Captain's story - a tragic window into police service dog training

On a warm July day in 2012, residents of a Vancouver neighbourhood discovered a young German Shepherd in a dumpster. Wrapped in a blanket and crying in pain, the dog had been starved, stabbed and beaten with a baseball bat so badly it was left quadriplegic.  It died the next day of cardiac arrest.

Increasing police accountability

In a story that quickly gained international attention, the dog was identified as Captain, a 2-year-old former Police Service Dog (PSD) candidate that never made it through police training. As one of the 98% of trainees disqualified from police dog training, Captain had been adopted out to the man who would kill him less than two months later.

At his sentencing hearing earlier this month, Captain’s owner claimed he was fearful of the dog—a seemingly ludicrous explanation given media descriptions of Captain as “too gentle” for police work.

I only know about Captain what I’ve read in the news. But having spent five months researching police dogs and their training, I know that anyone would have had good reason to fear Captain. Beyond the abuse and starvation, it’s probable that his police training left Captain too aggressive to be handled by an untrained person.

Talking to experts who work with rejected police dogs, Pivot has learned of brutal training methods, including the use of prong collars, choke chains, and forced submission accomplished by seizing dogs’ testicles. Trained to believe that only a bite offers relief from a world of threats, these methods produce dogs that are fearful and reactive. To be adopted out requires specialized re-training. In some cases, dogs are rendered sufficiently traumatized that they must be put down.

The dogs that make it into police work are just as traumatized, but have had the fear hammered out of them. When trained to ‘bite-and-hold,’ as most are in Canada, police dogs seek out and attack the first available person—suspect or bystander—without hesitation. The effects make clear why police refer to dogs as ‘impact weapons’: shredded skin and muscle, multiple puncture wounds, exposed bone, and missing appendages are standard injuries for a victim.

Photos and descriptions of these kinds of injuries are disturbing enough, and raise serious questions of public safety and suspects’ rights. But what I also find disturbing is imagining the dogs’ experiences.

Three years ago I adopted a dog of my own, a German Shepherd cross named Loki, who was given up due to his aggression. I don’t know what Loki experienced before we met, but I know that today he’s a (mostly) good boy with boundless energy and a gentle disposition. In researching and compiling information on police dogs, I’ve necessarily imagined Loki experiencing what Captain did, both before and after Captain’s adoption. I can’t imagine anyone choking Loki, or hitting him, or yelling at him. Like all dogs, his first motivation is to love—you have to go to great lengths to destroy that.

But there is an alternative to abusive training, an alternative that produces stable dogs, increases public safety, and allows suspects the opportunity to avoid being bitten. Bark-and-hold training—currently in use in New Westminster and Saanich—is based on Shutzhund training, a sport built on close collaboration between dog and trainer. In bark-and-hold, dogs are trained to first bark at a suspect, only delivering a bite if the person attempts to run or attack. Rather than using a dog like a baton or a Taser, bark-and-hold makes use of a dog’s sizeable brain, allowing for intelligent responses to changing situations. Usually, the mere presence of a dog is all the force that is required to resolve a situation.

There is a lot of work to be done before we see the adoption of bark-and-hold as standard training for police dogs. But if we can prevent one dog from having experienced what Captain did, it will have been worth it.
D T Renaud is an MSW candidate and co-author of a report Pivot is currently compiling on police dog use and abuse. It will be released later this summer.