, it causes a great deal of disruption, both for that particular family and within the community. It drives a wedge between the police and community."

The result of the NCRC's collaboration with the Department of Justice?

A five-part video series designed for use in daily police briefings that aims to help officers recognize dog behavior and defuse situations - without resorting to violence.

"I think one of the most effective segments in the videos is the one where the trainer is teaching officers to adjust their own body language and it completely changes the response of the dog," Bradley says. "It's like turning on a switch. If you change your own body language, you can defuse the threat of the dog."

Of course, another key factor is simply an officer's natural affinity for animals.

"If you have an officer who grew up with very little value for companion animals, you have a long road to try to teach them better," Jim Crosby, a former police lieutenant in Jacksonville, Florida, tells The Dodo. "If you have an officer who was an animal lover, they are probably not the ones shooting a dog."

While Crosby admits there may be a "certain amount of bias" against so-called bully breeds, he recalls one case in which a Florida officer shot an 11-pound Lhasa apso.

"There are degrees of stupid," he says.

And, increasingly, that poor judgment could end up costly.

Recently a police department in Commerce City, Colorado, learned that lesson the hard way. The city was forced to pay a family $262,500 - hailed as the biggest settlement of its kind - after police shot and killed a pit bull mix.

"Some departments have not trained their officers to do anything but shoot a threat," Crosby explains. "They have been through training for humans kind of grudgingly but they have never addressed the idea of using less than just shooting towards a dog.

"Part of the problem we have," he adds, "is that police officers see something that looks to them like a pit bull and make behavioral and threat assessments simply based on physical appearance - and on myths that are not correct but are persistent."

Myths like a pit bull's so-called locking jaw. Or the animal's mythical bite pressure.

Since retiring, Crosby has become a renowned expert on dog behavior, working with police officers to help them read situations involving dogs. He recently produced a video series as well, collaborating with the National Sheriffs' Association, to build dog awareness programs for police.

Crosby admits that during his days as an officer, he saw the occasional "twistos who get their jollies off by shooting dogs."

"That's disturbing," he says. "That's really messed up."

But the times, despite headline-snatching headlines, may be changing.

"There is a better way of doing things and we don't need to shoot," he adds.

The key to getting that message across to police departments?

"Sometimes you have to sue them or cost them a bunch of money," he says.

But there are other, more proactive ways agencies are starting to show their dog sensitivities.

In one remarkable case, a police department in Poughkeepsie, New York, has hired a pit bull named Kiah. She covers all the usual police dog duties - drug sniffing, tracking missing people - but also doubles as a goodwill ambassador for the department as well as the breed.

"The breed isn't important," trainer Brad Croft told the Associated Press. "It's what's inside of the dog that's important."

For Gillian Palacios and her family, the effort comes terribly, too late.

The memory of losing Duchess on her doorstep at the hands of a police officer remains seared in her memory.

But Duchess does leave a legacy.

Palacios and her daughter have been rescuing dogs for years through a local organization. But after they lost their own dog, they decided to open their own animal rescue.

It's in the process of being registered as a nonprofit charity.

But the name is locked in:

Duchess Bully Rescue.

Gillian Palacios

You can visit the Facebook group here.

In addition, there are several groups working to improve relations between police and dogs, notably, the National Canine Research Council.

Former police officer Jim Crosby's blog on animal aggression is also an outstanding resource for anyone looking for insight into dog behavior.