My Police Dog Bite Accident

IMG_1798First of all, let me say that I’ve been overwhelmed with the support and well-wishes that I’ve received in the past couple of days from my friends, family, and those of you who have gone out of your way to let me know you’re thinking of me.

As you may have heard via some news outlets and/or Facebook (whether via my feed or some of the other discussions that are out there), I did receive a dog bite on my right thigh from a police dog this past Tuesday during training exercises involving a helicopter. The wounds were significant, and I did go to the hospital a couple of times for treatment. The care I received from was second to none and the work they did patching me up was fantastic – all is healing well without infection. I am still in considerable pain, but I’m off the painkillers and am slowly recovering surrounded by lovely friends and family.

Unlike some other posts and usages of Facebook or the internet, I’m not writing this for me. I’ll be fine and will be back in action as soon as possible.

I’m writing this to clarify the events that led up to the bite and to hopefully re-inject a bit of sanity into the online discussions surrounding the event. Yesterday, while still coming out of the fog of shock and painkilling drugs, I posted a brief message on Facebook which included a bit more of an edge than should have been involved. Really, I should have waited to release this information publicly altogether to avoid the potential for misinformation and giving ammunition to those threatened by my beliefs. But now that it’s out there (due to my own posting), I feel it’s important to clarify and provide a bit more context.

Here’s the Story:

As many of you know, for a few years I have been working with an amazing team of K-9 officers and dogs near my hometown of Atlanta. These guys are the best of the best, and I have nothing but love and respect for them as individuals, friends, and those who protect and serve us all. Much of what we focus on collectively has been an ongoing, dynamic discussion about the state of dog training for high-drive working dogs, especially as it relates to the larger debate over training methods between traditional dominance-based compulsion and aversive techniques vs progressive, science-based positive reinforcement-related training and behavior methods. The guys I work with do not use as much ‘positive training’ (I know this isn’t a scientific term – see this link for a description of what I mean by ‘positive training’) as I do, but they are what I’d call progressive – and, more importantly, they’re open to having an intelligent discussion about whether it’s possible to shift their training more towards the positive side without compromising their dogs’ ability to work successfully in the field.

Working in this field and getting to know these guys and their dogs has been one of the most thrilling, enriching, fascinating, humbling and wonderful experiences of my professional life in the dog behavior field. I love it, love the guys, love the debate, and love the work. I also have huge respect for what they do – we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude, especially these days considering the current environment for law enforcement in the field.

As a result of the growing awareness within the K-9 world of my interest and involvement in this world, I was invited to attend this week’s training event – a sort of ‘continuing education’ event for K-9 units around the country to work their dogs and possibly learn a few new things. I was honored and excited to attend, and, as is the case with a lot of my involvement in this field, I was mostly there to watch and observe. I was not brought in to train, nor to work with any dogs. I knew going in that there would be a lot of handling techniques and philosophies with which I disagree, but I understood the role I was in and had no intention of trying to ‘teach’ the attendees anything. Of course some conversation ensued at various points over the first day and half, as is the case with the units I work with. All good.

One of the exercises the units went through was to get their dogs in and out of an engaged helicopter so that they could get the dogs used to unique environment of being in and around a noisy, windy helicopter for work purposes. I was thrilled to be told that I would be allowed to ride in the helicopter as an observer – I’ve never flown in one and have always wanted to. After a lunch break, I got in the back seats of the helicopter with my small camera. As they fired it up and got the blades rolling, the dog outside was clearly becoming revved up – excited to ‘go to work’ – and prepping for the type of work these dogs are bred and trained to do.

I was not doing any training (behavioral or otherwise) with this dog. Mostly, I was just excited to get to fly in a helicopter! Although the nature of this job means that anyone could potentially be put in potentially dangerous situations at times, I have always felt that safety has always been our guys’ number one priority.

When the dog was finally released to jump into the helicopter, he immediately saw me there and instinctively went in for a bite. He was on for a few seconds and didn’t release until he was pulled off by the handler and another officer.

The dog and handler are an experienced team, and the handler took care to visit me in the hospital to wish me well, which I very much appreciate – even if I was in shock and drugged up so much that I don’t really recall much.

