Cops Kill Lots of Dogs. This Simulator Trains Them Not To.

Reason takes an inside look at a simulator designed to train law enforcement not to kill family pets.


HARFORD COUNTY, MARYLAND — Sheriff's deputies Terry Lindsey and Diana Ciaramellano are walking into a backyard in a residential neighborhood, responding to a tripped burglar alarm, when a mid-sized dog runs out to see who has traipsed onto its masters' property. The dog barks and growls at the deputies from about 15 feet away, every bit of its body language conveying a clear message: LEAVE.

Deputy Lindsey yells at the dog to go away while unclipping the pepper spray from his belt with his left hand. To his right, Ciaramellano unholsters her gun, in case Lindsey's pepper spray doesn't work. She could reach for her taser, but a dog is a small, fast-moving target from straight ahead, and the prongs the weapon fires are finicky.

The dog ignores the commands and stands its ground. What happens next in this kind of situation could be either another routine day for the Harford County Sheriff's Department or end up as a major lawsuit, complete with local, maybe even national, headlines: "Maryland Cops Kill Family Dog in Backyard."

The dog charges forward, and Lindsey fires the pepper spray. It works. The animal yelps and retreats. The encounter probably takes fewer than 10 seconds.

The large projector screens surrounding the deputies go blank. They are standing in a big, dark room on the second floor of the Harford County Sheriff's Department in front of a VirTra use-of-force simulator—a high-tech video tool that trains deputies how to respond to real-life situations in real time. The guns, tasers, and spray canisters are all modified with lasers that the projector screens detect and react to.

The simulator can hold hundreds of different live-action video scenarios, from active shooters to domestic violence calls to traffic stops—each one with several branching options that an operator at a computer can choose from, depending on how the officer responds—but these Harford County deputies are among the first in the country to use it to learn how to deal with dogs.

The initiative is the brainchild of the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA), a nonprofit group that represents sheriffs across the country, and it's part of an increasing recognition by law enforcement that it has a problem with dogs. Reason travelled to the Harford County Sheriff's Department for a demonstration of how officers are being trained to fix it.

Over the past decade, countless stories of police shootings of dogs have sparked public outrage and led to huge lawsuits against departments. But NSA deputy executive director John Thompson says police officers typically receive little to no training on how to deal with dogs, beyond using lethal force, despite the near-guarantee that they will encounter one at some point in the course of their duties.

"I'm a perfect example," Thompson, now retired from law enforcement, says. "I would have just shot a dog if he came at me biting and barking and snapping. It's just what we did. It was taught to us. You neutralize the problem. It was an acceptable practice in the older days and still seems to be across the country in many agencies."

The NSA says additional pilot programs are being planned in Orange County, Florida, and Oakland County, Michigan. The group is also working with the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to develop a comprehensive course for police to learn how to handle and deescalate canine encounters.

"We identified that this was a problem and created this training so we could keep officers safe, pets safe, agencies from paying out multi-million dollar lawsuits, and honestly, so we can keep the relationship between police and community a whole lot better, because it's just rampant," Thompson continues. "Every day you hear of an officer shooting a dog. It's not because they're crazy, warmongering people who want to shoot a dog, it's just they've never been trained or told different."

The results of that lack of training can be devastating for families — and very, very expensive for cities. Detroit, for example, paid out $225,000 earlier this year to settle a lawsuit by a couple alleging police officers shot their dogs from behind an 8-foot-tall fence during a marijuana raid. Last year a jury awarded a Maryland family a whopping $1.26 million in a dog shooting lawsuit.

These lawsuits are a relatively recent development that stemmed from a 2005 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, the federal appeals court declared that the unreasonable seizure (that is, killing) of a dog by police was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and the city of San Jose was forced to pay out nearly $1 million to the families of two members of Hell's Angels whose dogs were shot by police during the execution of a search warrant.

Since then, the proliferation of video technology and social media has led to local stories of dog shootings going viral and ricocheting around the country. There's a whole category of stories on Reason's website called "puppycide." For example, there was the time last year that a Louisiana cop shot a 12-pound dog and then allegedly told the family it was a "shame" he "had to waste that bullet because it's a really expensive bullet." Or the NYPD officer who shot a woman's dog seconds after it slipped through the door and walked toward him wagging its tail. Or the Oklahoma cop who used a high-power rifle to shoot a dog through a fence during a five-year-old's birthday party. Or there was the time in 2012 that a SWAT team in St. Paul executed a wrong-door raid, shot the family dog, and then allegedly forced three handcuffed children to sit next to their dead pet.

