by Alexandra Semyonova
On Friday, October 24, 2014, in Hustisford, Wisconsin, seven-year-old Logan T. Meyer was mauled to death by a Rottweiler ‘family protection dog’, trained by Vohne Liche Kennels.
Less than eight weeks later, on Sunday, December 21, in Douglas County Colorado, a police dog trained and sold by Vohne Liche Kennels leaped from an officer’s car to attack a passing Shih Tzu. The small dog later died.
The attacking dog was one of four dogs sold to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office by Vohne Liche Kennels. An expert commented on the latter case, “these dogs rarely snap like this unless they’re told to or that the handler makes even the slightest mistake.” He commented that “aggression is in the dogs’ genes.”
This was the second time in just under two month that a Vohne Liche Kennels dog made the news. But Vohne Liche isn’t the only company training dogs for law enforcement use to have encountered similar issues.
Sales of pre-trained dogs to law enforcement agencies have mushroomed in recent decades as the use of dogs has increased, especially by smaller agencies which previously could not afford to have canine units. Civil claims against law enforcement agencies that employ dogs have risen sharply since 1997.
Not only are more law enforcement agencies using dogs, but the bite rates have gone up. Where in the 1990s there was a dog bite in about 10% of suspect apprehensions, the rate has gone up now to 30% or more in many jurisdictions.
An investigation by the Special Counsel of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department published in September 2013 revealed a trend to use dogs where previously lesser force had been used. Investigations in British Columbia, Canada, Queensland, Australia, and the United Kingdom show similar increases.
Everywhere dogs are used by law enforcement and the results have been studied, dogs have been found to be two to three times as likely to cause serious and persevering injuries than other forms of force, including the use of firearms.
So what is going on?
Two schools of training
In North America, police dogs are mostly trained to “bite and hold.” The dog is taught that being released by his handler is the signal that he should charge, then bite and grip the first person he contacts.
A different method was developed in the 1970s by East German border guards. People trying to cross the border to the West were well prepared, knew what the dogs would do, and often stabbed the dogs to death once the dogs had gripped. To solve this problem, East German guard dogs were trained to chase down the suspect, then to keep the suspect stationary by circling and barking, out of reach of a knife. The dogs only switched to biting if the suspect tried to flee.
This “bark and hold” training spread throughout Western Europe, first adopted by police and later growing into a consumer hobby industry. By the 1990s, the Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung” and ”schutzhund” were terms familiar to anyone participating in dog sports. As more governments subscribed to the neoliberal philosophy of drastic budget cuts, starting in the 1980s, more and more LEAs began to buy pre-trained dogs from these sport clubs.
The attack dog industry
As with any product for which there is a sudden surge in demand, a spate of businesses sprouted to accommodate the growing market for attack trained dogs. Most of these were originally IPO/ schutzhund sport clubs responding to a new financial opportunity. Once an industry arises, it naturally starts seeking new places to sell its products. These businesses now also sell their dogs to military agencies, and have more recently expanded their market to civilian families, touting the dogs as “personal protection” products.
The big players in this industry, of which Vohne Liche Kennels is only one, advertise ready-made stocks of anywhere from 75 to 160 dogs on hand for customers to choose from. There are also many smaller businesses selling attack-trained dogs on a smaller scale.
Are these people selling dogs they claim are under control, but which in fact often cause serious incidents if the handler makes even the smallest mistake?
The answer is yes.
Breeding – the first road to disaster
Given the huge market, there are quite a few breeders now specialized in producing dogs for police work. The dogs are bred to meet the IPO breed standard. The standard uses code language like “drive,” “self-confidence,” and “stress-tolerance.” In fact, these kennels are breeding their dogs for reactivity, abnormally uninhibited behavior, poor impulse control, a lowered bite threshold, preference for engaging rather than avoiding a violent conflict, and in some cases an inborn “jump in high > bite” motor pattern.
Many of these dogs display what we could best describe as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-like behavior: difficulty with focusing, easily distracted, easily wound up, unable to self-dampen once excited.
