A police dog gets very close to its handler as they work together on a daily basis. They may even live together but when those canines in Texas retire, they don’t always go to live with the handlers. In Texas, those dogs are treated as public property and surplus property at that. Once they retire, they have to be auctioned off, donated or destroyed.
On Tuesday, that changed because voters approved a constitutional amendment. It would allow dogs, horses and other animals in law enforcement to be adopted to handlers at no cost. They could also be adopted by ‘qualified’ individuals.
This had the backing of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. The members of that association were always upset about how the dogs would be legally handled and treated as surplus under law. Many of the officers viewed their dog partners like family and the departments would often mark the retirement of canines or their death with a ceremony.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner, who chairs the legislative committee for the sheriffs’ association. “There’s been a lot of great dogs with great handlers, and the right thing should have been done by them. But it’s better late than never.”
This change goes along with other changes that show people want laws in place to keep dogs from being viewed as property. Animal rights activists have been pushing for more, including legal personhood for animals. There have been some shifts in the direction, changing their status from appliances to inanimate police equipment.
“It’s a really antiquated law,” Richard Geraci of the Retired Police Canine Foundation said of Texas’ former approach, which he added is common across the United States. “These issues really need to be modernized in the interest of the animals. . . . It’s a living thing.”
Departments would often have to work their way around the law in a creative way. When Skinner was sheriff in Collin County in 2017, two ‘old and ailing’ canines were up for retirement. He didn’t want to see the dogs auctioned off or euthanized so he ‘took them out of active duty’ but didn’t retire them officially. It allowed the dogs to remain with her handlers and prevented Skinner from having to replace the dogs. Retired dogs and horses have been sold by the Austin Police Department to their handlers or other employees for one dollar according to The Statesman.
Skinner also talked about other departments that have put down retired dogs over the years.
“There are different ways that people have tried to deal with this. But here’s the reality: We’re peace officers, and we stand for the rule of law, and we want to do the right thing,” he said. “We’ve asked for this exception, to not treat these animals as property, for all the obvious reasons.”
Skinner felt particularly close to the situation for personal reasons. He was an Air Force K-9 handler some 40 years ago in the Philippines. He also grew quite attached to Jesse, his dog and extended his tour in order to stay by her side.
“I knew I might be her last handler. That was during the time period when dogs were done, they were either abandoned or euthanized,” Skinner said. “That’s what the military did with them, and it broke a lot of hearts.”
In 2000, things changed for US military working dogs thanks to a law that was passed to make them available for adoption. Overseas military dog reparation was funded thanks to a 2016 law. Handlers now had the first shot at adopting the animals.
Many sheriffs, including Skinner, approached the members of the Texas legislature. The proposed amendment was unanimously passed in April and it was put to ballot for voters on Tuesday.
“Few people are qualified to humanely care for and properly supervise a police dog or horses,” one sponsor, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R, wrote to constituents this year, “and these animals need to be cared for by a capable individual at the end of their service.”