MF: Mike Fry
BN: Beth Nelson
RB: Robbie Benson
MF: Robbie Benson is President of San Diego AWOL (Animals Worthy of Life.) She’s involved in a project I’m really excited about. Over the course of our work, we’ve covered some stories – I think of Justice for Bella as one example, which is kind of a big, national story about a dog being shot who did nothing wrong. She was just running loose, and the police didn’t want to catch her. It was too much work for them to try to catch her, so they shot the dog. We hear stories like that all the time. There’s been an incredible number of instances like that. She’s involved in an effort to change the interactions between law enforcement and dogs when those two entities come together. I’m excited to talk to her about it.
BN: Welcome to Animal Wise Radio, Robbie. I just want to say that when we talked a little bit earlier in the week I felt like even in that short conversation that we had that I did a lot of learning in a short amount of time. I’m just going to tell our listeners to sit back and listen, because Robbie’s got a lot of information to share about this topic.
The task force that you formed within the San Diego AWOL you call the Dog Encounter Task Force, is that correct?
RB: Yes, we do.
BN: We’re going to really focus our conversation around that.
MF: But first, can you tell us a little about the San Diego AWOL, and we’ll get to how you got involved with the task force.
RB: San Diego AWOL is our nonprofit. The Dog Encounter Task Force is the offshoot of our nonprofit. Dog Encounter Task Force came about in actually July of this year when my partner, who has 11 years of animal control experience and I had had discussions we thought one too many times about dogs being shot by law enforcement. We decided to do something, literally do something.
We started the group, and we researched. We learned that the common denominator and the main problem was that law enforcement has no dog behavior training. Being in the dog business, I had a rescue. My partner has animal control experience. We know a lot of dog people. We decided to gather some highly credentialed people and put together a program and go out and facilitate what we saw to be a very easy fix.
It is a very easy fix. That’s how we formed. We decided on July 1st that we would do something, and we have been very diligent and very busy since that time putting our program together.
MF: I think what you just said sent off a bunch of light bulbs in my head, because I haven’t had the privilege of talking to you before. As I’ve thought about the problem even having not rolled up my sleeves to dive into it, I’ve always tried to put myself in the head of a police officer who is maybe going into a very volatile situation. They’re very wired up, maybe fearful, and wondering if things are going to be coming at them anyway.
Then, all of a sudden I think about, “What’s the likelihood of dog behavior in a situation like that?” I’ve interacted with dogs that are in very challenging, stressful, difficult situations, and I know how they behave. It’s not like your typical dog at the dog park.
MF: We’re going to have to take a quick break. When we come back, I want to talk about how you go about diffusing that situation. It sounds like it’s not necessarily so much about blaming the officers, but maybe helping the officers so that you can make a better world for the dogs and their people, too.
RB: Absolutely. It’s about creating solutions.
MF: We’ll be back with that conversation.
MF: We are speaking with Robbie Benson, who is the President of San Diego AWOL about her initiative called the Dog Encounter Task Force. It’s designed to prevent law enforcement officials from needlessly killing family pets. It’s a shockingly common tale when that happens.
When we went to the break, you had indicated that you believed that these incidents – and I fully believe it’s true – are largely the result of lack of training. Law enforcement often goes into a hot situation that’s very difficult and challenging, and the dogs are all reactive and riled up because they’re all stressed because they know, and there’s these scary people coming in with guns, and how to diffuse that situation so that the dog doesn’t have to be shot and still nobody gets hurt. That’s a complicated set of stuff.
Instead of yelling at law enforcement, you’ve decided to take a different approach. Can you talk about what the task force does? Where do you get your data? What information do you have about those issues?
RB: I certainly can, and I’m very happy to do that. I will tell you that we’ve gathered much information over the six months that we’ve been working on the task force. Most of our information comes directly from publications that we’ve gotten from the Department of Justice. We think that is the very best source since we’re dealing with law enforcement, that we present material that was actually released for them. It was released by the Department of Justice in August of 2011 that speaks to this problem.
It is enough of a problem in the United States – as a matter of fact, so much so that every 98 minutes in this country a dog is shot by law enforcement. The law enforcement community is realizing this is a big, big problem to have. They created a manual for law enforcement that they released in August of 2011. We’ve taken a lot of the information that we have in our training module from that manual.
The Department of Justice just last month released a series of five videos that can be used. They call them roll call videos, and they can be used in police departments addressing this topic. Those are videos that we do use in our presentation. We’ve been meeting with police officers and sheriff’s departments for the last six months and taking in sample presentations and getting feedback from them.
We’ve spent a lot of time listening and putting together a program that we think will be effective and one that they will like. We are using the Department of Justice videos as a part of our presentation, and a lot of the statistics and the lecture that we do, the material comes directly from the manual that was prepared for law enforcement and released by the Department of Justice.
BN: Robbie, I just wanted to ask you this. The training itself is a complex pile of information that you’re trying to break down into digestible pieces for your groups that sign up for training, I’m sure, but then there’s the challenge of really getting the door opened so that you can have the conversation. I’d like you to talk a little bit about what that’s been like for you.
RB: I’m really glad you asked me that question, because we have had terrific success in our area. I think it may be a bit of the way we’ve approached it. Our approach has been, “Can we work together to solve this issue? We have people who are experts in the world of dog, and your people have no training in the world of dog, so let us come and share this information with you. Let’s talk dog and get everyone trained so that law enforcement then understands the language of dog.”
