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Austin police get hands-on training to reduce dog shootings

Restrained by a leash, the large German shepherd barked loudly and showed her teeth as the police officer approached.

Many dog shootings by police officers occur when a dog is running toward an unfamiliar officer, canine instructor Jim Osorio explained to the class, so it’s important to know the difference between one that is attacking (tail straight up, ears pointed forward) and one that is coming to investigate or play (tail wagging and ears up).

About 30 Austin police officers gathered for a training session Tuesday with Osorio, who teaches law enforcement professionals how to deal with aggressive dogs using nonlethal force. His highly trained search and rescue dog, Coral, demonstrates different behaviors so officers can learn to read dog body language.

A year ago, the dog training for Austin police officers consisted of a video training course that lasted about an hour.

But in the wake of several high-profile dog shootings, the Austin Police Department decided this spring to put all of its sworn officers through Osorio’s four-hour, hands-on class. Leander opted for the eight-hour course last fall, and Round Rock adopted the same eight-hour course in June after two dog shootings this year, one of which has resulted in a lawsuit against the department. Officers from Sunset Valley and Liberty Hill have piggybacked onto some of the training sessions, and Cedar Park is considering implementing the training after an officer shot a charging pit bull in July.

All of these departments have chosen the training voluntarily. Activists, many of whom have lost dogs to police shootings, plan to push a bill in the next legislative session to require such training statewide.

“It has opened their eyes,” Leander Police Chief Greg Minton said of his officers who have gone through the training. He mandated it after one of his officers shot and wounded Vinny, a German shepherd therapy dog, in June 2013 while trying to serve a warrant at the wrong address.

“I would like people to understand that we don’t have a thorough understanding of dogs,” Minton continued. “We’re trained to deal with violent and aggressive people.”

Thanks to a grant, it cost the Leander Police Department $1,000 to train all 38 of its officers. The Austin Police Department will spend $12,000 training all of its 1,700 officers, and it expects to be done by the end of this month.

“As a dog behaviorist, I feel the program is very beneficial,” said Renata Simmons, Vinny’s owner, who has lobbied for such training. “It’s about building community respect and trust.”

Activists with the Texas Humane Legislation Network plan to push a bill next year to require six hours of training, similar to the class Osorio teaches, for all new police officers, sheriff’s deputies and constables. Already licensed officers, deputies and constables also would be required to take the course when they seek new levels of certification.

“I think one of the most encouraging pieces of news is that agencies who haven’t experienced a dog shooting are now signing up for the training,” said Cindy Boling, an animal activist whose border collie, Lily, was shot by a Fort Worth police officer two years ago. After persuading Fort Worth police to use Osorio’s course, she started lobbying other law enforcement agencies to do the same. “They are aware of what is happening and the public outcry.”

Minton said he would like to see the classes taught at police academies so that officers have the knowledge of how to deal with dogs before they ever hit the streets. The Fort Worth Police Department incorporates the training into its police academy.

Osorio called an officer forward Tuesday morning and taught him how to use a 4-foot control pole, like the ones animal control uses, on Coral, who stood dutifully still while the cable tightened around her neck.

Osorio stressed nonlethal force against aggressive dogs, such as using a baton, pepper spray or a Taser.

“There are dogs at one-third of all homes,” said Osorio, who has trained about 2,100 officers in Texas. “First responders need to know how to react, how to read body language and how to protect themselves. It would be like sending a firefighter out that didn’t know CPR or a police officer who didn’t know how to do a traffic stop.”

Osorio even teaches unarmed combat against dogs, what he calls hand-to-paw combat. Go for the eyes, ears, nose and toes because they are sensitive areas that can cause an attacking dog to back off, he said.

But most dog encounters can be defused quite easily, Osorio said. Then he held up two things he described as the most important tools that every police officer should be carrying: a squeaky toy and dog treats.

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