Just how many dogs a year are shot by police is not known or tracked in any systematic way. A Justice Department official speculated in a 2012 interview with Police magazine that the number could be as high as 10,000 a year, calling it "an epidemic," but that figure is little more than a guess. A 2012 study by the National Canine Research Council estimated that half of all intentional police shootings involved dogs. Public records obtained by Reason showed Detroit police shot 54 dogs last year. Chicago police shot or shot at 700 dogs over the last decade, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Several states now mandate some form of dog training for police, following incidents and lawsuits like these. Colorado passed the Dog Protection Act in 2013. In Texas, the state legislature mandated dog training for police thanks to a three-year effort by Cindy Bolling, whose Border Collie mix was shot by a police officer in 2012. The Chicago Police Department says its seen a 67 percent drop in dog shootings over the past three years thanks to better training.

The federal Justice Department has also taken some steps to try to teach officers how to handle dogs. Dog trainer Brian Kilcommon produced a series of videos several years ago for the COPS program to train local and state officers on how to read dog behavior and respond to it appropriately. However, those videos were no replacement for hands-on training, nor were they mandatory.

"We have a lot of [departments] becoming proactive," Thompson says, "but unfortunately, and I hate to say it, it usually takes an incident for them to open their eyes and see it."

The Harford County Sheriff's Department would like to stay ahead of the curve. Department spokesperson Cristie Hopkins says it hasn't had a dog shooting incident, but all of its deputies are going through the program.

In another training scenario, Deputies Lindsey and Ciaramellano are put into a family living room to respond to a domestic disturbance. As a couple explains they were just having an argument, a dog bounds around the corner and starts barking. "Sir, can you put your dog away?" Lindsey and Ciaramellano repeatedly ask the man on the screen, warily keeping their hands near their utility belts, until the owner eventually complies.

The operator of the VirTra system can change the dog's behavior, and even the type of dog, from large and friendly to small and aggressive. Depending on what the deputies do, the operator can change the dog owners' reactions as well. For example, the couple in the above scenario will, quite understandably, get irate if one of the deputies draws their gun.

"If I pull out a firearm in your home, you're going to get upset," the VirTra operator, Corporal Greg Young, explains. The system, he says, is more of a tool for judgement training than a shooting gallery simulator.

The system is also loaded with videos demonstrating typical dog behavior and body language—for example, what a friendly, excited dog looks like running toward you, as opposed to an aggressive dog. In many of the more egregious examples of dog shootings, officers mistake or simply ignore the dog's behavioral cues before using lethal force.

The VirTra simulator is a big, expensive piece of equipment—$150,000 to $300,000, depending on the model—and not every agency will be able to afford one, or probably even have space for one. If there's any downside to the program, it might be in the funding models. The Harford County Sheriff's VirTra simulator, as sign outside the training room proudly states, was paid for entirely with asset forfeiture funds from drug cases, which, it must be noted, have their own set of civil liberties problems. And while training beat police how to deal with a dog may defuse many situations, a major issue is the rise in volatile SWAT raids, which put heavily armed police in direct confrontation with now-ubiquitous dogs. The use of SWAT teams has risen from around 3,000 deployments per year in 1980 to as high as 80,000 a year currently.

But shooting fewer dogs overall is a popular goal, and odds are the simulator is less costly in every sense than killing a family pet.

"Society is changing, and dogs have value now," Thompson says. "In the old days it wasn't the same. Now dogs are part of people's families. My dogs are my family, they're just like my kids. We as a law enforcement profession have to understand that change. Again, no officer should be put in a position to get hurt, and we're not saying it's never going to happen. There's going to be cases where you're going to have to shoot the dog—you just don't have a choice—but when you train and plan, the outcome is going to be better than if you go in with no training."

NEXT: Jury Clears Campus Cops Who Fatally Shot a Navy Vet Who Was Breaking Up a Fight

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  1. Thats nice but simulation dogs and people can’t really hurt you. its the real world that matters when you know they can really hurt you. I do hope it helps but i’ll bet a few cops go in there after hours to just shoot the shit out of everything.

  2. I’ve never used this high-tech simulator… I should get some time on it before I kill any more… oh wait, I don’t need a fucking simulator to not kill things.

    1. That’s probably because, in whatever job you do (I assume you’re employed), they don’t artificially cap the IQ of the people that want to do the job. You know, because ‘smart people would get bored doing this job’. That is the position of the academies and unions in at least a few jurisdictions, if not all of them.

