Shooting of dogs by Merced police irks residents

Officials urge responsibility with pets

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 29, 2013 

— Dog-shooting incidents by Merced police officers have become more common in recent weeks, but some officials say they could be prevented if pet owners took more responsibility.

According to police officials, at least five dogs were shot dead in the past four months in Merced. Two dogs were shot during one incident, according to police.

Lt. Bimley West said police officers typically respond to calls when an animal is out-of-control or a bite has occurred.

Once face-to-face with an "aggressive" dog, officers only have a few critical moments to make a decision before a potential attack, West said. "If they believe the threat is imminent and no other level of force will stop the threat, they're trained to use their firearms and they will," West said. "Which is pretty much the same standard we use with humans."

Among the four reported incidents, Merced resident Payton Sanchez's dog was shot by Merced police on June 4 after an officer responded to a "dogs at large" complaint by neighbors. Neighbors said the dog chased neighborhood children while "barking and growling," according to the police report.

Officer Mike Gallegos arrived at the home in the 2600 block of Mira Court about 6:44 p.m. to find the dog "lying down" in the back of an open garage. Gallegos said the dog stood up and began charging at him, before he shot the female pit bull once in the top right shoulder.

The family came out of the house and questioned why their dog was shot, the report said. They said she was friendly and has never attacked anyone. Gallegos spoke to three neighbors, who said they witnessed the shooting incident and the dog "appeared vicious." However, Gallegos interviewed six other neighbors who said they "never had any problems" with the dog, who was "usually very nonaggressive."

Sanchez, 19, said her dog Ladee has never charged at people and the family has no answers about why she was shot. "All we really want is a little peace of mind about what happened and why she was shot," she said. "She was part of the family, and it broke everyone's hearts."

Sanchez's dog did not die immediately but was paralyzed, according to family members. Because they couldn't afford veterinary costs, they brought the injured dog to the police station. According to the police report, officer Kalvin Haygood took the dog to the shooting range and shot it with a shotgun, before "disposing" of it at the police station.

Kim Herzog, Merced police animal control officer, said owner responsibility plays a crucial part in preventing police-involved dog shootings.

"Dog shootings are becoming more prevalent now because people are being irresponsible and they're not being held accountable," Herzog said. "If everyone would be responsible and keep their dogs confined, we wouldn't have officers going out to deal with dogs, and we would have no dog shootings."

Shot dog was not on a leash

Sanchez admitted her dog wasn't on a leash that day, but claimed she never attacked anyone. "I feel it was irresponsible not having her on a leash or keeping her inside, but she wasn't an aggressive dog," Sanchez said. "She didn't deserve to be shot."

In some cases, family members call Merced police to deal with dogs that have turned on them. Two Rottweilers were shot and killed June 10 by officers after they attacked and bit two family members, according to a police report.

The family said they locked themselves out of their home on West El Verano Way, and tried prying open a back window to get inside. Then the dogs attacked, causing injuries to both family members' right arms.

Herzog said she doesn't carry a firearm and has never shot a dog, but said she's been bitten "more times than she can count" in her 28-year career. However, she's only come across three truly vicious dogs in that time.

"There's different reasons why dogs act aggressively," Herzog said. "They might be territorial, frightened or injured — hardly ever will you have a dog attack you for no reason. But the dog will do whatever they can to scare you out of their territorial area."

Herzog said dealing with unfamiliar animals in their territory requires the ability to read their body language — which takes years of experience and training. "The (patrol) officers don't have the same education, training or experience regarding animal behavior that Animal Control officers have learned," she said. "It's not something you can take a class on."

West said officers will try other methods to control dogs, including striking them with a baton or Taser, but both tactics require precision. Those methods also aren't guaranteed to stop an impending attack.

"Our officers will try to apprehend the dog without taking its life," West said. "But if an officer gets bit on his hand or arm, it could easily incapacitate that officer where it could be career-ending."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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