Of course no one wanted this bite to happen, and those involved feel badly about it.

Ultimately, however, while it all happened very quickly, I do feel that the nature of the bite happened in such a way that it would have happened no matter who was sitting in my seat. Again, while I wish this hadn’t happened and feel it could have been avoided, I want to emphasize that I have the utmost respect for those that put their lives on the line to protect our communities.

The Details

Since the news of the bite broke publicly, there have been many who have weighed in on the event, some of whom claim to have been present at the training. Much of this has been mischaracterized, so for the sake of clarity, here are a few key details:

  • I was not training this dog. I hadn’t been asked to, I never had, and I didn’t attempt to in this case. I was merely a bystander in a situation that went wrong, and in that sense I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • I had my camera with me, but not to get any specific ‘better angles’ of filming. I was invited to ride in a helicopter – something I’d always wanted to do – and was invited to observe the training regimen of a high-drive working dog – something I’m passionately interested in and love doing.
  • I will be fine. I’m healing well and will continue to take it easy as I recover.

As most of you know, I do a great deal of work with dog bite prevention among the pet dog community. A core belief of responsible pet trainers is that if you are training an aggressive pet dog and he bites you, it’s your fault – there are precautions you should have taken, warning signals you should have heeded, and triggers you should have known to avoid. When that happens in the pet dog world, the trainer has failed the dog (and the human client). While I now have a more complete understanding of the mental and physical toll a severe dog bite can have on the victim, this case is a different beast altogether. This was a working dog who, quite simply, is trained to apprehend people. And I have had the incredible learning experience of being on the other end of an apprehension!

Social Media Stinks Sometimes

As I said above, I thank each of you who has reached out to me in support to wish me a speedy recovery from the bottom of my heart. Sometimes we all use social media like Facebook to vent, to share, and to preach. While my original post on this from yesterday was some of all of those, it also brought out some really nasty responses. I’m a big girl, and I know that being in the public eye via television and other platforms opens me up to criticism from those who disagree with me – in some ways, I even relish it if it means moving the ball further down the field in our understanding of our pets and how they think, feel and learn.

Even so, however, I am sometimes still shocked by the hate and vitriol that can be spewed from some of those who hide behind this digital curtain and hurl insults and venom at those they feel threatened by. The debate about training methods in both the pet dog world and the working dog world is intense. I feel passionately about advancing my beliefs for the sake of dogs who don’t have their own voice. I know that those on the other side feel equally strongly about it, and as long as they engage in the debate respectfully and with a measure of sanity and human decency, I’m good with it.

But when people actively go out of their way to wish harm on you, or to celebrate when truly bad things happen to you, it’s terrible. We all know those people are out there, especially these days. I know they’re there, and I’m thick-skinned enough to not let them bother me and redirect onto more positive things. Some of the responses to my original Facebook post were so truly hateful, I figured it was better to just shut the whole conversation down until we were able to provide more information and arm those interested in positive results with the details they need to combat those that were writing hateful things. In an effort to make something positive out of that part of this experience, I encourage everyone to review the facts and to reconsider their tone and true intent when using social media or digital communication – in this discussion and beyond.

Again, thank you for your kind wishes and support – they mean a lot, and I look forward to continuing to connect with you on this journey moving forward!

Victoria Stilwell


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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


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31 thoughts on “My Police Dog Bite Accident

  1. GrinLikeADog

    I'm so glad you are recovering and will be back in action soon! Please ignore the viciousness and ignorance. You are a very well-respected advocate for dogs. If anything, this proves that no matter how well-trained a dog is there is always a risk involved: that is the reality. I look forward to learning more from you, and sincerely wish you well in your recovery!

  2. Mary Davis

    Hi Victoria, I am so sorry for you. Thank you for your commitment to training and for sharing your knowledge with our profession. I wish you a speedy recovery! Sgt Mary Davis, Montgomery County MD, Police K9 Training Supervisor.

  3. Neomama

    Victoria I'm happy you're on the mend. How sad that people are using your accident to criticize your training methods. I hope some day all K-9s are trained using your techniques. I've watched the devolution of police K9's from a well trained, well rounded, obedient dog to an uncontrolled weapon who is a threat to the community it's supposed to serve, It's terribly sad to see, knowing the dogs are capable of so much more.

