Public Safety First: Discussions with Animal Control Officers on Dangerous Dogs in the Community
Animal Control Officers (ACOs), first responders in dangerous dog situations, have a difficult role in maintaining safety in the community. The Colorado statute1defines a “dangerous dog” as one that has
Inflicted bodily or serious bodily injury upon or has caused the death of a person or domestic animal; or has demonstrated tendencies that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the dog may inflict injury upon or cause the death of any person or domestic animal; or has engaged in or been trained for animal fighting as described by the statute.
Approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur each year in the United States.2 Dog bites and other dog-related injuries accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2016, costing more than $600 million.3
As an applied animal behaviorist, I have worked closely with ACOs over the past two decades, and hold them in high esteem. The purpose of this paper is to thank ACOs for the incredible dedication they show every day in their jobs, to showcase the problems in our communities related to dangerous dog events, and provide creative solutions to address those problems.
The conversations highlighted below examined the long term problem of balancing advocacy for dogs while maintaining community safety. Twenty-three ACOs located in both rural and municipal areas throughout Colorado took part in this discussion. Cumulatively, these officers had 321 years of work experience in the animal welfare industry. The majority of the officers owned canine pets from all breed groups and consistent with the research, viewed their dogs as family members.4
ACOs respond to a variety of dispatch calls, and their work shift is never routine. Although they respond to calls for sick or injured wildlife, animal cruelty cases, disaster response, health-related concerns and the like, this paper will focus on dangerous dog calls.
How ACOs qualify a dangerous dog
The ACOs reported that they typically look at body language and behavior to assess a dog for aggression. A dog may be known to the officer, and if the dog has a history of aggression, this information will work into their assessment. ACOs watch for eye softness or hardness, tail and ear carriage, a closed mouth, and piloerection (hackling). In addition to monitoring body language, the dog’s behavior is monitored. ACOs assess the dog’s response to people, especially as the dog is “on the move.” They consider whether the dog is charging at people, or barking and then running away, both of which can indicate offensive or defensive aggression. Others consider whether the dog is social and willing to approach or presenting avoidant behavior. Officers also evaluate the environment, knowing that the dog may present aggressively when in its yard or near the property line. ACOs reported more episodes of fear-based aggression in dogs-at-large than true offensive aggression.
Types of dangerous dog cases to which ACOs respond
To give an idea of the level of risk ACOs are tasked with putting themselves at on any given day, here is a short list of some of the stories related by the ACOs I interviewed. Dog breeds, and people and animal demographics were removed from the content to protect privacy and maintain confidentiality.
- A dog was running at-large, charging and biting multiple people in a neighborhood. When multiple ACOs were called and arrived on the scene, the dog jumped overhead and attacked one of the officers who tried to contain the dog. The dog bit down, ripped the glasses off the officer’s nose, and caused significant damage to the officer’s face. The dog was eventually contained in a safe area in a shelter. No owner ever came forward and the dog was euthanized.
- An individual went to visit a friend. The friend’s dog was well-known to the visitor. The visitor reached down to pet the dog, and was bitten repeatedly in the face, resulting in injuries requiring plastic surgery.
- An intoxicated dog owner screamed at officers to not “shoot” the dog, after the dog charged at people, bit multiple times, and was unable to be contained.
- An elderly dog was asleep in the yard. A neighbor dog broke through the fence, rushed into the yard, and killed the elderly dog. There were prior reports on file of the neighbor dog harassing the elderly dog.
- A small dog escaped from the yard and killed over 150 of the neighbor’s chickens in one episode.
- A homeless individual was removed from his vehicle during an arrest. The ACO needed to remove the individual’s dog and had to use a bite stick and catch pole to remove the aggressive dog from the vehicle.
There isn’t any justice in these types of dangerous dog cases, and both people and animals suffer or die. Suffering occurs not only from physical injury but also the immense emotional strife of many others who weren’t originally involved in the actual incident. ACOs can be traumatized by the situations they encounter. It is their job to respond to dangerous dog situations. The average person in the community is unwilling to put themselves at risk in a dog fight or bite occurrence. Yet ACOs are often the first responders in maintaining public safety. It is remarkable to witness the number of years officers remain committed to animal welfare, even after witnessing these traumatic events. One officer I spoke to stated:
“When I first started in the field, I believed I had some connection with animals. I almost quit the job, because a raccoon was euthanized. I continued to show up. I treat [the animals] like they are my own. Look how many years I have been working here. There is a reason why.”
How ACOs manage dogs in the community
There is a full range of tools that ACOs use to manage dangerous dogs in the community. The ACOs start with the least restrictive method for the situation. Their use of brain power (common sense, patience, etc.) and body language is initial and of utmost importance. Some officers have used treats or thrown a ball to divert a dog-at-large and avoid a possible aggressive situation. Swinging a cinch leash can be a good strategy to keep the dog at a distance, and then ultimately the officer can use it to catch and leash the dog later. The public doesn’t respond to the use of a cinch leash with the intensity they do when they see the use of a catch pole.