      1. My IQ isn’t artificially capped, it’s naturally capped.

        1. We’re well aware.

          1. The propeller gives it away.

  3. , and honestly, so we can keep the relationship between police and community a whole lot better, because it’s just rampant,” Thompson continues.

    It’s rampant because the simulator you really need is one where the Union NPC can be defeated in ritual combat.

  4. “Every day you hear of an officer shooting a dog. It’s not because they’re crazy, warmongering people who want to shoot a dog, it’s just they’ve never been trained or told different.”

    oh jesus, this post is a gold mine.

    Uhm, I have some anecdotal evidence that they in fact like to shoot dogs, one police officer “connected” to a friend of mine even saying that he couldn’t wait to have the opportunity to shoot a dog with his new sidearm.

    But fuck that. Let’s say he’s right and they’re not, by and large “wanting” to shoot dogs. They have IN FACT been trained TO shoot dogs. Now we need to train that out of them, or stop training them in the positive.

    1. It almost sounds satirical. Like you can’t blame rookies cops for tearing up your new loafers, peeing on the kitchen floor, and tracking mud through the house.

      The real solution to our policing problem is a spray bottle full of water and a rolled up newspaper.

    2. We had a cop in my town that liked to cruise around and shoot skunks when he was bored.

  5. The fact that such a thing as this is even needed in the first place is kind of sad and pathetic, but that’s where we are.

    1. This does seem like some sort of parody article, though.

  6. Funny how the paper boy….the mail man….Hell, even animal control…all figured out ways to handle dogs without killing them. Sure, they’d get bit every so often, but they never hungered to kill them.

    But a pants-crapping, armed government worker proves their sadistic cowardice time and again by simply shooting the animal.

    American copping: You will trust these people at your peril, ESPECIALLY if you’ve done nothing wrong.

  7. Hmm, I guess since the Republicans love dogs so much they will be passing by voice vote a bill to make dog-shooting a Federal crime, the way they have done to make eating dog meat one (that no one commits in this country) in order to set a global example for the Asians.

    1. Republicans love cops more than dogs. So do Democrats. This is known.

  8. They should be training them stop unnecessarily killing humans.

    1. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

  9. Again, since this story is posted twice:

    If you need to train someone not to shoot things, don’t let them become cops.

  10. They should not be armed.

    If you need an armed response to something that is in progress, you can have a SWAT team available, kind of like how the fire department is available to come deal with things that are on fire.

    Cops should not be armed as a matter of course.

  11. I’ve been in a shooter simulator. The scenario I was placed in was not one that I feel I would very likely find myself, since I usually mind my own fucking business. However, since I was placed in the situation, I had a hard time firing on a person even though it was apparent they were being a bit of a doiche and were armed. I ended up ‘killing’ the guy once he brought his weapon to bear on me. In a real scenario, my instructor even told me I may have been shot since I was so careful with my own firearm.

    So why is it cops need to be trained not to shoot dogs? Oh yeah, it’s because many of them are scum bags.

    1. Lose the immunity and the scumbag problem clears itself up quickly.

  12. Cops killing dogs is understandable and shitty at the same time. It’s ironic though, that shooting a ‘officer dog’ is treated as if shooting an actual police officer, unless, you’re a police officer than it’s ok.

    1. You get the needle for shooting a cop dog?

      1. I stand corrected. It’s different per state.

    2. It’s undoubtedly understandable in vanishingly rare cases. If a dog was lunching at an officer and clamped on to his arm, sure, shooting the dog is probably necessary.

      There was a local case here with a conceal carrier who was involved in an epic dog fight and shot the dog, but that was after a long, fraught struggle to avoid shooting the dog.

      Way too many videos of dogs just ambling about with their tail wagging and an officer going out of his or her way to kill it.

      Remember the video of the officer that calmly shot the dog when he stepped on the property of that woman during a non-police incident? He claimed the dog was viciously attacking him, then the woman released the video and the city fell all over itself to offer her a settlement?

      This shit isn’t “too common”, it’s the fucking baseline.

      1. How about the one where the cop is out in the country, gets lost, pulls into someone’s driveway, the dog comes out to the car with his tail wagging to greet the visitor and blam, dead. Cops can be dangerous animals. It’s not the breed, it’s the training.

        1. No. With cops, it’s the breed too.

    3. They do have police funerals for the officer dog. And police seem to be in favor of making killing a police dog “officer’ equal to homicide.

