My Turn, Nina Dix: Questions linger about Salisbury Police’s K-9 training tactics

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 21, 2021

Editor’s note: These are Nina Dix’s prepared remarked for last week’s Salisbury City Council meeting. Because of the three-minute time limit, Dix wasn’t able to finish her remarks. Here they are in their entirety.

By Nina Dix

I am a local professional dog trainer and dog behaviorist. I am not going to take more of your time talking about the things that have been already covered concerning the obvious unethical treatment of Officer Zuul in the video. But instead I would like to discuss something else.

I saw a vet report today concerning Zuul that stated that he has no obvious signs of physical trauma or damage. Even though there were no X-rays or intense exam, I understand there is no physical symptom of skeletal or neurological damage. And that is common practice for diagnosing dogs.

My concern is not only physical damage or injury, but also his psychological damage, which could affect Zuul’s behavior. There is a high probability that the type of treatment in the video could cause Zuul to lose trust in humans and act accordingly. What would that mean? There is a risk that these unprofessional K-9 training tactics could possibly cause unprovoked aggression towards humans. Is it definite that it will? No, it is not. But is it highly possible? Yes it is.

Many German shepherds, Belgian Malinois or Dutch shepherds or any of the working breeds are chosen for K-9 police work for their courage and loyalty. But typically when the trust is broken in any of these breeds due to inhumane treatment by the handler or owner, it causes adverse behavior changes and it is very hard to recover the dog from it.

I personally would like to say “good boy” to Officer Zuul for showing restraint and controlling his impulse to defend himself during this incident, which could have ended in this unnamed human officer losing half of his face. But it is obvious by the video that Zuul is very eager to work and please. He is an excellent officer.

It is also obvious by the video that the human officer has zero control over his anger and emotions. That, in itself, is a huge danger to anyone he encounters, given his position of authority, plus the fact that he is legally armed.

As a citizen and a person who has dedicated my life to improving the relationship between people and dogs, I am very concerned about the treatment of K-9s in the Salisbury Police Department, how it endangers the safety of the dogs and the community as well. And that is not solely based on this incident.

In October 2010, a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Koontz was severely injured by Salisbury K-9 that was supposedly under the control of his partner. The K-9 attacked unprovoked this 5-year-old, grabbing him by the back of the neck and head, causing severe injury and the loss of part of his ear. This incident not only physically injured this child, but I am sure caused emotional caused damage to this child, his parents, his teachers, the other students and the whole community.

It also indirectly caused harm to other children. At the time this happened, my certified therapy dog group had just started visiting with special-needs students at Carson High School. It was promising to be a very helpful partnership for the students. And as a result of this incident, all dogs were banned from Rowan public schools. So the absolutely free tool for teachers of having trained therapy dogs at their disposal to help reach their students was taken away. The number of students that could have been helped over the years would probably surprise us all.

So what does this have to do with that? I cannot help but wonder if these same training methods were used on the K-9 that attacked a helpless 5-year-old for no reason. After viewing this video with Officer Zuul and then the video of the police chief’s lack of action, it is not a huge jump for my mind to see a connection.

From a financial aspect, every citizen should be concerned, regardless of whether they are animal lovers. Trained police K-9s are very expensive to purchase. The value they bring to the community in service is priceless. Citizens should all have a problem that a K-9 that they purchased is being misused and mistreated.

From a safety aspect, we should all be concerned that an armed police officer with all the authority and power given to him by his badge has no better control of his anger and emotions than the officer in this video. If he can’t be trusted to treat his partner with respect, how can he be trusted to respect the people of this community that he serves?

For what it is worth, in my opinion as a citizen, I believe that Officer Zuul should be evaluated by a professional. And the unnamed human officer should have at a minimum been suspended until an investigation could be done. But at this point, with the video evidence, I believe the human officer should be prosecuted for assault on a police officer and animal cruelty and undergo evaluation for his anger issues to decide if he is fit to be a police officer. His behavior in this video is an insult to all of the courageous and ethical K-9 officer teams that serve everywhere in this country by risking their life to keep us all safe.

Nina Dix is founder of Canine Caregivers Therapy Dogs and operates a dog boarding and training business.