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Officer Safety Corner: Dogs and the Police Response: A Guide for Safe, Successful, and Humane Encounters

By Gary P. Maddox, PhD, Director, Cruelty Investigators Academy, Code 3 Associates Animal Disaster Response & Animal Welfare Training, Inc. — Colorado State University, Longmont, Colorado

American humorist, author, and outdoorsman, Corey Ford, was once quoted as saying, “Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.” These words seem almost prophetic within the law enforcement community in light of the ever-increasing number of reports involving officer responses and reactions to the presence of dogs during otherwise human-specific related incidents such as traffic stops; responding to calls for service in residential and commercial settings; or, simply, while the officer is on routine tour out in the public. In a recent article by Bathurst, et al., for the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing, the authors observe the following:

Americans love dogs. There is roughly one dog for every four people in the United States, and they live in a variety of relationships with humans. Because dogs are so much a part of American society, police routinely deal with them in the line of duty, and not just when responding to calls about inhumane treatment or animal abuse, or when dogs are seen to present a danger to people. In fact, officers encounter dogs in the course of almost every kind of police interaction with the public, from making traffic stops and serving warrants to interviewing suspects and witnesses, and even pursuing suspects.1

There are approximately 77.5 million dogs owned in the United States, and dogs are likely to be encountered in 39 percent of residential locations. Bathurst points out that there is very little training available to law enforcement on the subjects of canine aggression and communication, assessing potentially aggressive dogs and/or how to diffuse dangerous or potentially dangerous situations involving dogs.2 What follows is a “short course” on such issues.

Aggression in dogs can take many forms; however, in general, aggressive behavior for dogs falls into four main categories.

Fear aggression This is the most common sort of aggressive dog behavior and often occurs when the dog feels it cannot get away from a situation. This dog will, typically, not attack but will bark and growl, a lot. If cornered, the dog may nip quickly and run or may nip when the officer’s back is turned.

Dominance aggression Most dog owners have at least one dominant dog in the house, on the property or in the vehicle. This dog has some level of anxiety about being threatened and, as such, can be dangerous to the officer. It is rare that an officer will encounter this sort of dog behavior unless the dog has been trained to guard or attack. These attacks will most commonly be to the front of the officer’s body, usually involving biting of the stomach, legs, or neck. The dog will give the officer clear signals of a pending attack and, as such, will provide the attentive officer plenty of time to move away or to otherwise avoid an attack.

Prey drive aggression This dog is motivated by hunting behaviors and is stimulated by the same instincts that would cause it to chase and capture a bird, rabbit, squirrel, or other such animal for food. This sort of aggression usually occurs when the officer, or more commonly a child, is moving quickly or suddenly.

Territorial aggression Actually more of a subcategory of the above three, this sort of aggression may stem from fear, dominance, or the natural instinct to chase and capture potential prey and will most often occur when the officer enters the dog’s territory.

An awareness of, and proper response to, both a dog’s body language as well as its vocal communication can go a long way toward reducing the dog’s stress, increasing the officer’s safety, and helping the officer to more accurately prepare for and predict when an attack may be or is imminent. As in human behavior, the officer must look for, and listen carefully, to what the dog is “saying.” A significant body of research and findings by the American Humane Association provides some solid information and sound directives for officers in regard to canine communication and officer response.3

