“The Great Houdini”

Harry Houdini was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer born in 1878 who later became known as “The World’s Greatest Escape Artist” for his sensational escape acts. There are some police dogs today that have earned the “The Great Houdini” nickname for their ability to perform routine escapes that aren’t even that sensational – and it’s not intended as a good nickname.

es·cape  əˈskāp/   Verb;  break free from confinement or control.   Noun;  an act of breaking free from confinement or control.

It happens – police dogs “escape” from their kennels, yards, police cars and sometimes even from their handlers – and bad things often happen as a result.  There are many stories across the country of actual incidents involving working dogs and retired dogs [and former police dogs] that have escaped on-duty and off-duty and bitten innocent men, women and children – including family and friends of the handlers.  The vast majority of these incidents were preventable.  Some of the incidents involved a violation of policy.  There have been injuries sustained and settlements paid.  Can your agency afford such a settlement?  Can you afford the trouble?

I’m not talking about natural disasters or Mother Nature’s assistance with lifting kennels off the ground or collapsing fences that have allowed a few dogs to wander their respective neighborhoods.  I’m talking about basic (and sometimes blatant) failures to follow policy [or common sense] in most cases by not properly securing the dog when not under the immediate control of the handler or authorized care giver.  It’s not that difficult to remember to make sure your police dog is properly secured.  Complacency and “my dog won’t escape and bite anyone” attitudes are commonly associated with some of these tragic incidents.

Are these “escapes” considered incidents or accidents?  I don’t think it’s an accident when the handler is negligent and could have prevented the incident.

Here’s a standard policy for off-duty;  When off-duty, police dogs shall be maintained in kennels at the homes of their handlers. When a police dog is kenneled at the K9 handler’s home, the gate shall be secured with a lock. When off-duty, police dogs may be let out of their kennels while under the direct control of their handlers.  

NOTE:  This policy or something very similar should be a requirement for retired police dogs and former police dogs and specifically addressed in writing as a requirement or recommendation within an agreement when the dog is purchased.  It should be considered a “common sense clause” if not written or required.

Update on October 16, 2018:  You may or may not be aware of a recent California case where a former police officer (who resigned from his agency after this incident) is being tried for two felony counts of failing to maintain control of a deadly or dangerous animal and a felony charge of involuntary manslaughter when his “former police dog” (not retired) escaped its backyard on December 13, 2016, and attacked two neighbors, killing one of them.  The trial is pending.  The dog allegedly had free rein of the backyard and was not secured in a kennel while the officer was away at work.

Unfortunately, and maybe a little ironic, there are only a few policies that actually require the handler to make sure the dog is properly secured when the handler is not present or under the immediate control of the handler when on-duty.  It’s often assumed – but not often written.  What does your policy require?

As a kid growing up, I watched the Harry Houdini movie many times and dreamed about becoming “The Great Houdini” by practicing various escape routines.  I struggled getting the handcuffs off so I later decided on a career to put handcuffs on people instead of trying to escape from them – and I was much more successful.  I’m certain you don’t want your dog tagged with “The Great Houdini” nickname so take the necessary steps to prevent it and you’ll stay out of trouble.  If you don’t have a policy section to address the issue, I recommend you make one now.

Take care, be safe and take steps to prevent escapes by your dog…

Bill Lewis II

This “Reason” was originally shared on September 30, 2015 and updated October 16, 2018

“Trouble” isn’t always related to incidents or predicaments that directly result in lawsuits, claims or discipline. Often times, our actions or inactions that are missed, deliberately overlooked or downplayed may lead to nothing or can later lead to mistakes or bad incidents with minimal to serious repercussions.  A reason we get in trouble can be minor or simple at first glance – or even serious – but a combination of these factors can often have disastrous consequences.   

These “reasons” are provided periodically as a collection in-progress based on actual incidents and real attitudes as well as feedback received at HITS, the CNCA Training Institute, and the “Canine Liability 360” classes.  As Gordon Graham says, “We haven’t found new ways to get in trouble.” So, as the list progresses, you may or may not read something familiar to you that you have personally experienced or seen others encounter. If you encountered or heard about it, did you learn from it?