These are abnormal and sometimes dangerous traits in any dog, but they are certainly dangerous in dogs who are going to be trained for attack purposes then used on our streets.
The training – any which way it creates danger
As injuries and law suits in the English speaking countries multiplied in the late 1990s, the various training methods were examined. Unfortunately, as many officers later complained, law enforcement officers working in the field weren’t consulted, but apparently representive of the dog sport industry––a political lobby protecting its commercial interests––were.
In 2001, the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended changing the standard mode of police dog training from “bite and hold” to IPO / schutzhund-style “bark and hold.”
The U.S. Department of Justice concurred. Police dogs were no longer to charge and bite, gripping the first person they contacted after being released. Rather, they were to corner or circle the person, and to bite only if the person tried to flee or resist, or if the handler gave the command to bite.
The supposition was that handlers would have better control of the dogs. This assumption was––and remains––based on too little knowledge of what “bark and hold” really means and how it is trained.
The officer working with a “bite and hold” dog knows the dog will bite if released. The officer makes the decision to allow a bite by releasing the dog. The “bark and hold” dog has been trained to make the decision to bite, attacking without a handler command as soon as the suspect moves. The trigger is supposed be an attempt to flee, an approach toward the dog, raising a hand, or even shouting at the officer present.
In the 15 years since the 2001 guideline came into effect, the switch to “bark and hold” clearly has not solved the human injury problem. For example, in the Puget Sound region alone, wrongful injury lawsuits resulting from law enforcement dog attacks cost taxpayers more than $1 million between 2008 and 2013, as detailed by Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter. One dog accounted for $352,000 in settlements and another for $247,000, mostly for attacking non-suspects who were in the vicinity when the dogs were released to pursue the actual suspects.
Both “bite and hold” and “bark and hold” training produce dogs who often do not release on command, not even if the suspect freezes completely.
Worse yet, where data is collected in a way that discourages officers from under-reporting bites, “bark and hold” dogs turn out to bite about twice as often as “bite and hold” dogs.
The increase in law enforcement dog attacks is most likely because police dog handlers are led by the sellers of “bark and hold” dogs to believe the dogs can make wise decisions about whether to bite, leading officers to release these dogs sooner than they would a “bite and hold” dog.
Handlers of “bark and hold” dogs may for the same reason be less careful than handlers of “bite and hold” dogs about making sure that there are no innocent bystanders nearby when they release the dogs.
Since the federal “bark and hold” recommendation was issued, several senior officers––taught by bitter experience – have commented that a dog just does not have the capacity to make the complex decision about whether to bite. The courts have affirmed that the law enforcement dog handler is legally responsible for bites by the dog, and must therefore have control of the dog’s decision to bite or not bite.
Deceptive advertising – the commercial parties
Police officers who raise and train their own dogs will be aware of all the tricks of the trade, including the traps and the risks. They will know exactly what cues their dogs have learned, exactly what the dogs can and cannot do, and how to deal with mistakes on the street.
When law enforcement agencies buy ready-trained dogs from commercial parties, the law enforcement dog handlers are usually given some training with the dogs they will work with, practicing the commands the dogs know for several days or weeks.
This often leaves the dog handlers with too little knowledge to be able to cope when situations vary from the practiced scripts.
The advertising that commercial law enforcement dog sellers produce does not help. They typically advertise “bark and hold” dogs as completely reliable (many giving a year’s replacement guarantee) or even as having a “switch” that can be turned on and off. They advertise IPO / schutzhund or other titles, the meaning of which will not always be clear to police officers who lack extensive sport training experience.
For example, during a field demonstration, a skilled schutzhund helper (the man in the padded bite suit) can help a less than reliable dog win a title by whether, when and how he moves or makes eye contact with the dog.
To an unschooled onlooker, the dog will appear to be completely under handler control. This can lead to ugly surprises when the dog confronts a non-“helpful” suspect or citizen out on the streets who doesn’t deliver all the right non-verbal cues.
