Body Armor for Dogs: Media Hype Creates Yet Another Need

Considering the multitude of challenges facing Americans today -- from homelessness and hunger to global warming and health care, not to mention the war with Iraq -- it's comforting to know that concerned citizens, corporations and the federal government are shelling out money to buy bulletproof vests for dogs.

At $500 to $1,800 a vest, the protection does not come cheap.

The Department of Homeland Security, as part of its Urban Area Security Initiative, granted Columbus, Ohio $7,348 to purchase eleven bulletproof vests for their dogs.

In July, the Breeders Dog Food company wheeled out it's "Protect a Hero" campaign, twinned with a promotion for Active Dog, a new line of dog food, so that dogs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento are now Kevlar wrapped. The company has promised to give vests to 100 California dogs. Local Wal-Marts in Arizona have also raised money to armor their community canines.

And in Orange Park, Florida, a suburb of Jacksonville, members of the Ladies Auxiliary of the local VFW post took time out from their more established efforts like the patriot pen competition to raise $1,000 so that Santos, a strapping German Shepherd from the Czech Republic, could feel safe in a vest from Point Blank, a Florida armor and military supply company.

Sgt. Mike Seymour, the dog's handler, said Santos hadn't actually used the vest in the past year, as it tends to restrict his movement and distract him from finding marijuana. But, Seymour says he keeps the vest in his car, "just in case."

The Santos story has inspired surrounding communities to do the same for their canine patrols, said Sara Ruddick of the Auxiliary. And when Orange Park expands its unit to four dogs, the ladies vow to outfit each one.

Stories like this are popping up across the country as the vests gain popularity from Arizona to Rhode Island, yet no studies have ever been conducted proving that canines are safer Kevlar wrapped.

It's a great PR thing, " said Joan Hess of the United States Police Canine Association, the largest association of canine handlers with 3,000 members and growing each year. "We lose more to heat exhaustion than to actual killing."

Even if the vests can offer some protection, they are often too impractical for the dogs to wear.

Because the vests weigh so much, the dogs rarely wear them inside patrol cars, Hess said. And they make the dogs uncomfortably warm. To remedy this, some vest manufacturers are creating pockets for ice to cool the dogs down, but the ice packs also add weight. Hess' group urges people to raise money for 'hot dog box" containers, which are rigged to the police vehicle, have temperature indicators and can pop doors in case of emergencies. The K9 Hot-n Pop pro retails for $849.00 without accessories. Sound excessive? According to the company website, "heavy demand is causing a 6-8 week shipping delay.

So what is really going on with this armor-a-dog craze?

According to Charlie Mesloh, a former dog handler, and currently, Director of the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University, the armored dog phenomenon began in 1998 with the shooting death of a New Jersey dog named Solo.

Solo, a 4-year-old German Shepherd with the Monmouth County Sheriffs' Department, was sent to apprehend an armed robbery suspect and alleged member of the Black Liberation Army. In the standoff, Solo was shot in the eye and killed. (A bulletproof vest would not have saved him.) He was laid to rest in a funeral attended by more than 1,000 mourners. A bagpipe band played Amazing Grace. An American flag was draped on his casket. Dozens of print and television media outlets covered the story. A full-fledged media frenzy was born.

"Once media organizations realized the appeal of police canines produced by the Solo incident, they looked for similar stories in their local news markets," writes Mesloh in the October 2002 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. "By constructing news stories that focused on canine protective vests, the media generated a public perception that such gear was a necessity and that those responsible for the protection of others should be equally protected.

"In addition, no reports of a canine ballistic vest saving the life of a police animal have occurred in the United States," Mesloh wrote.

Since then, there has been one report in 2003 by a canine handler from Auburn, Washington, claiming his dog Blitz was saved by a bulletproof vest.

The armoring of police dogs and the good will campaigns by concerned citizens to protect man's best friend may be well-intentioned, but it also disguises a far more serious issue. Police dogs, trained and sometimes bred aggressively, are becoming more prevalent in the nation's law enforcement agencies and they are biting, mauling and assaulting innocent people.

In October, Myra Gutierrez was brutally attacked by Zorro, a police dog with the Hialeah, Florida police department. Police were searching for car thief near Gutierrez's home and when Gutierrez went outside to see what the commotion was, Zorro bit her breasts and her arms and dragged her on the street. The dog did not respond to any commands, and police could not pry it's jaws open to save Gutierrez. The dog was finally subdued when officers punched it in the head. According to the local CBS4 news, the dog is still on police duty. Gutierrez is considering legal action.

Earlier this year in Indiana, schoolgirl Courtney McGarry was petting a dog from New Albany's K9 unit when it bit her in the face requiring 11 stitches. The dog had been brought to school to demonstrate its drug sniffing abilities.

In New Mexico, late last year, Sheriff's Deputy Heather Schreckendgus, had to shoot one of her department's canines after it mistook her for a suspect and bit through her arm. She is now suing the Bemalillo department.

People have been bitten by dogs while handcuffed, and one man had his penis severed by a St. Petersburg, Florida police dog named Scooby.

As more and more communities recruit canines into the war on drugs and now the war on terror -- canines are patrolling subways, trains, airports -- it's worth remembering some dog history.

The image of snarling German Shepherds was permanently ingrained in American history in 1963 when police in Birmingham, Alabama turned dogs and water cannons on civil rights marchers.

Forty years later we saw dogs being used in Abu Ghraib by corrections workers on loan from American prisons.

In 2004 Berkeley, California turned down a request from the police department to reinstate the canine unit, citing not just cost but perception.

"There is a stigma associated with the dogs when they were used to terrorize the free speech movement in the 60s and 70s," then Commissioner Mike Sheen told the Daily Cal newspaper. He also said that people of color voiced opposition to the canine unit, as they are often the ones targeted.

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