Law enforcement training covers practically every conceivable aspect of use of force. However, an area that is glossed over by many agencies is policy, training, and tactics for dealing with vicious dogs.

Vicious dog attacks account for more than 100 fatalities and thousands of serious injuries every year. Police are usually the first responders to vicious dog reports and are often attacked by these dogs.

Dog attacks are usually spontaneous, sudden, and swift. Officers have little, if any, time to do anything other than defend themselves. They are in legitimate fear for their lives and safety, and the predictable result is often deadly force. And if anyone thinks this fear isn’t legitimate, let them be on the receiving end of a charging vicious pit bull or rottweiler. They’ll soon learn the truth. And other than what street officers carry normally, they don’t have ready access to less-lethal alternatives.

In contrast, SWAT operations are often planned, with advance intelligence, including the possibility of the presence of dogs. This is especially true with regard to drug warrants, where dealers regularly use vicious dogs to guard their operations against police raids.

Talk to any number of SWAT teams, and you’ll get a variety of different answers about the best tactic against vicious dogs. Options range from OC spray, to impact munitions, to deadly force. Each option has advantages and disadvantages, as the following discussion illustrates.

OC spray must be accurate to be effective, and there is the adverse side effect of cross-contamination. As for 37/40mm impact munitions, they can be very effective, but they require a designated officer for deployment. Deadly force, while immediately effective, depends on accuracy to prevent misses and ricochets, and avoid unintended casualties. Attempting to shoot a fast-moving, low-gravity target coming at you at full speed is not as easy as it sounds. And there is little, if any, margin for error.

At least one federal appeals court has ruled against the police who shot vicious dogs during the execution of search warrants. The court ruled the police should have planned for other options to deal with the dogs. Whether this ruling will become the gold standard for law enforcement remains to be seen, but it’s something for all of us to at least think about.

Animal control would seem to be a logical solution, except they can’t be deployed until SWAT first secures the scene. Since dogs usually attack when officers first make entry, it’s already too late for animal control to be effective. Consequently, animal control’s role is relegated to mopping up after the entry portion of the raid.

However, one highly effective tactic for handling vicious dogs was developed by LAPD SWAT many years ago and is still in use today, not only by LAPD, but also by many other SWAT teams.

CO2 fire extinguishers work amazingly well against the vast majority of vicious attacking dogs. CO2 works three ways: the loud sound startles the dog, the visible fog cloud disorients it, and the “freezing” sensation on the nose from the fog spray brings pain to one of the animal’s most sensitive body parts, often forcing it to retreat.

One of the best features of a CO2 fire extinguisher is that it can be employed from a distance without worrying about endangering your team and without dangerous side effects. Plus, the cloud evaporates almost instantly, so clear vision is not a concern for the operators. Best of all, if the dog returns for more, then a CO2 extinguisher is capable of multiple, and/or sustained bursts.

Critics of CO2 extinguishers for this application say they’re too cumbersome at 3 to 5 pounds, and carrying one restricts the capability of a team member.

My recommendation is to give CO2 extinguishers a fair tryout and determine for yourself whether to adopt them for your team. My personal opinion—based on many hundreds of successful operations using them—is that CO2 extinguishers are the most effective dog counter-measures available, especially when combined with 37/40mm impact munitions.

Another tactic for dogs is the noose device used by animal control. Some SWAT teams employ the noose for dogs cornered by the CO2. The noose usually completes the job the CO2 started.

The drawback to the noose is it’s too cumbersome to carry on the initial entry, and a designated member must deploy it. But used in combination with a CO2 extinguisher, a noose works very effectively.

Finally, the human factor needs to be considered. Team leaders need to know their personnel, and choose the right personnel for the right job--and that includes dealing with dogs.

If you have the option, pick officers who are “OK” with dogs. The combination of the right personnel using proven effective tactics against vicious dogs is a formula for success.

Use the law enforcement-only SWAT forum to discuss how you deal with dogs.


Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien

Robert O'Brien

A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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