By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Unique program trains animal control officers
Kevin Dawson saw the drugs and the gun on the table. He also saw the dog by the man at the table. He decided to try and talk to the man and coax him away from the weapon by bringing him closer to the dog. After all, Dawson was supposed to be there for the dog anyway. When the man turned his head, Dawson motioned to his partner to call for backup.
Suddenly, the man — Chief Steve McKinnon of the San Diego Human Society — stopped and said, “OK. Explain what you just did.”
Dawson was acting out a scenario as part of a special training program for animal control officers that was held Oct. 21 at the Humane Society’s Linda Vista campus, located at 5500 Gaines St.
The annual training exercise, now in its 11th year, is a unique program that puts students in mock situations that they will likely encounter for real on the job.
“The [scenario] training is great because that’s where the rubber meets the road,” said Dawson, who works for the Department of Defense at Fort Irwin in Barstow, California where he will soon be working as a game warden after working as a military police officer for 20 years. “You pick up a lot of information that was taught in the classroom and when you come out here you’re doing practical exercises so you actually put it to work.”
The state requires animal control officers to complete a number of hours of training in medical, animal handling, laws and other aspects of the job, mostly taught in classes, but there is some flexibility for training facilities to choose additional training.
“That’s where we end up using the scenarios to allow [trainees] to start putting what they heard in the classroom into practice out on the street,” Chief McKinnon said.
The practice scenarios are held in the middle of the program to break up the classroom work. Before that, students learn basic information about laws, laws of arrest, what powers they have and don’t have and officer safety techniques. After the scenarios, they focus on intensive knowledge like livestock issues, animal anatomy, animal first aid and more.
Students go into the scenarios with little instruction on how to handle the situations and deal with the people they encounter. This is by design to let the students learn from their mistakes in a safe environment.
“It is definitely an eye opener — allow them to fail in scenarios here rather than out in the street,” McKinnon said. “And the nice thing is we do see a lot of networking between the experienced officers and the new students where they share stories and they kind of work these things through.”
At the Oct. 21 training, two students encountered some difficulty with a scenario involving an actress playing a pet hoarder with a trailer full of cats. As the two students tried to ask questions and also gain permission to enter the trailer, the actress got more agitated and combative with the student animal control officers.
It was a difficult lesson, but a teachable one as the class instructor pointed out that the students needed to spend more time befriending the hoarder to gain trust before pressing her to enter the trailer.
“We recognize not only are there health issues for the animals but there are also health issues for the owners as well,” McKinnon said.
Another scenario had officer trainees deal with a homeless man with a pet dog.
“That is something we regularly encounter,” McKinnon said. “We will often get calls from commuters or people just driving through an area, seeing a homeless person sitting on a curb and they have a dog or a cat or some other animal attached to a leash just sitting there.”
Students are to assess if the dog is fed, is healthy and has access to water and if the animal’s needs are met before moving on.
“Very often in the real world, we find that homeless people are treating their animals better than people in residences. So we want our students to recognize that, too.”
In another scenario, the students are called to a report of an emaciated horse.
“We usually give the students very general calls,” McKinnon said. “For the emaciated horse, all it was is a report from a citizen that drove by a ranch, saw a horse on the property and said, ‘Gee, it looks kind of thin.’ So that’s all they’re given.”
Students at the scenario are also given photos of emaciated horses to recognize what to look for when encountering an underfed animal in real life. They are also confronted by an actor who plays an owner who is defensive.
The students have to investigate the call, find out what the issue is and determine whether the emaciation rises to the level of needing to do a horse seizure, demand vet care or just provide education.
“It’s a process that they have to work through to solve the problem, work with that owner and decide if this is such a serious case that there are certain legal steps that they have to follow to make that seizure happen.”
The students also practice dealing with the most common animal control call there is — a dog left in a hot car.
“All animal control officers during the summer — it’s almost on a daily basis — get these type of calls,” McKinnon said. “We have to be able to assess the situation. Is the situation so bad that we have to break into the vehicle because we can’t get access to the dog in any other way?”
The scenario also includes a component of the owner showing up while the officer is at the car and the trainee practices how to deal with that.
The final scenario is the one that Dawson was put through — the dangerous situation and illegal activity scenario.
“Their call is that they get a report of a dog that’s maybe ailing in some way and to go check on that but when they walk in, it turns out that even though the dog is there and may or may not be ailing, the bigger picture is that this person is obviously involved with criminal activity.”
The actor for this scenario (this year played by McKinnon himself) sits by a table with evidence of drug use, cock-fighting paraphernalia as well as a handgun in plain sight of the officer.
“When you see these type of situations, there is nothing wrong with backing out — give a quick explanation and walk out without taking any action.”
The animal control officer would then call for police backup before continuing the investigation into the animal’s condition.
“The last thing we want them to do is to continue in their inquiry, talking to these type of people when firearms are present or there are drugs involved, things like that. The main thing is we want them to be safe,” McKinnon said.
For people who want to be animal control officers, getting this training in advance of applying helps show potential employers how serious a candidate is, McKinnon said, adding that there aren’t any mandated requirements to be hired as an animal control officer. Applicants are required to do training before or after being hired. Usually there is also a background check and some organizations do psychological evaluations because of the stressful environment can cause “compassion fatigue,” he said.
“We are looking for those people who are compassionate; that are good problem solvers; that can feel comfortable interacting with the community out in the street all day,” McKinnon said. “And if they can display those things, we will teach them the finer points as far as legal stuff, animal handling skills and the rest.”
In San Diego there are two to three vacancy positions coming up at animal control and around eight people from the class have already shown interest in applying, McKinnon said, adding that usually he sees candidates coming from a variety of backgrounds including law enforcement, people who worked at vet hospitals or Humane Society volunteers.
For those interested in becoming an animal control officer, the course costs $350 and is held twice a year — during the fall in San Diego and during the spring in Marin County. For more information, visit sdhumane.org.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.