02/18/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Not to Shoot the Family Dog


Emotions are running high in the wake of yet another shooting of a family dog by a police officer. This time it happened in the small town of Filer, Idaho. But it's not the first time such a thing has happened, and unless something changes, it surely won't be the last.

As someone who considers dogs to be irreplaceable family members, I felt anger as the story unfolded. I felt sorrow and empathy for the dog and his family. But mostly I felt a sense of helplessness that stemmed from the realization that in today's modern society, a policeman would still choose a gun as his go-to solution to resolve such a minor situation, especially since this particular situation was caused by the officer's own actions. After all, how is kicking at an agitated dog a viable solution in anyone's world? Human or animal, aggression met with aggression produces even more aggression. That's a fact that should come as no surprise to any officer of the law.

Are police officers trained to think only with their guns? The officer's goal was to meet with the pet owner to discuss the fact that his dogs were running loose. That's reasonable. What wasn't reasonable was the officer's behavior. He clearly never considered that there would be consequences to his actions. And if using his gun wasn't bad enough, he didn't even provide an instant kill from point-blank range. Instead, he wounded the dog, who then cried out, crawled away, and continued to whimper from needless suffering, until death finally claimed him. The officer's dash cam video captured the encounter. Meanwhile, as the dog lay dying, the officer went to confront the dog owner who had to be called away from his young son's birthday party inside the house in order to receive the "loose dog" citation the officer still felt the need to write. Oh, the officer apologized to the dog's owner for "having to" shoot his dog, but the faulty precept that he "had" to do it makes the apology worthless.

We have laws against criminal acts that come with their own slogans, like "Use a gun, go to jail," or "Three strikes -- you're out." Maybe there should be slogan hanging in every precinct in the country: "Shoot the family dog, lose your job." Perhaps officers would then be motivated to consider other easily administered, non-lethal methods of resolution before opening fire.

It wasn't so long ago that a California police officer shot a dog to death on a street corner after the dog jumped out of the window of a vehicle to protect his owner from what the dog perceived to be an imminent threat to the human he loved. The officer didn't even ask the dog's owner to return his dog to the truck and roll up the window enough so that the dog couldn't get out. He simply shot the dog multiple times and watched as the dog writhed in agony, slowly bleeding out to his death. Why on earth? What compels a police officer to behave in such a manner? Is it faulty training? Is it simply expedient? Is there no "FIRST DO NO HARM" motto for public servants?

I confess: I can't understand how human police officers who willingly, knowingly allow their canine partners to take bullets, stabbings and beatings for them, cannot seem to understand that a family dog is simply doing the same to protect his family and his property. In the Idaho case, the officer was the intruder and the aggressor in the eyes of the dog. To disregard that fact is unconscionable. And for police departments to continually rule these slaughters as "justified" is also unconscionable. We have every right to expect the police to police themselves as much as they police us.

I hold police officers in high regard. They put their lives on the line for us every single day, and they deserve our respect and our support. And because of that, and because there are always two sides to every story, I tried hard to see the "right" in this officer's actions. But I couldn't find it. The truth is that we as citizens also deserve respect, and when an officer breaches that respect, he or she should be held as accountable as anyone who commits any other criminal act. It's just too easy to say, "I feared for my life." Really? Did that Idaho officer really believe that he was about to die unless he pulled out his gun? If he did, why didn't he just get in his car and stay safe? Why was "kill or be killed" his only resolution? Would he also fear for his life if a group of children wielding toy weapons in a game of cops and robbers suddenly burst from the bushes? Police officers need to think on their feet. It's a job requirement. It's not easy, but it's necessary. The best solution for the Idaho officer would have been to remain in his car, call dispatch and ask that the dog owner be contacted by phone to come outside and restrain the dogs. A Labrador and a couple of Chihuahua cohorts do not a vicious gang of killer canines make.

The senseless, tragic act of the officer will have rippling repercussions, including emotional scars for a young boy's birthday remembrances -- the family dog shot in his driveway. The only ones who wouldn't find the officer to be at fault are those who have let the words, "it's just a dog," slip past their lips. Those who don't love animals or those who live their lives ruled by fear may have no problem with what happened, but anyone with a heart or a conscience may have trouble condoning this officer's actions, or the actions of any of the other officers across the country involved in similar shootings of family dogs. It happens far too frequently.

When an officer is sent to specifically deal with a dog issue, perhaps alternatives like these can be planned for:

1. Stay in your car. Call dispatch and have them place a call to the home's resident to come outside and contain their dogs, or use a bullhorn, siren or even the car's horn, to draw the owner's attention to what's happening outside.

2. Use non-lethal force such as a pet-safe spray or a throw net, or get trained in the use of a pole collar.

3. Remember that you are a stranger intruding on the dog's turf. You are the one in the wrong. It's the dog's job to protect his family and his property. The gentlest dog on earth will fight to protect those he loves. Respect that.

4. Carry dog treats and toys that can distract and calm a worried dog.

5. Don't go on a dog call if you are afraid of getting bit. Dogs sense fear and disdain and react accordingly.

6. Never pull your gun unless you are actually in danger of losing your life. The possibility of getting bit does not necessarily create a "life-threatening" situation.

7. Carry protective gear that can be donned when responding to a dog call, but leave your hat in the car. Hats, umbrellas, canes and the like can be "alarm" triggers for some dogs.

8. Carry dog behavior correctors, like canned air that comes out like the hiss of a snake, or handheld anti-barking devices that only dogs can hear, or even an air horn.

9. Be quiet and don't agitate the dog by flailing your arms or trying to kick it away, which absolutely never works. Dogs react to aggression with aggression, and justly so.

10. Consider the consequences of your actions. That dog is very, very important to someone.

There should be other protocols in place for officers caught off-guard by a family dog when a residence is being breached, or a traffic stop is being handled, or as in the case of the California officer, a heated shouting match is escalating. But even when tensions are high, shooting the family dog is unacceptable. The California officer could have ordered the dog's owner to contain his dog in less time than it took the officer to draw his weapon and fire -- again... and again... and again... and again.

Are there rare occasions when lethal force against a dog is called for? Of course. Will there be accidental shootings? Likely. But what happened in Filer, Idaho was clearly neither of those things. The officer who was hired to "protect and serve" exhibited extremely poor judgment, which reflects badly on the vast majority of officers who do their jobs exceedingly well.

Should the officer lose his job as many are demanding? That decision belongs to the citizens of Filer, Idaho. It's their city. It's up to them to decide whether a police officer who has limited resolution skills should be armed and in power within their community. Perhaps they can forgive and forget. Perhaps not. But at least their collective voices may help to bring about changes in police procedure that are badly needed all across this country. Hopefully those changes will occur before the life of another family dog is senselessly snuffed.