  • Ear Posture
    • Ears forward, up, and unwavering – Indicates the dog is dominant or focused on prey.
    • Ears back – The dog is frightened or is saying, “No fight.”
    • Ears flicking forward then back – Indicates confusion or concern and that the dog is trying to understand the situation.
  • Eye Behaviors
    • Squinting – This dog may face the officer, drop its head, and quickly and repeatedly blink. The dog may appear to be tired, but, this is an indicator of submission.
    • Soft eyes – When filling the almond shape of the eye aperture and with no whites showing, the dog has a “soft eye.” If the body of the dog is also relaxed, the dog will likely be calm and confident.
  • Mouth Behaviors
    • Yawning – A dog will yawn—not necessarily because it is tired but because it feels cornered, anxious, afraid or otherwise uncomfortable or because it is trying to make a decision.
    • Lip licking – This is anxiety-related behavior and, usually, indicates the dog is unsure, anxious and/or uncomfortable.
    • Closed mouth and lips pushed forward – This is often a sign of anxiety or discomfort, as well as a good bite warning for the attentive officer. If accompanied by a body freeze posture on the part of the dog, a bite may be imminent.
  • Tail Position
    • Level with spine – This indicates the dog is calm and relaxed.
    • Tucked and down between legs – This dog is afraid.
    • Perpendicular to spine – This dog is confident and likely to be more dominant than submissive.
    • Flagging tail – When the dog’s tail is high and stiff, with only the tip quickly wagging, the dog is being assertive and dominant.
  • Body Posture
    • Stiff and low to the ground – This dog is very fearful.
    • Stiff and tall with head, neck, and tail held high – This dog is dominant.
    • Facing the officer and squared off with a stiff body – This is a dominant posture and can indicate that the dog is confrontational, but does not necessarily mean the dog is going to bite.
    • Squares off and then turns away, averting its eyes – This dog is avoiding confrontation and is saying, “No fight.”’ A dominant dog makes this gesture when it is confident that it does not need to be aggressive.
    • Hackles – This is the hair between the shoulder blades and the rear of the dog. If the hair in this area stands up, the dog my become aggressive as it is aroused or excited or is interested.
  • Vocal Communication
    • Whining – The dog will do this when it wants something badly or is uncomfortable.
    • Yipping – This is a high-pitched sound and is often made by dogs in prey drive aggressive mode when they want to get at something.
    • Growling with either the mouth closed or with teeth showing – A fearful dog is more likely to growl. A dominant dog is usually quieter than most submissive dogs. When the officer hears the dog growl, it is important to read other body signals to determine the reason for the growl.
    • Barking – This is typically a gesture used to alert, warn, or attract attention. The officer should watch the rest of the dog’s body language in order to assess the dog’s intent.

Crisis Situations

In a crisis situation there may be little or no time to analyze, assess, and determine a proper response to all of these indicators. Nevertheless, the officer must still make a very quick determination as to whether the dog is aggressive and/or a threat to the officer’s or to others’ safety, or whether the dog itself is safe to approach. To do this, it is recommended that the officer take a few moments to size-up the dog’s overall presence. If the dog appears to be “loose and wiggly,” then it is probably not aggressive at the time and should be relatively safe to approach. If, on the other hand, the dog is “stiff,” it may well be aggressive and dangerous for the officer to step toward it. In the basic training of today’s law enforcement officers, such tactical communications skills as “squared and forward shoulders,” “body positioning,” and “direct eye contact,” are fundamental; however, what these behaviors communicate to human subjects is not, as a rule, the same for dogs. Some examples follow:

  • Trained Officer Behavior – The officer approaches and stands squared-off before the subject.
    • Dog’s interpretation – When one dog (or a human) does this to another dog, it is to let the other dog know that it is dominant and that aggression is possible.
  • Trained Officer Behavior – An officer will, typically, look directly into or at a subject’s eyes in order to assess several things – fear level, aggressive tendencies, drug or alcohol issues, and so forth.
    • Dog’s interpretation – When a dog is stared at, particularly in its eyes, it senses aggression, whether the stare is from another animal or from a human.
  • Trained Officer Behavior – An officer assumes a command presence when approaching or addressing a subject—firm body posture and proper voice tone, pitch, volume, and rate and eye contact—all in order to encourage a subject’s voluntary cooperation or compliance.
    • Dog’s interpretation – An aggressive dog that senses another animal, or a human, has taken a command presence may assume that an attack is probable and might respond by attacking first.

Diffusing the Threat

Some quick, effective, and easy to follow guidelines or suggestions for the officer in assessing and, it is hoped, diffusing potentially dangerous dog encounters include the following.4

Bark, stop, drop, and roll In more than 90 percent of encounters involving dogs, officers can diffuse any actual or potential safety threat by employing this technique because, simply put, it speaks to the dog in its own language, alleviating the dog’s fear and anxiety and by communicating clearly to the dog that the officer presents “No fight.”

Bark – Officer determines a dog is present by either hearing or seeing it.

