Police dogs are a vital part of many law enforcement agencies. Whether trained to detect explosives or aid in search-and-rescue, these skilled animals contribute to department success. There are instances, however, when dogs are on the wrong side of the law, and first responders must approach or deal with them in the line of duty.

Officers learn to spot signs of dogfighting
Although illegal in all 50 states, dogfighting draws about 40,000 participants. According to The Humane Society of the United States, the activity takes many forms, ranging from organized leagues to impromptu attacks. Officers must be ready to intervene in any scenario.

Dogfighting is incredibly cruel and harmful. It frequently results in subpar living conditions for the dogs, leading to health issues or death. The presence of dogfighting is often a sign of other illegal activity as well. 

"Almost invariably, those involved in dogfighting are involved in a wide variety of other crimes, illegal drugs, illegal guns and really, it is in the best interest of the community to be cracking down on dogfighting, not just to stop the animal cruelty that's involved, but all the other illegal activities that are involved," said Dr. Randall Lockwood of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

The key to reducing the number of dogfighting incidents is having police officers who can recognize the warning signs and react appropriately. In Baltimore, experts from the ASPCA educate officers on the red flags typically found where dogfighting occurs. Armed with that knowledge, officers are in a better position to spot telltale equipment of the trade, analyze how dogs are housed and probe into what motivates the ring leaders.

Colorado legislation pushes nonlethal intervention
First responders must be particularly cautious when approaching dogs trained to harm others. Dogfighting makes animals aggressive and dangerous, but similar abuse with domestic pets may lead to a dangerous encounter between officers and animals.

A report filed to the Department of Justice cited several instances where dogs may be perceived as a threat to public safety, such as when the animal is found off a leash or becomes the focal point of a dispute between neighbors. They might also become involved during police operations simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A dog placed in a high-stress situation is at risk of being shot or injured by police, which in turn may compromise missions, cause lawsuits or lead to mental anguish. 

To help improve safety in these situations, Colorado officials recently passed legislation to require officer training aimed at preventing unnecessary violence against animals. The bill, called the Dog Protection Act, was a response to more than 40 cases in five years where Colorado police officers shot nonthreatening dogs. Many of these outcomes could have been avoided had the officers been trained to identify behavioral problems or implement effective techniques for calming the animals down. Prior to the new law, many dogs were shot and killed in the name of public safety when nonlethal options should have been considered. Now, all Colorado police officers are required to complete three hours of online training by January 2015. Additionally, the law will provide owners with the ability to step in and calm down their pets prior to extreme police action. 

According to the Idaho Statesman, a long-term benefit of Colorado's Dog Protection Act is that training resources can be used by multiple agencies. Although departments have flexibility to create their own training protocols, a 19-member state task force is currently working on a Web-based program that could be the framework for similar training across the U.S. 

Currently, the expanded training relating to engaging dangerous dogs is restricted to a few areas. At some point, states may be able to pull information on the positive changes that have occurred and use that data to form new policy. Until the data and resources are available, officers are forced to use their own judgment to decide on a course of action, using the limited training they have to make informed choices. 

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