I will say, Beth, that the people we have approached in our area have been very gracious to us and very open to speaking to us. We have met with the sheriff’s department. We have met with our local police in the community where I live, and we met with them right after a dog shooting in our community. We have met with the San Diego Police Department and in fact, their regional academy where they are totally open to putting together ongoing training programs.
Our approach has been one of partnership and reaching solutions. A word that has been used in every meeting we’ve been in is that we have been very “reasonable.” I got the idea that that was surprising to them, because we are “animal people.”
MF: I understand, because I’ve seen the response to many of these shootings. People get angry.
MF: Just like the situations the cops are dealing with, the after effect is also a really difficult situation.
RB: Yes. People do get angry, and I have to say it is bothersome to us as well, but we feel that in order to be a part of the solution, we have to be a part of the solution and not spend our time pointing fingers at law enforcement, but figure out what are the best ways to prevent this from happening.
It was enough of a problem that the Department of Justice produced a manual, so we’ve taken the information and statistics directly from the manual, and we think we’ve put together a pretty good program. We listened in our meetings and put together a program. We start our training this year, and we are very hopeful for a great success in our area.
MF: I’m going to say that it seems like the Department of Justice report and videos I’m sure took years off of your effort.
RB: Absolutely. There were a couple of things that we found when we had meetings with law enforcement. There’s absolutely no dog encounter training, even though the majority, up to and including 50%, of encounters by police officers involve dogs. There is nowhere in their training module how to deal with dogs other than using a taser or shooting them. Both of those are lethal means, by the way.
Our training hinges on using non-lethal means. We have about 14 different ways that you can diffuse a situation without either tasering a dog or shooting a dog. Sometimes I think it takes changing the mindset.
In any case, you are so right. The Department of Justice information has been incredibly helpful for us. We think that lends even more credibility to our program, because it comes from law enforcement.
MF: When we started I mentioned a situation, Justice for Bella, and that was a situation where a police officer shot a dog who was actually running loose. She was not part of one of these emotional, tense, volatile situations. It was simply a dog at large who hadn’t hurt anybody, wasn’t threatening anybody, and was actually running away from the police officer when the dog was shot. On the break you had indicated to me you believed that that type of situation is also a training problem. I’d like you to talk about that a little bit.
RB: That kind of situation continues to happen today. I truly believe that once officers are trained in how to interact, how to properly read and respond to dogs’ behavior, there will be less of that behavior occurring from law enforcement. I also think that my counterparts across the country, there are a number of people linking arms across the country on this issue, and I think there’s a swell of activity, kind of like Nathan’s was 10 years ago. It’s building up a momentum, and I think that momentum and shining a bright light on this problem will have some positive effect on situations like the Bella situation.
MF: I think you’re right to put it in a training perspective, and one of the pieces of training doesn’t just have to be dog behavior, but the expectations of a law enforcement division or department of when is it appropriate to use lethal force. That to me is a training situation, too.
I think that if the police departments or other law enforcement officials were to really lay down the rules around these things, even if the police officer in that specific case, who I believe showed great disregard for the community, great disregard for the dog, etc., if the expectation about his behavior had been clearly articulated to him, he probably wouldn’t have done that, and if he did do it, he would have realized he made a mistake afterwards. I think it’s obvious by listening to him speak about that event afterwards that that training never happened with him.
RB: I’m sure, because I listened to the interview with that particular police officer as well. I will say that in addition to the training what we ask for, Mike, are policy changes in force continuum as it relates to canines, threat assessment policies as it relates to canines (they have those for people of course) and change in protocol so that there are expectations that the training be used, that we don’t have a situation where a particular office will say, “We’ve had the training now, thank you and goodbye,” and people just go out and do what they’ve always done. We do ask that.
We facilitate our training totally free of cost. We are a nonprofit and we are volunteers. Everybody in my organization has families and jobs and all of those sort of things. We are happy to do this at no cost. What we ask in return are the three things that I just mentioned; that there are policy changes in the threat assessment as it relates to canines, force continuum as it relates to canines, and that protocol is such that there are expectations that the training be followed.
MF: It sounds like just a fantastic program. We want to make sure we get a plug in for your website at www.sandiegoawol.org.
RB: We have a Facebook page, but the website will take you to our Facebook page.
BN: Robbie, just before you go, any last word to other advocates that might be interested in this across the country?
RB: Yes, absolutely. As it happens, we are helping a group in central Florida right now that is throttling up to do the same thing that we are doing. There’s a group close to Orlando, Florida. We met them in a very convoluted manner. We met through social media, and we are helping them throttle up their group to do the same thing in central Florida. I would say to anyone who has an interest in approaching a solution in their area, if they want to contact me through our website at email@example.com, there’s a contact us button on the website, we will help them get started in their area if they would like to do such a thing.
It’s really a very, very easy fix. It’s a matter of getting the right people together. I can help them organize and get their initiative going in their own particular area.
BN: Robbie Benson, thank you for your work and that of your colleagues in pulling together this concept into something that’s really tangible, and your willingness to share it with others across the country. We are fans of what you’re doing.
RB: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It is a delight.