Stop blaming dogs, their owners & animal shelters for puppycide

When it comes to dogs shot by police, many are inclined to blame everyone other than the officer who pulls the trigger for the horrific reports of dead pets and devastated families sweeping the country. We have regularly seen police and media blame victim animals and their families for puppycide, however we came across a new and somewhat strange excuse for lethal force recently when we saw this headline:

Headline: Animal shelter responsible for not telling adopting family that dog hates police

Here is how the article describes this newly contrived form of liability (emphasis added):

The president of the Capital Humane Society said staff failed to tell owners their adopted dog, which was fatally shot by Lincoln police, was conditioned to not like law enforcement.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports that Max, a black-and-white mixed breed dog, charged Officer Jason Brownell. The officer fatally shot the dog twice. Brownell was visiting John and Lynette Markey on Sunday about a minor traffic accident that occurred the day before.

According to society president Bob Downey, Max's former owner decided not to claim the dog after he arrived at the shelter as a stray. The previous owner informed the staff that Max had witnessed his encounters with law enforcement, and associated them with an unpleasant atmosphere.

“One of those pieces of information was — and this came directly from the owne—- ‘This dog hates police officers,’” Downey said.

Downey says he is trying to find out why the Markeys were not informed of Max's aversion to police, and that he does not think the Lincoln Police Department should be criticized because the shooting was not the officer's fault.

So according to Capital Humane Society president Bob Downey, Lincoln cop Jason Brownell's decision to shoot Max the dog twice with his gun was not the crux of the responsibility for the death of Max. The real guilty party was a former owner who for some unfathomable reason trained his dog with an irrational hatred of law enforcement, and of course the animal shelter that covered this critical information up in an attempt to dump the dangerous dog onto an unsuspecting family.

Such moral gymnastics are typical of these cases, where law enforcement and community leaders will do and say anything, no matter how absurd or contemptible, to deflect responsibility from police.

Dogs can be a risk to people's lives. In the US, a country of over 83 million dogs, two to three dozen human beings are killed by dogs every year. Sure, you are 806 times more likely to die by falling off a ladder, roof or cliff. And yes, you are 477 times more likely to be murdered by another human being than by a dog. A risk so small that it cannot be measured with substantial statistical validity is still a risk.

With that said, in the infinitismal number of cases where fatal dog attacks do occur, there is clear evidence that the handler of the attacking dog plays a significant role. As part of their analysis of Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (JAVMA) 2013 research on the topic, the National Canine Research Council identified a number of factors that could prevent dog attack fatalities:

  • no able-bodied person being present to intervene (87.1%)
  • the victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s) (85.2%)
  • the dog(s) owner failing to neuter/spay the dog(s)(84.4%)
  • a victim’s compromised ability, whether based on age or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s) (77.4%)
  • the owner keeping dog(s) as resident dog(s), rather than as family pet(s) (76.2%)
  • the owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog(s) (37.5%)
  • the owner’s abuse or neglect of dog(s) (21.1%)

Note the relatively small role played by abuse, neglect and mismangement. Given the statistics, the problem here is one of education and resources and not a moral or ethical failure. Most dogs that kill people are not abused or mistreated - they are not accustomed to socializing with people and they are improperly handled.

In the course of the Puppycide Database Project's own research survey of dog bite fatalities, we were able to identify one group that has effectively no risk of being killed by a dog: individuals aged 15 to 34. No individual in this age range has been killed by a dog during the 15 years of records we examined. Despite the fact that early retirement ages are enforced for police across the country, the fantasy that a police officer can be killed by a dog continues to be parroted by police administrators and union officials.

Headline: Cop fears for life and shoots dog

Headline: Another dog dead after cop fears for life

In 50 years, no cop has ever been killed by a dog. A police officer in his or her 20's to 30's, heavily armed, may fear for his or her life when coming into contact with a dog - but such a fear cannot be rational.

Next on the list of victim-blaming tactics are claims that this or that breed is not a dog, but a monster; a genetically engineered weapon for drug traffickers and gang members that has no place in a safe community of law abiding citizens. Take, for example, this comment posted to an article about a service dog named Burberry who was killed in his own home by San Diego police after they responded to a mistaken/false accusation of a "domestic disturbance".

Comment: Pit bulls are evil

Then of course there was the recent controversy in which Nancy Grace called pit bulls "devil dogs" that "eat people" and deserve to die.

A variety of websites and social media pages have popped up to circulate wild-eyed accusations about stigmatized breeds and their owners. One of the most visible of these websites is "Dogsbite.org", which has garnered a significant amount of media attention by circulating many of the most dispicable myths and rumors surrounding dog dangerousness. Dogsbite.org has consistently defended fatal shootings of dogs by both police and everyday citizens alike; the site's authors accuse owners of pit bulls of being criminals who masquerade as normal dog owners and that pit bull owners suffer from a presumed mental illness called a "lion tamer complex".

Despite the hysteria, the seminal dog fatality research from Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) found no link between dog breed and dog bite fatalities. Likely the results were merely propaganda from the influential pro-pit bull lobby.

As odious as it is to blame dogs for their own murder, some of the most mean-spirited accusations are those leveled against the owners of dogs killed by police. After all, it is the families of these dogs who can understand these claims and whose suffering is compounded as a result.

Headline: owner responsible for police killing dog

Headline: lawless owners responsible for rise in puppycide

Letter: owner responsible for police killing dog

Comment: owner responsible for police killing dog

The stories, editorials, letters to the editor and comments run the gamut of justification for police violence. Town regulations like leash laws and animal licensing are of such critical importance that, despite the fact the only legislated punishment available remains a small fine, de facto death penalties for infringment is both reasonable and a neccessity. It is whatever activity that the pet owner was engaged in that resulted in police attention that was the casus sui for the death of that owner's dog; if that activity was a traffic infraction, a malfunctioning burglar alarm or simply living at an address that resembles an actual criminals address or that exists in the path of an actual criminal's flight from pursuing police officers, so be it.

If we are unable to agree that moral culpability for the use of lethal force absent a rational fear of death lies with the person pulling the trigger, we should at least be able to agree at the very least that less killing would be preferable. No matter how wrong-headed you find the owners of dogs shot by police, or how evil you believe pit bulls to be, know that reducing the amount of police-involved-killings is an empirical question that is best addressed through objective analysis and observation and not finger-pointing and blaming. There is no reason why we cannot all work together and do our best to create a world in which police guns stay in their holsters. The best (if not the only) way to accomplish this is to start by counting every shooting, every officer-involved death, and reviewing the patterns that emerge in order to develop procedures that can stop those patterns from arising. Help us accomplish that goal at the Puppycide Database Project.