For a demonstration of what an IPO trial looks like, click here. Note how much trouble the dog is having restraining itself from attacking the target ‘helper’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSzpE4VmRQk
The commercial sellers of “law enforcement dogs” also fail to advertise the pervasive problem they have in getting their “highly trained, guaranteed” dogs to release once the dogs have gripped.
Here are some examples, which make it not surprising that law enforcement officers working with these dogs are often suddenly confronted with a problem:
Notice how they have to go in every time and physically get the dog to release. At 2:10 they even have to insert a stick into the dog’s mouth and pry it open: http://www.natgeotv.com/nl/alpha-dogs/videos/kruis
Watch towards the end of this one (about 1:30), when the trainer tries to get the dog to release – she has to physically pull it off…and it bites her in the leg: http://www.natgeotv.com/nl/alpha-dogs/videos/grote-hap
Animal welfare issues
Most of the trainers who work with law enforcement dogs have been trained by other trainers, passing on techniques developed half a century ago by equally unschooled trainers. Few have any understanding of how animals learn, how to train behavior chains, or how to time commands, rewards, and punishments so that the dog understands what is supposed to be done. Harsh methods are used, including shock collars, prong collars, and beatings.
It is baffling to a dog when an unskilled trainer makes mistakes giving rewards, but it is a disaster for the dog when harsh punishment is clumsily dealt out. When dealing with aversive or even painful events, it is important to an animal’s sense of well-being for the events to be predictable, and for the animal to feel it has some influence over what happens. Unpredictable and unavoidable shocks damage an animal’s sense of well-being. They can also have the known side effect of triggering uncontrolled aggression.
And this is what happens on the training field. Agitation and other techniques are used to encourage dogs to bite fast and hard. Once they are reliably biting, they are shocked for not holding the grip. After learning to bite and to fear letting go, they are taught the release command. Now the dogs are shocked for not letting go.
In many cases dogs are shocked for “disobeying” a command they did not even hear. In all of the various exercises, including things like “heel” and “sit,” shocks are often delivered so quickly after a command that a dog does not have time to execute the command and avoid the shock, even if he did hear it and it was one he understands.
This all makes it difficult for dogs to understand what the handler wants, resulting in large amounts of unavoidable punishment––from which the dogs learns nothing useful.
Retraining the dogs
To this day, up to 75% of North American law enforcement agencies use traditionally trained “bite and hold” dogs. The dogs have learned to charge and grip, that this is the right thing to do, and to fear letting go. The behavior is strongly anchored––and the methods for un-training it are brutal. They include slamming the dog on the front legs and the head with a stick when it goes in for the previously trained bite, the use of double prong collars to give a magnified pain jolt when the dog tries to bite, and again the use of electric shocks.
The point is to generate new avoidance behavior based on fear, while maintaining the dog’s view of the “helper” as an enemy to fight. Trainers are warned about doing this so that the dog doesn’t shut down completely and become ruined altogether. These trainers––mostly with backgrounds in sport training––seem oblivious to the dangers this creates for people in the surroundings the dogs will work in.
Or maybe they are just indifferent to it as they salivate over the piles of money a trend toward this re-training will bring. They are certainly indifferent to how unfair this is to the dogs and the suffering involved.
In addition to the misery that retrainng means for attack-trained dogs and the mistakes it leads the dogs to make on the streets, such breeding, training, and re-training often makes dogs dangerous toward other animals.
Already unstable and confrontational, the dogs are shocked and otherwise harshly punished on the training field in the presence of other dogs, leading to an association of other dogs with punishment.
Dog-on-dog attacks aren’t uncommon if two dogs get loose on a training field. Often one of the dogs will seriously wound or kill the other one if humans don’t intervene quickly enough.
Treatment as commodities
From birth, dogs destined for police work are treated as unfinished products. The businesses that sell them don’t much care how they get the products to be salable, as long as they do.