Stop – Officer assesses the dog’s intentions—loose and wiggly or stiff?

Drop – Officer drops his or her eyes and uses peripheral vision so as not to stare at the dog. The officer should also be aware that a hat or cap will make it difficult or impossible for the dog to see the officer’s eyes.

Roll – Officer rolls his or her shoulder in a smooth and slow motion and moves to a standing position that is sideways to the dog. This signals to the dog that no aggression is intended.

Determine appropriate level of response For dog encounters where bark, stop, drop and roll are not effective or possible, do the following:

  1. In a deep, low, and loud voice yell “Stop” at the dog.
  2. If the dog is within the 20- to 30-foot range and moving quickly toward the officer, pepper spray or a PepperBall projectile, when properly deployed, may temporarily stop or hinder the dog’s approach.
  3. If the dog is within arm’s reach and is still aggressive, a baton or nightstick application is appropriate by sticking the weapon, sideways, into the dog’s mouth and letting the dog clamp down as the officer releases the stick and creates a distance or barrier between himself or herself and the dog. The officer should not use the baton or nightstick to strike at or to hit the dog.

Securing a dog in a vehicle When encountering a dog in a vehicle during a traffic stop do the following:

  • If asking the subject(s) to exit the vehicle, first ask subject(s) to raise the windows half or three-quarters way and to shut the car doors upon exiting.
  • If allowing the subject(s) to remain in the vehicle, ask the subject(s) to restrain the dog by leashing it and holding on to the leash.
  • Ask the subject(s) to tether the dog by running the seatbelt through the handle of the dog’s leash and then snapping the seatbelt into place.
  • If no leash is available, ask the subject(s) to run the seatbelt through the dog’s collar and snap it into place.
  • If the dog is unrestrained in a truck bed, use the loud speaker to ask the driver and occupants to secure the dog in the truck bed or to place it into the cab and raise the windows three-quarters up.

Create a barrier When approaching a home or other building that may contain a dog the officer should do the following:

  • Listen for a bark or other dog sound.
  • Attempt to contain the dog by closing or keeping closed a gate or by asking the owner/guardian to secure the dog on a leash or behind a closed door.
  • If the situation allows or warrants it, call for local animal control responders.

Given the growing amount of media attention, the increasingly obvious public interest in animal welfare issues, and because it is the right thing to do, this subject calls for significant attention and training. Many animal control agencies, humane societies, local veterinarians, professional animal handlers and trainers, K-9 units, breed-specific placement groups, as well as a few organizations such as the American Humane Association have the requisite skills, knowledge, and ability and, for the most part, stand ready to assist law enforcement by offering training, education, and advice on the expected modern day standards of habit and practice for the safe and proper response to dog-involved police calls and incidents. ♦

1Cynthia Bathurst et al., The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Community Oriented Policing Services, August, 2012).
3Emily Weiss et al., Bark…Stop, Drop & Roll (Englewood, Colo.: American Humane Association, 2003).

Gary P. Maddox, PhD, is a life member of the IACP and has been an active member since 1985. He has served on the IACP’s Education and Training Committee since 1993. A former police officer, bomb technician, professor, state deputy director of public safety, and police academy director, Maddox is currently Director of the Cruelty Investigators Academy for Code 3 Associates, Inc., and Colorado State University. He can be contacted at

If you are interested in writing for Officer Safety Corner, please visit or email for more information.

Please cite as:

Gary P. Maddox, "Dogs and the Police Response: A Guide for Safe, Successful, and Humane Encounters," Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 80 (August 2013): 10–12.

Code 3 Associates Animal Disaster Response & Animal Welfare Training, Inc., a highly experienced, successful, professional, and well-staffed, long-term national provider of specific, pertinent, and timely animal welfare training and education programs and offerings such as Animal Issues for Law Enforcement and the Cruelty Investigators Academy is available to come to any given city, county, state, region, or individual department. The organization can and will provide custom-tailored training and education programs to fit or to satisfy any budgetary, time frame or personnel availability issues or problems. Code 3 Associates can be accessed or contacted at;; or by calling 303-772-7724.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 8, August 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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