Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, Ph.D. CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

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Dog bite expert opines about dog bite fatalities caused by police canines

Appellate decisions which have examined the fact patterns surrounding police dog bite attacks on people have consistently ruled that a police dog does not have the capability or the potential to kill a person (see Robinette v. Barnes, 854 F.2d 909, 102 ALR Fed. 605 (6th Cir. 1988); Fikes v. Cleghorn, 47 F.3d 1011 (9th Cir. 1995); Matthews v. Jones, 35 F.3d 1046 (6th Cir. (Ky.). Nonetheless,  I strongly disagree with these decisions.

police dog bite expert
Police K9s have the ability to kill people as documented in several instances.

Specifically, from my perspective in animal behavior, I believe that under the right circumstances a police K9 easily can kill a person. For example,  this can happen when a police dog apprehends a suspect outside the immediate presence of the handler.  Under these circumstances, a police dog may repeatedly bite a suspect.  And if any of these bites are inflicted to the head/neck area then a person could be easily killed.

In fact, this is what happened in Robinette v. Barnes. The incident was summarized as follows in the published appellate decision:

 “A man suspected of being in the course of a commercial burglary, hiding inside a darkened building, was apprehended by a police dog who bit him on the neck. The suspect died shortly thereafter. For the reasons which follow, we agree with the district court that the use of a properly trained police dog to seize a felony suspect does not constitute deadly force. We also hold that even if the use of a police dog could constitute deadly force, the circumstances of the suspect’s apprehension justified the use of such force in this case. Thus, we affirm the award of summary judgment in favor of defendants.”

Although rare, besides Robinette v. Barnes there are other reported dog bite fatalities involving police canines. For example:

  •  A fatality happened in California when an 89-year-old man was found sleeping under a bush by a police K9 deployed to search for a suspect. The victim was mistakenly identified as the suspect by the dog and was severely attacked, outside the immediate presence of the handler. The victim died about three weeks later in hospital from complications as a direct result of the attack. Read more about this incident here.

A fatality caused by a bite from police K-9 is less likely to happen when the dog’s handler is nearby, thereby putting the handler in a position to stop the attack (which often is difficult in itself). Moreover, in contrast to fatal dog attacks by domestic dogs inflicted on relatively defenseless people, such as the elderly or children, a disproportional amount of the victims of police dog attacks are young adult males. These people have greater ability to defend themselves against a highly aroused, attack trained police canine. And this decreases the chances of a dog bite fatality from happening. Hence, in part, because the victim is a young male, police dog attacks rarely result in a fatality.

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 Read more about fatal dog attacks

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