  13. If I can’t shoot dogs, what CAN I shoot?

    1. Try shooting your foot. A lot of people, cops included, have done that.

  14. “Society is changing, and dogs have value now,” Thompson says. “In the old days it wasn’t the same. Now dogs are part of people’s families… “

    So what, in the good old days cops could shoot pets and no one cared? Like killing someones pet in the 50s would be less problematicmthan today?

    Horseshit. They didn’t used to shoot dogs so often because officers wouldn’t dare do that for fear of abrupt and direct retaliation which likely would go unpunished.

    Additionally officers decades ago weren’t taught that every person is a likely criminal who always represents a direct threat and the only goal is ‘to get home safely’.

    Even in the ‘wild west’ mid 1800s thru at least the 80s, officers thought it their job to put themselves in danger to protect others.

    Think Columbine as compared to Charles Whitman in the 50s (clock tower sniper).

    Columbine, dozens of officers and at least 3 different swat teams waited until the shooting had ceased for hours before entering.

    In 1950s Texas, it was a cop,or two and an armed civilian helping them who immediately entered the clock tower and proceeded towards the shooting sound ultimately ending with one of the police officers killing Whtiman.

  15. I’m guessing the simulation is a little different when the press isn’t around.

  16. Surely postal and courier employees have had this technology for a long time since their dog murder rate is nil. It seems to be the only way to prevent people from shooting dogs. Thank dog for technology.

    1. Mr. Beasley killed a whole bunch of dogs and buried him in his basement. One day he’s going to shoot Dagwood for always running into him.

  17. Their previous simulator was Resident Evil, with its undead dogs attacking without warning.

  18. The reason cops shoot dogs is because they rarely get to shoot anything with no repercussions or questions asked, and a dog is free-ticket to kill something. Its a high, and they enjoy it. Training is not whats needed – repercussions are.

  19. The only reason for this training is the expensive lawsuits that are finally costing these assholes some cash. No civilized person needs to be trained not to kill someone’s pet. Cops are beyond redemption.

  20. They had to create a fucking simulator so cops wouldn’t shoot as many dogs. The world we live in…

  21. Christ, that’s a bunch of bullshit.

    You don’t need a million dollar simulator to learn how to not shoot dogs. The fucking Post Office, meter readers, tons of kids everyday, cross property lines and deal with territorial dogs without issue.

    Cops don’t shoot dogs because they don’t know how to ‘whisper’ them down. Cops shoot dogs because they’ve been told its what they should do and because they’ve been given immunity for doing it. Cops shoot dogs because its easier and quicker and God knows a cop -serving and protecting – doesn’t have any damn time for a dog eating in to his precious schedule.


  22. So many dumb comments here. First, you can’t compare cops to mailmen. Mailmen (mailpeople?) walk to a front door and put mail in a slot (assuming there is no outside mailbox, which would avoid the dog entirely). Cops have to walk INTO a house or backyard. And cops are there to do a completely different job. It’s not like they were sent just to handle a dog. So imagine going into a drug dealer’s house and a dog comes running at you. The time you take to peacefully deal with a dog could get you killed. And it’s great when the dog stops 15ft. away like in the simulation, but that’s probably the rare case. A dog can close distance way faster than you can pull pepper spray and aim.

    Put yourself in that situation. A large German Shepherd comes running at you, barking. Your weapon is already drawn because you’re tracking a suspect or investigating a break-in. Do you trust that the dog will stop? Can you grab your pepper spray in time? Do you let it maul your arm for a bit before becoming defensive? Look up photos of dog maulings before you answer, internet tough guys. And while you and your partner are dealing with the dog, what are the suspects doing? Watching and praying for the dog?

  23. Man’s Best Friend needs to stop backsassing (or would that be backbarking?)

  24. It’s really the dog’s fault because they can’t help but to run towards cops. The smell of bacon fat? On the hoof?

  25. Nice, next replace the dogs with black persons, and you might be well on your way to a respectable and responsible police force!

  26. The simulator is a nice idea, but surely it would cheaper and easier to have seminar and maybe a booklet describing different ways to handle aggressive dogs? Don’t police have to have regular training sessions or something anyway? Just do another one on dogs!

    1. Why do they need either? There are no consequences to the cop for a bad shoot, so they will continue to shoot.

  27. Great article and congrats to the people for VirTra and the Hartford County Sheriff’s Office for this simulator. Any training for the reduction of people pets being shot by police is a step up from no training, but remember it is always good to have a subject matter expert available to officers, students are going to have question and something a simulator or online training cannot give them that answer like a knowledgeable instructor can in a classroom. But over all great idea and article. SME Jim Osorio, training officers since 2005.

  28. Thanks For sharing this information. It’s Nice..!!!

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