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Law enforcement and pets: Can officer training prevent dog shootings?

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April 14th, 2012 began as any day might for Michael Paxton of Austin, Texas, but ended in tragedy when his beloved Australian cattle dog, Cisco, was gunned down by a police officer who went to the wrong address while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Mr. Paxton, distraught and grieving the loss of his family pet, took almost immediately to social media to bring attention to the matter, and the results were astonishing. Paxton's grief was heard around the world, and has had far reaching, long lasting effects on animals lovers everywhere.

In truth, Cisco was not the first, nor the last, canine to be killed by law enforcement agencies around the United States, and this begs the question, 'What is it that makes a police officer pull the trigger on a dog?' The question itself has a plethora of answers, but only inspires the vox populi to have additional questions. The most common response to outrage when an incident such as this occurs is 'self defense'. Certainly, there are situations when a police officer has no choice but to draw his firearm when confronted with a foe or foes with fangs bared and the signature raised hackles of a dog in aggression mode, but is that really what's happening here? Responses are wildly varied, and the jury is still out.

A growing concern for the safety of our companion animals has spurred the creation of websites, such as the one that tracks canine shootings by police officers in every state, and encourages others who have personally experienced this to share their story for a documentary being created on the phenomenon.

In Houston, Texas alone, there have been an estimated 228 officer involved shootings of companion dogs since 2010. Of those 228 dogs, 142 of them have died. Justifiable? The Houston Police Department believes so. In their estimation, any officer who draws their weapon and fires on a dog is doing so, not only for personal safety, but the safety of civilians. But is this the best way? Many argue that it is not.

In April 2012, weeks after Cisco's death and the creation of Justice For Cisco, many enraged animal lovers flooded the Austin Police Department with 'hate mail', perhaps giving the illusion that all angry pet owners were irrational and out for blood. But in the midst of the insanity, many wrote to Austin's chief of police only to suggest that police officers be properly trained on how to deal with a potential confrontation with a dog. Michael Paxton himself does not condone berating or belittle our police officers, but to be involved in legislature that can lead to better trained, more confident officers, and therefore far less dog shootings. This is evidenced by Michael's plea to his followers on the page he created for Cisco.

Is it possible that the gap can be bridged, and that police officers might be less inclined to 'shoot first and ask questions later' when it comes to the pets who's only crime is protecting their owners or yards? Many believe so, and there's proof in the numbers. Police departments in Arlington, Texas and Fort Worth, Texas started animal training for their police officers last year, and have begun seeing lower shooting rates in their more confident officers. This speaks volumes, as the amount of dogs shot in Texas in the last three years is exponentially higher than places like New York City.

Legislation, carried along by the swift tide of animal advocate groups and masses of animal lovers, is forming on the horizon. Some states have already ruled that family pets will now carry sentimental value, much the way material possessions do, and the hope is that this will stem the flow of officer involved shootings of companion animals.

Whether you believe that officers shooting animals is entirely justified, or you are a staunch supporter for pages like Justice for Cisco, there's no doubt that there's a need for change and growth in the way our civil servants handle animal confrontation. This is, arguably, for the safety of not only the pets, but the officers themselves.

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