APRIL 29, 2021 UPDATE: Good news — the Vacaville police officer who beat his K-9 partner will no longer be a police dog handler, according to interim Police Chief Ian Schmutzler. Not-so-good news — Schmutzler refused to comment on whether the officer faced any discipline or animal cruelty charges.
In a brief but very disturbing cell-phone video that’s gone viral, a Vacaville, Calif., police officer straddles his K-9 partner, punching the dog’s face. Hard.
The video was taken last week by Roberto Palomino, who’d been getting some tools from his warehouse when the incident occurred. “I can still hear the dog crying,” Palomino told CBS13. “There was an officer beating a dog really bad. It was closed-fist punching in the face to a dog. He punched the dog several times before I was able to get it on camera.” He was afraid to approach the officer, but he did the right thing and posted the video on social media.
Almost as disturbing as the video was Vacaville Police Captain Matt Lydon’s response to it. He told the San Francisco Chronicle the officer was holding the dog in a “standard” position of dominance because during a training exercise, the year-old Belgian Malinois had lunged at the officer and tried to bite him.
“In that situation, that’s a position of dominance where the dog is put on its back, and the canine handler takes that position, and that’s a submission position to let the dog know that the handler is in charge,” Lydon said. “I know there is a hand strike in question from the handler to the dog. There are certain scenarios where that may be appropriate, but we’re looking into this specific scenario.”
In a Dec. 29 Facebook post, the Vacaville Police Department (VPD) also defended the police officer, insisting the 25-second video “didn’t show the moments before, when the canine became aggressive toward its handler.”
In what specific scenarios would striking a dog ever be appropriate? Most dog trainers and animal behavior experts strongly advise against hitting a dog during training. Instead, using positive reinforcement such as praising the dog or giving them a treat when they do something right is much more effective and humane than negative reinforcement, which is punishing a dog when they do something wrong, as the Vacaville officer was doing. According to Lydon, the officer had in fact rewarded the dog with a toy after the dog successfully sniffed out narcotics. But when he took the toy away, the dog allegedly became aggressive.
“Physically threatening or harming an animal is never acceptable, regardless of the animal’s behavior,” wrote veterinary behaviorist Jeannine Berger, DVM, in a blog on the San Francisco SPCA’s website. “Dominance training damages the relationship with our dogs and causes more problems than it solves — being aggressive toward your dog will often cause your dog to become more fearful, anxious and potentially aggressive.”
Dominance training may get thumbs-up from the VPD, but it’s opposed by major organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
Fortunately, perhaps because of the outrage on social media over the incident, the dog has been removed from the handler’s “care” and is currently staying with a third-party trainer while this case is being investigated. According to the VPD’s Facebook post, a veterinarian examined the dog and found no signs of injury or distress.
When the investigation is complete, “the City of Vacaville will take appropriate action – including any necessary discipline and/or training, as well as any needed changes to policies and procedures to ensure the police department’s canine program is in line with industry best practices,” the city wrote on its Facebook page Dec. 30.
Many thanks to Palomino, who likely saved this poor dog from further abuse by taking the video and posting it on social media. He deserves a reward, while the officer deserves to be charged with animal cruelty and never allowed to have another K-9 partner. Hopefully the City of Vacaville will keep its promise and have its police department undergo training in how to humanely train animals.
Here’s the very disturbing video, if you can stand watching it.
Photo: Roberto Palomino/Facebook