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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Excessive force by a police K-9 in Arizona

As an individual trained in the science of animal behavior, I have a strong desire to share my expertise and knowledge about the inherently dangerous nature of attack-trained police canines, and the excessive force they deliver when they bite a suspect. There is a need for this because the police are usually reticent and not forthcoming about the hazardous nature of these dogs. Police K-9s serve a valuable function in law enforcement, but their use carries considerable risk. Unfortunately, police departments across this country downplay this risk or fail to recognize its full significance.

excessive force police K-9
An alert Belgian melinois wearing a shock collar held on a tight lead by the handler. This dog appears eager to start work, thereby making an attack with excessive force more likely.

Many anecdotal examples can be given about the excessive force delivered by attack-trained police K-9s. Moreover, although limited, there is some direct scientific evidence to support this belief, particularly concerning the severity of injuries inflicted on people by these dogs. However, there is other scientific evidence that can be used based on certain principles, such as the Yerkes Dodson law and the self-reinforcing nature of aggression in dogs.

Excessive force lawsuit

The  impulsivity, unpredictability and other aspects about the behavioral nature of these dogs often leads to lawsuits. As an example, take the lawsuit brought forth because of alleged excessive force in the apprehension of the suspect in Scottsdale Arizona in May 2019. The basis of the lawsuit was that the victim’s fourth amendment rights were violated.

In this incident, suspect Patrick Gibbons was apprehended by police because of their suspicion that he hijacked a golf cart. Gibbons, possibly intoxicated, drove the golf cart onto the city streets. Police caught up with Gibbons, and according to the lawsuit, he peacefully surrendered. However, according to the lawsuit, the police nonetheless deployed their canine to attack Gibbons. The attack lasted for about 45 seconds, and Gibbons was dragged several yards by the dog. He suffered bite injuries to his torso, back, and extremities. The lawsuit asked for damages of $2 million.

Settlement by the city

The city of Scottsdale asserted that the police acted reasonably given the circumstances present at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the City of Scottsdale settled this claim for $100,000.  This amount is lower than the usual amount paid by municipalities in these kinds of cases.

The K-9 as a tool versus a weapon?

It is largely a matter of semantics as to whether the K-9 is used as a tool or weapon. The fact of the matter is that attack trained police canines bite forcefully with a “full mouth” bite, and consequently, this can cause severe injury and, in rare instances, death. Calibration the amount of force exerted by a dog when it bites is difficult to ascertain scientifically, but some authors estimate that the force is between 500 – 1500 pounds per square inch.  Some authors equate the force from a bite similar to the force of a car running over a person’s arm or a baton with 3 cm spikes at the end of the baton forcefully striking the victim.  Three cm is approximately the length of the canine teeth of a dog the size of a German Shepherd or Belgian melinois.

Appellate courts have ruled that the force of the dog bite falls just below that of a deadly force. Nonetheless, from an animal behavior perspective, appellate court rulings on this issue are misguided. A dog bite is a deadly force, as witnessed in the 2016 incident in Grover Beach, California, in which a “retired” Belgian melinois escaped from the backyard of its handler and viciously mauled and may have partially consumed the flesh of a 56-year-old man. About 40 people are killed annually by dogs in the United States. This author is aware of about five other fatalities have occurred in the apprehension of suspects by attack-trained police canines.


Incidents in which suspects or innocent bystanders are severely injured or killed by canines will happen as long as police continue use dogs for apprehension. Such incidencesof excessive force delivered by police canines are foreseeable and need to be fully recognized by handlers and their supervisors. However, police departments and their advocates (such as the training companies which sell these dogs to police departments) remain defensive and are hesitant to recognize the extreme danger these dogs present to the public. Nonetheless, some municipalities (such as the Los Angeles Police Department in the mid-1990s) have switched the training of their canines from a “bite-and-hold” technique to that of “find-and- bark” to reduce liability. However, whether this change in policy has reduced the number of dog bites and the severity of the injury inflicted on suspects is not clear. For example, some studies have found a reduction in the bite frequency per apprehension (a statistic referred to as “bite ratio”) while others have not. Police departments are reluctant to abandon the bite-and-hold technique because of the belief that the safety of their officers will be compromised.

Links about excessive force & police canines



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