  4. Becky McCay Paxson

    A true woman with class, something a lot of people do not have these days. When you spew hatred it just strengthens the resolve to show how positive training can work. One could wonder about the dogs in peoples care who can be so hateful. Heal quickly Victoria, you have many in your corner. I applaud you for your "move forward" approach and concentrating your focus where it matters.

  5. Chris O'Rear

    I have been involved in dog training, competitive obedience and agility for many years and also believe in positive training methods. I have always said that if you train enough dogs there is always the potential for getting a bite...it happens, they are dogs! There is no need to look for fault in every situation. Hope you heel quickly

  6. Marianne Asikainen

    Keep up the good work with pro K-9. Change is coming in pro world. In fact in Finland the whole border control unit has change to positive training and it has had good results. These dog nees know how to use force and do search work. I hope this revolution will continue. I hope you get well soon!!!

  7. Naji Wench

    Working with animals, we all know that anything can happen at any time. We do everything we can with training the animals and ourselves to minimize the risk, and the goal is to bring risk down to the absolute smallest, but it's always there. When emotions are high, excitement is high, and something new is happening, the risks increase exponentially. I'm very glad to hear that Victoria is doing well and recovering and I hope that she goes forward to do amazing work with the dog training world and show that positive training is the healthiest option for the dogs as well as the trainers involved.

  8. SJ370

    Well written Victoria! It sounds to me that the dog misinterpreted the situation. I think it clearly thought its trainer was in danger. Dogs make mistakes the same as humans do. I am glad you are going to be OK. Sadly, there are many people on social media who spend hours making nasty remarks. Somehow this fulfills them. Try to ignore them because most are beyond educating - they don't want that, they just want to make everyone as miserable as they are. Concentrate instead on all the people you have helped understand their dogs better...and I am one of them. Thank you.

  9. kokomo

    Some. Your a little too general. What has happened is some dogs who's drives are far too strong for the work have been accepted into the programs anyway. That is not to say all of them are that way. Remember we only see a small percentage of the dogs and only when there has been an accident.

    No I'm not fussing at you, I'm trying to protect the dogs. People these days will take what was meant to be a harmless general statement and use it as fuel to rage against K-9 officers. There's a rather large number of people already using everything they can come up with to do away with them and another large number of people using it to validate killing K-9 officers.

  10. Mandy Cunningham

    I was shocked and disgusted at some of the comments you received. Glad you are on the mend and thank you for all that you do to help us all that are trying to get the message out there about positive training methods. Best wishes

  11. Paula Ludwick

    Victoria I'm sorry to hear about this incident. I'm happy to hear you are on the mend. I hope you are back at work soon, you do wonderful work.

  12. Edith Chase

    I'm glad to hear you're feeling better. Sorry that you had to miss doing things with your daughter. Tell her to have a happy birthday.

  13. Judi Resnick

    Hi. So sorry you suffered these injuries, both from the dog bite and from the words and bad intentions of some people. I am glad to see that you are obviously healing and recovering from both! Clearly the power of positivity is not to be denied. Thank you for the great attitude it took to write this story.

  14. Carol Dodd

    I am one hundred percent sold on positive training. I'm glad you're recovering. I'm also glad that you understand and have chosen to communicate the context of the bite. Thank you for sharing with us. Hope all goes well for you and the dog involved (yeah, I care about the dog too). Don't mind the haters...I know that's more easily said than done. But there are those out there who will object to anything said or done, just because that's what they do. Probably half of them don't really know anything about dog training to begin with. Continued wishes for a speedy recovery!

  15. Michelle Golden

    Victoria, I am so sorry to hear that this happened to you. I'm glad you'll be well soon, and look forward to learning from your continued sharing of your incredible store of knowledge. I am about to owner train my very first service dogs, with the guidance of a professional trainer...it's sure to be a wild ride.

  16. Mike Lewis

    I've never taken the opportunity to become a fan of yours. I am now. Thanks for the detailed explanation. I'm a huge fan of positive training for pets, but I admire that you have an open mind and don't just preach. Hope you heal quickly.

