My new neighbor is a police officer. For the purpose of this article, I’ll call him Bob. Two weeks ago, I was puttering around the garage after walking our younger dog, Zohan. He was still on his leash, and the garage door was open. I turned my back to look for something, and in that split second of distraction, Bob came walking up the driveway to say hello. Zohan went ballistic. I tightened my grip on the leash - only to drop it. So there I stood, bellowing like a maniac while my barking dog charged full speed ahead at the police officer in my driveway.
That same week, an eerily similar scene played out at a residence in Florida City. Like millions of others, I’ve watched the video - and often wished I had not. I also wish there had been audio on the clip, and I wish I could have seen the incident from additional angles. It’s hard to write an opinion piece when you don’t have all the facts. So I’m going to do the best I can, with what little information I have.
In a perfect world, I’d love to do so without getting dragged into the toxic pit of vitriol that damn near drowned the internet the day it happened. Don’t get me wrong - I’m angry too, and I absolutely want answers. But some of the comments I’ve read are almost as disturbing as the contents of the video. This is neither helpful nor constructive and it needs to stop.Seriously, people. Enough.
First and foremost, enough with the owner-blaming. Granted, Duchess' owner failed to contain her pet. Yes, it is the responsibility of every dog owner - including me - to keep our pets under control and out of harm’s way at all times. It is a given that Dutchess’ owner should have secured her dog before the door was opened. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that her owner is well aware of this fact. She is no doubt kicking herself, so what do you say we cut her some slack?
She was not expecting a knock at her door, and accidents happen in the nanoseconds it takes us to blink, pee, or answer the phone. They happen to all of us, including you, Judgey McJudgerson. Have some compassion, or at least keep your opinions to yourself. Someday it will be your turn, and when it happens, the last thing you’ll want to deal with is a bunch of armchair quarterbacks smugly stating the obvious. This family has suffered a devastating loss.
Once again, I implore you: Enough.
Let’s move on to the breed-blaming. It would be so easy to resolve dog-related conflict if DNA was truly the issue. But the most recent and comprehensive scientific studies have thoroughly debunked this belief. Even if this were not the case, there’s another annoying little hole in the “it needed to be shot because it was a pit bull” argument: Dutchess was not a pit bull. A quick look at the still photos makes this clear. Her nose was too long, her legs too lanky, her back was too long, her chest was too narrow.
She was supposedly a cross between a Labrador and an American Bulldog, but even that description does not sit well with me. While no one will ever know for sure, the dog whose photograph haunts me looks like a hodgepodge of a Labrador and maybe some kind of herding or working breed. Maybe. That’s the best I can do, and all of you “experts” citing your so-called credentials are just making yourselves look silly.
Fellow journalists, that goes for you too. One of you described Dutchess as a bull terrier. Come on, folks - at least do a Google image search. Get it right, or better yet, don’t report it. It isn’t relevant.
I said it before, I’ll say it again. Enough.
Finally, let’s talk about the cop hating. Wow ... just ...wow. My wife, Lynn, is fond of saying “you don’t need to be nice, you do need to be fair.” So let’s be fair, shall we?
Many commentators are howling that the police officer involved “had no business being on that property.” To be fair, he was not there because the homeowner had called him. But let’s walk through the scenario with a cop’s-eye view. The officer noticed the homeowner’s car was empty, yet her car door was wide open. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we know now that she was making multiple trips to and from the car as she loaded it up for work. But I’ve had several cops tell me that this type of scene very closely resembles that of an abduction.
What if the car door had been open because the owner had been ambushed? Had this homeowner been forced from her vehicle, dragged into her home, and was about to have her throat slit, we would be calling this same cop a hero. Make no mistake - I am not defending this officer’s decision to shoot, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But do we really want a police force that looks the other way when their instincts tell them to investigate? If not, we need to stop crucifying the lot of them when one bad shoot makes the headlines. The rallying cries for the blood, torture and murder of this officer have made my own blood run cold. We are well within our rights to demand answers and justice. We are not, however, entitled to demand blood for blood. Enough.
That’s what I read. Let’s talk about what I saw.
Those of you claiming “the dog was clearly in attack mode” have “clearly” never been attacked by a dog. An aggressive or defensive dog displays body language that I did not see in this video. On the contrary, I saw a dog that was low to the ground in an excited, but submissive posture. I’d love some audio. I’d love some close-ups. I’d love a side view. But speaking as someone who must assess canine body language every day, I do not see anything in that video that would lead me to fear for my life.
