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Growing number of Facebook groups protest dog shootings by police

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Robby King's dog, Luke, was shot by a police officer who claimed the dog threatened him. (Source: Robby King) Robby King's dog, Luke, was shot by a police officer who claimed the dog threatened him. (Source: Robby King)
People bringing awareness to dog shootings have used Facebook as a way to publicize their cause. (Source: Cops Shooting Dogs/Facebook) People bringing awareness to dog shootings have used Facebook as a way to publicize their cause. (Source: Cops Shooting Dogs/Facebook)

(RNN) - In response to an alleged increase of dog shootings by police officers, several people, including owners of murdered pets, are using Facebook as a tool to increase awareness of the problem and seek change to police policies toward dogs.

When Robby King's 6-year-old chocolate lab, Luke, was killed by a police officer responding to a call in September, he was devastated.

"It just crushed me," the Smyrna, GA native said.

After he accidentally triggered his house alarm, King had to wait for police officers to arrive to let them know that there was not a break-in. But Officer G.M. Roach of the Cobb County Police Department went through the back of the house while King was waiting in the front, and they didn't see each other until it was too late.

"A dog began to bark and came at Officer Roach. Officer Roach shot the dog," said a police report.

"The officer never yelled for my dog to stop," said King. "He didn't shoot at the ground. He didn't shoot in the air. He didn't take out his baton … he just took out his weapon, pointed it at my dog, and killed him."

He added: "I just think it's ridiculous … you've never heard of a chocolate lab causing an officer's demise."

King's story gained more local attention in part because an investigator allegedly misquoted a neighbor to make it appear that the dog was aggressive.

King's sister and neighbor Cheryl Truelove told an investigator that the dog had bitten her and pointed to her calf to show the bite mark.

But when asked about her remark, Truelove said she was misunderstood.

"I told the detective that three weeks ago I was dog bit by a Chihuahua," Truelove told the Marietta Daily Journal. "The reason I said that was because I was trying to point out to them that this little dog bit me and Luke never even bit nobody, and I didn't take out a gun and shoot this dog."

King's story highlights several problems with dog shooting incidents: grief for pet owners, potential time and money loss, as well as bad publicity for police departments that have to deal with dog shootings - sometimes in court, and animosity between police and the public it is supposed to serve.

High number of shootings sparking outrage

Videos of dog shootings are all over the internet and it seems like there's a new one every week. Unfortunately, the number of videos online is not a misrepresentation of the high number of dog shootings.

It's impossible to determine the exact number of dog shootings by police officers because records aren't kept by every police department in the country. However, in Milwaukee - the 28th largest city in the country - a recent lawsuit claimed that more than 400 dogs were shot to death by police officers over a nine-year period between 1999 and 2008, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

If those numbers are similar for cities around the U.S., a low estimate for the annual number of dogs killed per year by police in the 30 largest cities alone is 1,100.

In addition, a dog training manual for police published by the Department of Justice showed that most police shooting incidents involve dogs. In Los Angeles, at least one-half of all "intentional discharges of a forearm by an officer from 2000-2005 involved an animal," the study said.

"I was completely unaware that this was going on myself until it happened to me," King said. But once he set up a Facebook page called "Justice for Luke," he joined a growing number of people who are using the social networking site to get the word out about dog shootings.

According to the website Cops Shooting Dogs, there are 88 Facebook pages that aim to bring awareness to a particular dog shooting incident.

Many of the pages start out as an outlet for the angry and grieving owner whose dog was killed, but progress into a sort of a virtual meeting place and newsletter for people interested in everything from other dog shootings to charity fundraisers and stories about police saving dogs.

Although the groups are not officially united, there is a loose network consisting of several of the Facebook page creators, according to Denise Lachance, the creator of the Facebook page "Dogs Shot by Police."

Lachance says that the goal is not to demonize police, but to encourage police departments to require that officers have dog training.

"It's primarily a matter of local law," Lachance said, pointing out that getting a single mandate passed in every police department will be a difficult process.

"But you can also get attention to something by making it more visible."

Increase in training could lead to reduction in dog shootings

Donald Cleary, director of Communications and Publications for the National Canine Research Council and one of the authors of the dog training manual for police published by the Department of Justice, says that dog training is crucial.

According to the DOJ manual, lack of training is the primary reason why so many dogs are killed by police.

The manual states that officers often overreact when encountering a dog because of its breed, rather than its behavior. For example, a pit bull will cause a different reaction upon first sight than another dog of equal size. 

Among other reasons the manual gives for police shooting dogs is that officers often see a dog running towards them as a threat, when it could be a friendly greeting.

Misreading a dog's body language is a common cause of dog shootings by police, according to the manual.

"Police departments can be severely embarrassed when they've shot a dog, and in the aftermath it looks like there was no reason why that dog was shot or there were people there who have a very different version of what police had initially reported," Cleary said.

That embarrassment also translates into expensive lawsuits. Police departments around the country have been successfully sued by owners whose dogs were killed, including a case 2007 in which the city council of Richmond, CA paid $210,000 to a couple whose pit bull was shot, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In that incident, a passerby was injured after one of a stray bullet grazed her neck. Stray bullets as a result of dog shootings are a real danger, according to Jim Osorio, Senior Law Enforcement Specialist at the National Humane Law Enforcement Academy, which trains police departments in how to handle dogs.

"Stray shots are a liability," Osorio said. "It's already hard to shoot a moving target, but when they're lower, it's harder to hit them."

Osorio has trained police departments in Fort Worth, TX, Atlanta, and other cities around the country. He says more departments need to implement training because many officers have little to no experience with dogs, which increases the danger.

"Police need that experience because in the U.S., one out of three houses has a dog usually," Osorio said. "Just because a dog barks, doesn't mean it's an aggressive dog. So they need to know all the signs and the body language."

Osorio added that although there has been an increase in police departments requesting dog training over the last five years, budget cuts have hindered some of that progress. Nonetheless, he believes more police will be trained to deal with dogs.

"It's going to be a slow process, but I see a lot of changes coming," he said.

Robby King hopes that by bringing the issue to the attention of more people, progress will come sooner rather than later.

"I'm hoping that we, as victims of this thing, can get together and be a stronger, bigger group because the nation needs to know about this," he said.

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