When thinking about threats on the street and the assortment of weapons they might face in the field, most officers think first of a gun, or a knife, and then of one of the other instruments, such as rocks, bottles, lead pipes and other items. Occasionally, during your crisis rehearsal exercises, a mental picture of those items or other improvised weapons might enter your mind. If you’re like most street-wise officers, I’m sure you’ve probably planned your responses accordingly. But have you thought about being attacked by a dog?
Just the idea of “dogs as threats” is likely to raise the ire of numerous doggy groups. During my Street Survival Seminar days, we presented a block of instruction on how to survive canine threats. While the content focused on all breeds, the pit bull got the most screen time simply because there was so much film of that specific breed available. And every month or two, depending on where the seminar was held, one or two letters would come into the offices from the local Pit Bull Lover’s Club chastising the presenters for even suggesting deadly force as an appropriate defense against an attacking dog.
So, at the risk of offending a few pit bull or Rottweiler owners out there who just happen to be readers of Law Officer, here I go again. Please keep in mind: I’m not advocating shooting every four-legged Tom (Fido), Dick (Rover) or Harry (Hairy) you might encounter during your day-to-day street duties. However, this article will focus on two very important aspects of canine threats. And my intent is that this material will also serve as the genesis for some possible roll-call or range training in this area.
Issue 1: Are you as a police officer legally covered if you have to use deadly force to protect yourself or your partner against an attacking dog? And Issue 2: How do you do the dirty deed quickly and efficiently if that does become your decision?
Let’s address Issue 1 first. Is deadly force an appropriate defense against Murray the Malinois if one day he decides that you, Officer Usually Friendly, aren’t coming onto his property today to serve that nasty old search warrant on his dope dealing owner? Yes, it can be. Who says? Well, besides your humble author, the courts.
Case law dating back almost two decades authorizes the use of deadly force by an officer against an attacking dog. One of the earliest cases is from Kansas (and it doesn’t involve Dorothy and her dog Toto). In State v. Bowers 721 P.2d 268 (1989), a local court held that a dog used to attack a police officer does, in fact, constitute deadly force.
There are a lot of other cases out there, too, and you should check with your legal beagles (pardon the pun) county DA or state prosecutor for applicable case law in your state. But my legal sources tell me very few courts around the country would hold that an officer has to be bitten before they could dispatch (i.e., shoot) an attacking dog. The reasonable perception of the threat is enough.
Next, as with any officer survival issue, you have to expect the unexpected and have a plan of action in place before the threat presents itself. Remember if/then thinking (what some trainers have started to call when/then thinking)? The same applies to canine threats. What you see, hear or smell could telegraph a potential canine attack. Piles of dog excrement, spots of yellow or dead grass in that fenced-in yard, a visible dog run, worn paths along a chain link fence, water/food dishes or rawhide bones may not be as obvious as a large red “Beware of Dog” sign, but they can be cues that a unfriendly pooch is around. Thus, awareness is your first line of defense.
What about OC Spray?
If you have time, OC spray might be an option. But just like with human attackers, there are some caveats. Studies have shown that goal-oriented people usually finish their task before succumbing to OC’s effects. Most less-lethal force trainers, when conducting OC user and/or instructor classes, require a taste test on cops. In other words, they have the student/officers perform an assortment of tasks secure their weapon, radio out their location, etc. before they allow them to decontaminate.
Tests on police service dogs have shown the same thing. When given a task, like taking down a suspect, a well-trained police service dog will not allow itself to react to OC’s effects until it has finished its job. Even a marginally trained attack dog used for fence-line or perimeter protection at The Sphincter Brothers’ Pharmaceutical Company will probably fight through your OC spray to get at you.
Also, keep in mind that unless your agency has an administrative requirement, no law mandates you use a lower level of force before you resort to deadly force against a deadly threat. In other words, you don’t have to attempt OC on an attacking dog before resorting to your firearm.
Delivering Deadly Force
Okay, so you and Rodney the Rotty have met face-to-face, and you’ve decided to shoot. Where do you shoot to stop the threat fast?
Just as in edged weapon defense, first you have to mentally prepare yourself that you’re probably going to get bitten if you’re surprised by a sudden canine attack. But just as being shot doesn’t mean the fight’s over for you, being bitten doesn’t mean you’re out of the dogfight either.
Most physical countermeasures suggest using your reactionary hand to deliver a distraction punch during empty-hand encounters with humans. That limb (your off hand) might also be the least critical area you want to offer the attacking animal. Most vicious dogs bent on attack will usually go for the first available limb. Better it be your off hand than your neck or gun hand.
Once he’s locked on, if you’ve mentally prepared yourself and haven’t panicked, your next concern is where to shoot. Contrary to conventional thinking, it’s going to be the chest area, not the head. There are three reasons for this. First, if Fang’s got a good grip on your hand or wrist, you might hit your own arm when you take that head shot. Second, the dog’s head is probably going to be moving fast back and forth. That’s just canine instinct. Finally, the head is also protected by a lot of thick bone.
So think human being, and think center of mass. A lower point of aim (to clear your hand or arm) to the chest area will probably be your best bet. And don’t forget double-taps or even triple-taps if you think you’re dealing with Rin-Tin-Tin’s illegitimate grandson.
However, if Fang has let go of your hand and his mouth is still open, fire right into the mouth. Your best chance of penetration into the brain is via that route.
Lastly, because we’re talking about firearms and dogs, let’s get down to realistic ballistics. Pit bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans and other guard dogs are probably going to come up on the short end of the stick when meeting the business end of your .40 S&W or .45 ACP, if you’ve placed your shots correctly.
However, if Dicky the Dope Dealer has decided to invest several thousand dollars of his hard-earned profits in a 130+ lb. Presa Canario (a Canary Island dog), you’d better be thinking 12 gauge double-aught buck. Purebred Presas are rare; they’re usually cross-bred with English Mastiffs. They’re the up-and-coming guard dog for meth labs and crack houses, though, and the newest fashion accessory for street punks. Presa breeders have reported that demand for these dogs originally bred to guard farms and cattle, but eventually used by the Canary Islanders for the so-called sport of dog fighting have tripled and even quadrupled. These massive animals have thick skin,very dense bones and, like pit bulls and Rottweilers, very powerful jaws. With heads the size of small refrigerators, they may not even react to 230 grains of lead. But a well-placed ounce of rifled slug may get their attention.
If you’re looking for some great firearms training drills for defense against attacking dogs, pick up a copy ofCombat Gunfighting(www.combatgunfighting.com) by New York-based firearms trainer Mike Rayburn. His chapter “When Dogs Attack: Winning the K-9 Assault” is chock full of courses of fire for this type of threat. You might think about incorporating some of them into your next range/firearms in-service.
Remember: All dogs can be abused and trained to be vicious. This article is not an indictment of any particular breed. However, keep in mind that criminals are always looking for the edge in furthering their illegal enterprises, and some breeds more than others give them that edge. Your job, as a police officer, is to arrest the offenders. In furtherance of your goal, you may have to stop the threat–even a canine threat.
That’s it for now. Stay safe.
Dave Grossi is a retired Lieutenant from New York. Dave has served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics investigator, detective, sergeant, and lieutenant. Dave is an expert in nearly every force discipline and has testified as an expert witness in use of force cases in the United States and abroad.