Commercial sellers warehouse dogs in kennels like inanimate consumer, then ship them off without concern for the lives they woll lead––and hey, money-back guarantee if our product disappoints. Many police and military dogs live in kennels, having human contact only when working.
No matter where they come from, all law enforcement dogs are placed in dangerous situations where they can be badly hurt or killed. In some cases, this means being stabbed or shot by a suspect; in others, the dogs may be put down for doing what they were taught was the right thing to do.
“Bark and hold” works well enough for the dogs in countries where suspects are rarely armed, but where suspects are almost always armed, makes it easy for dogs to get shot.
Dogs who have been bred and trained this way will often not be safely retired. Not all law enforcement dog handlers are willing or able to take retired dogs into their homes.
In many cases, there will be no option available for a retired, injured, or failed law enforcement dog except euthanasia – then upwards and onwards, order a new dog from the cash hungry supplier.
The law enforcement dog industry is damaging not only to the dogs it actually trains. Time has shown that every breed that becomes popular for police work ends up troubled. Breeders do not limit themselves to sales to police and attack sport clubs. Pups are sold just as easily to civilian families, and so the attack-selected genes leak into the general breed population. As the histories of the Bouvier de Flandres, the Malinois, and the German shepherd demonstrate, this leads to the breed becoming unstable and untrustworthy.
While there will still be many stable dogs of each breed around, the buyer of a pup will not know until the pup is about a year old whether the dog carries the genes for abnormally disinhibited aggressive behavior.
This in turn increases the general impression among the public that no dogs are trustworthy, and that all of them are dangerous. The commercial sellers are happy to concur, given their belief that “dogs bite, it’s what dogs do” and that a dog who does not grip and refuse to let go, a tendency rarely seen in street dogs, herding dogs, or hunting dogs, is not really a dog at all.
Many studies and court decisions concur that better guidelines are needed for when law enforcement agencies are allowed to use canines, typically recommending that dog use be limited to apprehending felony and violent misdemeanor suspects, and that dogs should not be used against suspects fleeing arrest for non-violent misdemeanors.
Also usally recommended are requiring detailed reports of all bite incidents and better supervision of the canine units.
Where incidents are common, as in the Puget Sound region according to Mike Carter’s investigation, a small number of the dog handlers are typically responsible for a large share of attacks, some setting their dog on up to 80% of all suspects they apprehend.
Some officers in notorious cases have refused to call their dogs off even after a suspect has surrendered, dealing out their own punishment to a suspect who particularly enraged them.
Studies agree that in such cases the officers need to be disciplined and retrained, but continue to ignore protests from officers in the field that the “bark and hold” technique is a disaster.
In any case cut commercial sellers out of the loop
If police insist on using dogs outside of purely scent work, they need to start over again: to breed stable dogs, then raise and train the dogs themselves.
Inhumane and incompetently applied training techniques should be remedied. Dogs used by law enforcement should become real partners of their human handlers, rather than just replaceable commodities. This approach would mean that law enforcement dog handlers would know what their dogs can and can’t do, exactly what cues the dogs will react to, how to really control the dogs, and what to do when they or the dog makes a mistake.
Law enforcement does not need unstable dogs or dogs who grip and don’t let go. Fear-based training is not needed to make a reliable police dog. Rather, what is most needed is quite the opposite.
Most of all, law enforcement agencies need to get commercial sellers out of the loop. Despite their pretenses, these businesses are not producing reliable dogs. They participate in a one-up showmanship game , a testosterone-driven culture, and a hunt for cash markets, in which there is great indifference to the damage they inflict on the dogs, to the problems they create for police officers, and to the members of the public who sometimes the suffering third party in an attack, and always pay for the damage.
[ANIMALS 24-7 contributing editor Alexandra Semyonova, an animal behaviorist specializing in dogs since 1989, is author of The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs (Hastings Press 2009, Italian edition 2014) and The Social Organization of the Domestic Dog (Carriage House Foundation, 2002). Semyonova was for 10 years an inspector for the Dutch SPCA.]