KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When police execute warrants, they're often greeted in high-risk situations by angry or unruly dogs that want to protect their owners and homes. Acting in self-defense, officers are sometimes forced to shoot those aggressive dogs to get their job done.
But now the Kansas City Police Department has launched a new approach designed to lower tensions and save more canine lives.
“If there were ways that we could save dogs, prevent them from being killed and keep that relationship we have with the homeowner, we want it to do it,” said Billy VonWolf, a tactical enforcement officer serving on the Street Crimes Unit for the past eight years.
With body armor on and guns drawn, KCPD’s tactical teams serve about 250 high-risk search warrants a year, looking for violent felons but often encountering their furry friends.
“They’re protecting their property, they’re protecting their homeowner, they`re protecting everything they have in that house,” said VonWolf. “We`re coming into their world.”
VonWolf said they often encounter dogs that feel scared or threatened and choose to lash out against officers.
“All of us have been bit by dogs in search warrants,” he explained.
Unfortunately, that kind of aggressive behavior can sometimes lead to a dog getting shot and killed.
“We realized and we would see on these search warrant scenes that people were more upset about us shooting their animals than they were about the actual raid itself,” said Capt. Charles Huth with KCPD.
“We’re not robots,” VonWolf said. “We’re dog owners. We understand that when we go into somebody’s house, sometimes [the dogs are like] kids to those people and family members.”
So Capt. Huth and Officer VonWolf set out to make a change and joined forces with a dog behavioral expert based in Lawrence, Kan., named Anthony Barnett.
“We had a unique approach, I think,” Barnett said. “It was real important to me to learn what the officers faced and to apply my knowledge from their perspective.”
Barnett gained that perspective by embedding himself with the TAC team for several years so he could observe officer interactions with dogs. He then educated them on canine behavior and advised them on how to approach dogs in a non-threatening way.
“We talked a lot about threat display and body language,” Barnett said. “You know, understanding when a dog`s committed to a bite versus just trying to create distance because it`s scared. [We discussed] what motivates aggressive behavior in dogs, which most of the time is fear. Then we even discussed different ways to discourage the dogs when they get in that state.”
Officers then combined that new understanding of canine behavior with using updated semi-automatic tasers rather than guns when a dog was acting aggressively.
“It’s essentially 50,000 volts,” VonWolf explained of the taser technology. “It’s the equivalent, it affects a dog the same way as a human.”
He said if an officer does deploy a taser on a dog, Animal Control is always called out to evaluate the animal and make sure it’s doing okay.
Statistics show the program is making a difference: Before it's implementation, tactical officers shot and killed 48 dogs over a four-year-period, compared with just nine dogs killed over the next four years after officers received training.
“Even though they might be charged with a crime,” Capt. Huth said, “or suspected of a crime, we still wanted to keep in mind they have families, they have pets, they have things they care about.”
KCPD will soon honor all three men with awards for their efforts to spare canine lives. Capt. Huth and Officer VonWolf are set to receive the Meritorious Service Award and Barnett will be presented with a Certificate of Appreciation.
The police department also has future plans to develop a canine behavior curriculum that will eventually be rolled out to all its officers, not just TAC teams, taught in a class at the police academy.