Police Search and Rescue Dogs: The Animal Rights Debate

K-9 Safety Tops Animal Rights Activists' Concerns

A police dog awaiting orders

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Every day, domestic pets and livestock face a litany of horrible abuses that range from neglect to violence to torture. Since police dogs are generally well trained, fed, and housed, they are not often the focus of the animal rights debate. When discussions regarding police dogs do come up, the concerns aren't usually over whether or not the dogs should be used for police work, but rather with a view toward their safety in dangerous situations, their longterm health, and eventual retirement.

Arguments in Support of Police Dogs

While law enforcement has experimented with other animals (such as vultures or wasps) for tracking, search and rescue, and cadaver searching, none have been found to be as versatile and effective as dogs. Here are some of the reasons dogs are often regarded as law enforcement's best friends:

  • Search and rescue dogs can save human lives by locating victims of crime and natural disasters quickly.
  • Dogs help capture criminals. When criminals flee on foot, tracking them with a police dog may be the most effective way of finding them. Typically, dogs are faster on their feet than humans and can chase and hold a suspect until police officers arrive.
  • Cadaver dogs, those trained to find human remains, can locate bodies of crime victims as well as persons who perish due to natural causes. Finding a body leads to crimes being solved, missing person cases being closed, and offers closure to families of victims searching for a lost loved one.
  • Dogs trained to sniff out bombs, drugs, or other dangerous substances can help prevent crimes before they occur.
  • Dogs can be sent into situations that are too dangerous for humans or tight spaces that people can't fit into.
  • Police dogs are trained using mostly—if not exclusively—positive reinforcement. Abusive training methods are rarely an issue.
  • Dogs often live with their human handlers—even after retirement—and tend to be treated very well.

The Arguments Against Using Police Dogs

Some animal rights activists take an extreme view that using any animal for a work-related purpose violates that animal's basic right to be free. While police dogs are generally treated as valuable members of their teams, their work is not without danger and sadly, not without the potential for abuse. Here are some animal rights activists' major concerns regarding police dogs:

  • Brutal methods are not unheard of in K-9 training. In November 2009, a video of a training session by the Baltimore Police Department surfaced, showing a dog being repeatedly picked up by the collar and slammed onto the ground. An off-screen trainer can be heard giving instructions to the officer handling the dog. This is the exception, not the rule.
  • Some dogs are bred specifically to be trained as police dogs, however, not every puppy bred has the temperament or skills for police work. Dogs that don't make the cut often find themselves in shelters, thus contributing to the pet overpopulation problem. Another concern with selective breeding is inbreeding, which can result in inherited health conditions such as hip dysplasia (especially common in German Shephards).
  • Dogs can be killed or injured in the line of duty, but unlike their human counterparts, they never knowingly consent to the risks. Activists argue that if a situation is too dangerous for a human police officer, it is too dangerous for a dog but sometimes dogs pay the ultimate sacrifice.
  • Criminals are more likely to kill or injure a police dog than a police officer attempting to do the same job. Penalties for killing or injuring a police dog are much lower than those for killing or injuring a person.
  • Dogs who fail out of training or age out of programs can be left with potentially violent tendencies and may have to be put down.
  • Search and rescue dogs that come in longterm contact with dangerous environmental conditions can develop cancer, respiratory problems, and other health ailments that can lead to suffering and early death.