The catch pole is a safe way to contain a dog at a distance and prevent possible bites to others. The dog will often fight capture, and the use of a catch pole can result in a bloody lip or tongue, or loss of a tooth. The public has a disapproving response toward this method of capture and can lash out at the ACO. The officer has the opportunity in this situation to provide education to the public and promote an understanding that the catch pole not only captures the dog quickly so the ACO can get the dog to a safe shelter, but also provides safety to the officer and the public.
Tool use increases with the severity of the situation. Officers have used a Snappy Snare containment rod. One officer reported:
“The Snappy Snare springs shut. It isn’t the best tool for a really aggressive dog. When the dog runs by, it [the tool] has a flexible pole. The dog can come back at you.”
Other tools the officers use include: Kevlar-lined gloves, a net gun that throws a 4-foot by 6-foot net around the dog to contain the animal, an ASP expandable baton, and capsaicin spray made from cayenne pepper. The spray can cause coughing from inhaling the contents, in both the dog and the officer, when both parties are in close quarters. Lastly, the ACOs reported that they had access to chemical capture, as a last resort, and have had limited use of a TASER. Chemical capture was used with wildlife, and the TASER had been used in dog-on-dog aggression.
How do we advocate for dogs and provide public safety?
This question promoted a lot of animated discussion. Ongoing topics of discussion and debate included the injustice of innocent people and animals being injured and killed by dangerous dogs in the community, the belief that not every animal can get a “forever home,” the views on live-release rates as a measure of success in humane societies, and breed-specific discrimination.
All persons in the animal welfare industry have a professional responsibility to maintain public safety while they are advocating for animals. All animals have the right to live in a world free from cruelty and abuse. However, it is a social justice issue if we opt to give all possible resources to one animal, when the life and safety of another person or non-human animal is jeopardized in the process.
Rescues and shelters can contribute to the problem
The majority of ACOs I interviewed believe that stakeholders (humane societies, rescue groups, animal law enforcement, police officers, legislative parties, etc.) should conduct consistent group meetings and take part in crucial conversations regarding dog advocacy and public safety. These conversations could include discussions on:
- Transparent communication to the public
- Maintenance of live-release rate numbers and placing at-risk dogs appropriately
- Rescue groups allowing for observation, assessment, and training (if needed) prior to adoptions so families have the best possible chances at successfully maintaining the dog in the home
- Protection for the innocent bystander in the community
- Education for people who discriminate against a particular species or breed of .
Many ACOs believe the live-release rate system is a poor standard to measure the success of a local shelter. We need to take responsibility for and be advocates for dogs, without dropping our standard of community safety. If a dog is not able to be rehabilitated, it will not be successful in the community. Placing the dog with a person who can’t manage it, or worse, doesn’t understand what type of pet they have, in the name of giving the dog a forever home, is outrageous. It doesn’t provide justice for the dog who has to endure the stress of changes, let alone the unsuspecting passerby who is injured. Counting how many animals are adopted out alive doesn’t measure the dog or the family’s success outcomes or animal welfare’s true mission.
One officer said:
“I understand the live-release rate, but dogs are being placed in the community and people aren’t prepared to manage them. Some of these dogs get returned to the facility because they get into trouble and the families can’t handle them. I would love to see a research study evaluating the live-release program. Are we getting the outcomes that promote advocacy and public safety? We don’t know how many dogs are brought back, after a live-release, to the community. Are the numbers truly accurate?”
Stakeholders need to look at the root cause of why so many more dogs with behavior and health problems are coming through the system. Human and financial resources get depleted when every dog that comes through has a medical or behavior issue. Other communities should be responsible for their dogs. If we quit taking the large volumes of dogs coming in from other states, people in our state may quit backyard breeding when they realize there is not actually a large demand for dogs going unfulfilled and therefore it is not profitable.
The role of government
In addition to public safety and improved adoption methods (testing, training, appropriate matching for families), legislative bodies (city officials, elected officials) should be involved in these crucial conversations on dog advocacy and public safety. There is a lot of power in these offices, and changes can be made when large groups of people work together efficiently.
Breed-specific legislation came up a lot in my discussion with ACOs. A few major cities in Colorado, including Denver, currently enforce breed-specific legislation in the form of a ban on pit bull-type dogs. Overturning breed-specific legislation could help with dispersing our bully breeds to multiple counties and getting access to other resources. It would also change ACOs’ focus and instead of having to cite persons in the community for keeping a banned breed, they could better serve the community by providing more education. It is in the best interest of animal control officers to be proactive and focus their efforts on maintaining public safety, reducing aggression, educating, and managing dangerous dog behavior. Education is one of the key responses to the question of how we promote dog advocacy and maintain public safety. Education planning should start in childhood. Teaching respect for all life is a foundation for great human-animal interactions. Schools should teach bite prevention, dog greeting etiquette, how to care for a pet dog, and reduce breed-based discrimination. Children can also learn to be proactive and understand that, if they happen upon a situation where a dog is presenting aggressively, they should leave the dog alone, go get an adult, or call an ACO.