I’ve had many exchanges with clients who insisted their dogs would never, ever bite - clients who were then rendered speechless when their dogs bit me or lunged at my nurse. People in my profession see things that the untrained eye does not, and my trained eye does not see a dog whose behavior posed a threat to human life.
Perhaps a different angle of view might tell a better story; perhaps she was about to bite the officer’s foot. But even that possible scenario begs the question of why deadly force was deemed the only option. In my experience, a dog that means business will take aim at the face, neck, arm, or torso. While I won’t say I would be happy about being bitten on the foot, I would not respond to the threat of such a bite by ending an animal’s life.
Off-leash dogs are a huge problem in Miami and I understand that. In fact, I have literally lost count of the number of times I have been charged while walking my own dogs. I have gotten into the habit of carrying a marine air horn on our walks. I have found that the blast of noise from these things is enough to stop even the most unruly dog in its tracks.
Dogs can be frightening - I get it. Even dogs who are on leashes can be dangerous if the owner is not in control. During one of our first years in business, a new client walked in with an 80-pound, intact male German Shephard. There was nothing subtle about this dog’s body language as he bared his teeth and growled at my other patients. When my wife approached the owner with the forms he needed to fill out, the dog raised his hackles and lunged at her chest. So when I say I understand how even “family pets” can be frightening, trust me - I absolutely understand. Yet Lynn was able to stop the dog simply by using the clipboard to block him. When his head made contact with the clipboard, he jumped back, blinking and looking perplexed. While this tactic would not have worked on a trained attack dog, this was not a trained attack dog. And neither was Dutchess.
I don’t share this anecdote for the purpose of bragging about the awesome woman I married. I share it because it demonstrates how a 135-pound female was able to neutralize an 80-pound dog with a piece of particle board. Granted she has some training, and that’s my point - how is it that our police force does not?
I can hear the trolls clacking away at their keyboards already.
“All this fuss over a dog!” “It’s just a stupid dog!”
But like every other aspect of this case, it’s really not that simple. While Dutchess’ death cut me to the core, the shooting would have bothered me even if the officer had missed. Her owner was standing roughly three feet away when the latter shots were fired. The owner’s son reportedly watched from the window.
Bullets can ricochet - and they do. Shots can miss - and they do. The decision to discharge a firearm always carries a consequence, the most devastating of which is the accidental shooting of an innocent bystander. When that decision is made in a residential area, the risk of that consequence increases exponentially.
This incident occurred dangerously close to at least one human being. In a true life or death situation, that risk is justifiable. But I am not convinced that the risk presented by a 40-pound dog justifies the risk to the humans in such close proximity. Perhaps this time it was “just a dog," but what about the next time? “We don’t need to be nice, we do need to be fair.” Is it fair to say that our law enforcement officers should be better trained in threat assessment, and less so in threat elimination?
I began this musing with the story of my neighbor, a police officer who had an unexpected encounter with one of my dogs. I watched in horror as Zohan plowed toward him and Lynn tried in vain to grab his leash. Officer Bob stopped, allowed Zohan to sniff him, then laughed heartily as Zohan rolled onto his back for a belly rub. In that moment a friendship was born. Granted, Zohan is a much smaller dog, and I like to think Bob knows me well enough to assume that I would not own a vicious dog. My point is that he handled the situation with professionalism, restraint, humor, and far more grace than my recalcitrant dog deserved. My point is that it can be done.
In Milwaukee,in fact, it has been done. After a series of incidents like the one in Florida City, officials became concerned over the rift that was developing between law enforcement officers, and the citizenry they are sworn to protect. The public relations nightmare, combined with a growing sense of distrust prompted the city to take action. After implementing new training in 2008 that focused on how to identify threatening canine body language, the number of dogs shot by police went from 48 per year from 2000-2008 to just 28 in 2012.
In other words, what happened to Dutchess was not an isolated incident. On the contrary, stories like Dutchess’s have become so common, that a new word is creeping into the American vernacular: “puppycide."
Between 2010 and 2012, nearly 100 dogs were shot by police - in metro Atlanta alone. In 2013, an animal care group estimated that a dog is shot by a police officer every 98 minutes in the U.S.
Regardless of how one chooses to dissect that number, the fact remains that it is too high. It represents too many incidents, too many dogs, too many risks, too much outrage, and way too many broken hearts.
I said it before, I’ll say it one last time:
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic in Miami.
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