  17. Vis A Vis Devotee

    The method of police dog training is a moot point. The dog's handler should have given you guidance, should have controlled the environment and the situation. Being in the back of the helicopter and being a strange, unfamiliar human--the dog reacted as it was trained to do. The dog was released on a suspect-you and the dog's instinct came into play when he saw a stranger! (When the dog was finally released to jump into the helicopter, he
    immediately saw me there and instinctively went in for a bite. He was on
    for a few seconds and didn’t release until he was pulled off by the
    handler and another officer.)

  18. Sarah Kevin

    Sorry for your injury, even more sorry for the stupidity out there. I know the first will heal faster than the second.

  19. Neomama

    Actually I'm basing it on what i've seen at large gatherings like the one after the Ohio K9 was killed- many officers brought their K9s from across the US to pay tribute. The dogs were not working at the time and the handlers had their hands full trying to deal with them even in a situation like that. Malinois are being bred for that level of drive and started on "bite work" when they can barely walk. It's irresponsible.

  20. George smith

    Get well soon Victoria. If your ever back in UK I need help with dog aggression. I'm trying positive teaching by throwing 6 pieces bait on floor and stopping reaction before my bitch hackles or stare occur. It's taking a long time.george.cardiff south wales

  21. Diane Evans

    the dog was probably sensing you were "excited" and that camera being in your hand was another slip up on you, but i would love to see it all on video, where can we see it?

  22. Diane Evans

    Maybe people who have experience with dogs KNOW her so called, "methods" are wrong, could that possibly be what everyone is criticizing her for? This woman should not be anywhere near the "working dog" or "police dog" breeds, or a "red zone" dog of any breed!

  23. Positively

    Hi there,

    Your comment wasn't deleted or blocked -- we simply have to manually approve all comments due to the many spam/trolling comments that come through. Yours was just approved so you should see it there now.

    Thanks!

    -The Positively Team

  24. Fredperry

    Mrs Stilwell I hope you are fully recovered now and thank you for the love you show to our furry friends across the globe.
    Mr Preston whether your points are valid or not, when reading your comments it's like someone shouting at me. I suspect you are one of them shouty, know it all,controlling,blinkered, type of person and because you come across this way I choose to disregard anything you say. If I could give a bit of behavioural advise it would be for you and not a dog. Please calm down and use a softer less aggressive tone and people will listen to your argument and make their own informed opinion but at the moment... Sir you are a nob!

  25. Miss Cellany

    The truth is police dogs are NOT particularly "well trained" - if you look at bite work training it seems to be mainly about fostering aggression in the dog and will to fight against the "decoy" - basically training the dog to attack people on a hair trigger (he raised his arm / he waved something vigourously in the air / he moved too quickly / he was holding an strangely shaped object = ATTACK). That means that almost ANYTHING can set them off which is why they are kept on tight leashes while in public and the police tell you not to touch the dog. They aren't safe to have around the public and since the dog is being put in danger while on duty I don't think it's fair to the dog either.

    And I've been bitten by a retired police dog too, it left puncture wounds but luckily was a fairly old dog with broken teeth so nothing serious (just required tetanus shots, no stitches). I wasn't even running, waving anything or holding anything besides the leash of my dog, who was just standing there also. The retired police dog was severely dog aggressive (had already almost killed someone else's dog - the little dog survived after emergency care and a £3000 vet bill) and went for my dog, biting me in the process (I was standing in front of my dog so it bit me and knocked me down to get to my dog). The police handled the situation by doing nothing, and telling me that since the dog was trying to kill my dog, not me, it wasn't a dangerous dog (despite the fact that it was out of control in a public place and had caused physical injury to a human). I'm sorry to say I've lost all faith in the police force after this event, and I certainly don't trust them to raise and train large aggressive dogs correctly.

  26. GrinLikeADog

    I'm truly sorry you experienced that. It must have been terrifying, trying to protect your dog. I'm glad your injuries were not more serious. And I agree, there are many military and police organizations that handle and manage their large, powerful dogs poorly, and even incompetently as in your case. But some do it right. My municipal police force has moved away from the hair-trigger temperaments and use the dogs as much for outreach and a way to connect with the community, and the dogs are highly managed. They still do their police work, but they are much, much more bomb-proof than in the past.

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