ACOs promote change in their community culture through education, responsible pet ownership, licensing the dog, spaying and neutering, hosting public events, teaching children early in schools, and setting up an education booth at a local fair. Volunteers can be taught animal welfare mission and policies and bring that education to the community.
Creative ideas and considerations for a future in promoting dog advocacy and public safety
These are ideas ACOs offered when I asked them what they thought would help make their job easier, whether by reducing the number of dangerous dogs in the community or changing the culture to increase understanding of what ACOs do and how best to help them.
- Improve professionalism and develop regulation and licensure in the field of animal behavior. Many people are taking a dog obedience class at a local facility and then deciding to get into the industry. They make business cards that state they are a dog behaviorist or they “guarantee” they can train aggression out of a dog.
- Owners of known aggressive dogs should have certain legal stipulations in management such as assuring that the dog is being monitored in a yard with an enclosure built to a certain standard. Additional requirements could include Beware-of-Dog signage, the use of a leash and a muzzle while in the community, and a behavior modification program for owner and dog to ensure a reduction in aggressive behavior. There is power in numbers, and the community can make great advances in dog law. There could also be a neighborhood peer pressure campaign for people who aren’t responsible pet owners.
- A bill can be submitted to legislation stating that all people who breed dogs must get training and be certified prior to breeding a litter of pups. The training would include the importance of breeding for temperament, discussion of overpopulation, and responsible pet behavioral care to maintain safety. If individuals have a litter of pups in their back yards without having had prior certification for responsible pet care/training, they will get cited. Dog breeders should receive recognition through public acknowledgement, a medal, a ribbon, etc., when they make breeding for temperament a priority.
- All adopters should be mandated to take a responsible pet owner class prior to bringing the dog .
- Shelters and rescues could teach their staff to create an emotionally safe environment so people can be honest when they relinquish their dog to a shelter or rescue group. This information will help in evaluations for possible future placement of the relinquished dog.
The public stereotype of “the dogcatcher” is one that is quickly changing through education. Animal control officers wear many hats and function in different roles. They are teachers, mediators, detectives, police officers, therapists, EMS responders, and subject matter experts, to name a few.
ACOs are our first responders in dangerous dog situations. They are hired into this role by county officials to maintain public safety. They are the first ones the community calls when they see a dog running down the street without an owner. They are called when pet owners’ dogs won’t stop fighting in the home or in the back yard. They come to the rescue when an innocent person walks their dog down the street, and the person and dog are attacked by one or more dogs running at-large without supervision. ACOs put themselves at risk in dangerous situations when the typical citizen doesn’t want to intervene.
These same officers, that love their dogs like the public loves their pets, that sometimes put their physical bodies at risk to protect the public from a dangerous dog, that experience the emotional work in attending, removing, and protecting animals from abusive situations, and the traumatic work of coping in the aftermath of a dog mauling or a human or canine fatality, are sometimes judged by the public.
ACOs have been stopped by the public when their truck was in view and asked “How many animals are you going to kill today?” Once again, as a behavior consultant, this greatly intensifies my idea that more education is needed. The ACO truck should be viewed as a symbol of public safety and animal advocacy in the community. People can ask questions and discuss problems with the officer, and the ACO can provide education. These officers understand the human-animal bond, human-animal interactions, and public safety measures. I can’t tell you how many officers told me in our discussion that they view the dogs in the community as their own. They are in the field to be advocates for dogs and for public safety. We need to give them the respect they deserve.
Save One Life: You’re a Hero
Save One Hundred Lives: You’re an Animal Control Officer
I would like to acknowledge all the hard work that animal control officers provide in maintaining public safety and creating advocacy for dogs.
Acknowledgements: I personally want to thank the following officers who took part in this discussion:
- FindLaw.com – Colorado Revised Statutes Title 18. Criminal Code § 18-9-204.5. Unlawful ownership of dangerous dog–legislative declaration–definitions – last updated January 01, 2022 | https://codes.findlaw.com/co/title-18-criminal-code/co-rev-st-sect-18-9-204-5.html
- American Veterinary Medical Association (2023) Dog bite prevention [online]. Last accessed 11/20/2023.
- Insurance Information Institute (2023) Spotlight On: Dog Bite Liability [online]. Last accessed 11/20/2023.
- Walsh, F. (2009) Human-animal bonds II: The role of pets in family systems. Family Process 48:4, 481-499.
Camille King, EdD, RN, ACAAB, CDBC, is an applied animal behaviorist who owns Canine Education Center, LLC in Colorado. She specializes in assessment and treatment of dogs with severe aggression and anxiety disorders. Camille conducts professional research on canine stress and mental health issues. When she isn’t working with dogs, she works as an advanced practice registered nurse.