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Vacaville Investigating Viral Video Of Officer Punching K-9 Partner; San Francisco SPCA Condemns Alleged Abuse

VACAVILLE (CBS SF) -- Amid an avalanche of social media outrage, Vacaville officials were promising a thorough investigation of a viral video that showed a police officer punching his K-9 partner during a training exercise.

On Friday, the San Francisco SPCA joined the outcry, issuing a statement condemning what the organization described as "Vacaville animal abuse."

After the video circulated on Twitter and Facebook, Vacaville city officials announced that they have undertaken what it described as "a thorough investigation of the incident," has separated the dog from the police officer and is reviewing its canine training program.

In response to the video, "the San Francisco SPCA, being a leader in dog behavior and training, would like the public to know that physically threatening or harming an animal is never acceptable, regardless of the animal's behavior," the organization said.

The organization's vice president of rescue and welfare said being aggressive toward a dog can cause problems.

"It's a misguided belief that dogs need to be dominated to be trained. The idea that a person must assume the 'alpha' position pervades our society and has significantly damaged the welfare of our canine companions and put many handlers at risk for serious injuries," said Jeannine Berger of the SPCA.

"Being aggressive toward your dog will often cause your dog to become more fearful, anxious and potentially aggressive," said Berger, who is a veterinary behaviorist. "This popular belief is causing serious harm to pets and working dogs alike. It hurts our relationship with our dogs and causes more problems than it solves."

Vacaville officials said they have retained an independent third party with expertise in police canine training to review the incident, as well as the police department's policies and procedures and canine training program.

"Once the review is complete, the city will take appropriate action -- including any necessary discipline and/or training, as well as any needed changes to policies and procedures to ensure the police department's canine program is in line with the industry best practices," the city said.

The video lasts just a few seconds. In it, a Vacaville police K-9 handler is seen straddling a dog lying on its back. The handler then punches the animal's head. The man who captured the video says he saw the officer hit the dog perhaps ten times but a department spokesperson, Capt. Matt Lydon, said the dog had just attacked its handler when he attempted to take a toy away from it.

"The K-9 lunged in an attempt to bite the handler," Lydon told KPIX. "That's when swift action needs to take place to let the dog know the handler is in charge and that is a position of dominance that you see in the video."

But Jeannine Berger, a veterinary behaviorist with the San Francisco SPCA, says the idea of establishing dominance in dog training is a notion that has been debunked.

"Let's be very clear," she said, "what we're seeing in this video has nothing to do with training and learning. It has to do with intimidating and threatening and not with actually learning the behavior that we want the dog to do."

Arthur Deak trains dogs for a living as owner of "Zen Your Dog." On Saturday he was at Point Isabel dog park in Richmond with 11-week old Bella, a tiny Australian Shepherd who already knows how to come, sit, stay and lie down. When Deak watched the video, he had the same reaction as a lot of people.

"He's already got him pinned and he's submitted, that's kind of ... horrible," he said.

Deak is often called upon to turn aggressive, biting dogs around before their owners give up on them so he stopped short of condemning the officer in the video.

"He's holding him down, I think he's already got him submitted ... I don't know," Deak said. "But if a dog's regularly biting people, he's going to be put to sleep if someone doesn't help him understand you can do anything but bite people."

Deak realizes that, considering their job, police dogs may need to be taught a higher level of aggression than normal house pets. He says most dogs want to please but lose respect for handlers who treat them unfairly. That's why he has his doubts about the notion of showing a dog who's boss.

"I think you have to establish you're the teacher," he said. "I don't think you have to brutalize an animal. I don't think that's necessary."

After posting the video, Vacaville police department said the K-9 has now been separated from its handler and placed with a third party pending further investigation into the incident.

© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News and KPIX correspondent John Ramos contributed to this report

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