- - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hundreds of anguished pet owners gathered last week at the headquarters of the Salt Lake Police Department to demand justice for a dog. They were upset by the shooting of a 2-year-old Weimaraner named Geist. Weimaraners are typically tall, elegantly gray, and usually gentle enough.

A few days ago, Officer Brett Olsen, searching for a missing child, hopped a fence at a suburban home and leaped into the backyard. The dog approached, jealous of his turf, and instead of retreating, the officer shot and killed the animal.

Thousands condemned the officer’s decision on Internet sites, sent condolences to the dog’s owner and demanded that the officer be punished, arguing that the dog was only doing what such dogs do, and an officer who panics at the sound of a bark is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such incidents are growing more common as homeowners, frightened by crime, arm themselves with big dogs. Shootings have been reported in Filer, Idaho; Columbia, Mo.; Decatur, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Harrisonburg, Va.; and New York City.

Not all the dogs are big dogs. In Baltimore, officers killed Nala, a 7-year-old Shar-Pei last month. Responding to a call that a small dog had bitten a woman, the cops attempted to corral the pooch with a stick and piece of string. Frustrated, one officer eventually yelled, “I’m going to gut this thing,” and slit the dog’s throat with a knife as another officer held it down.

Last week, police in Mason County, W.Va., shot and killed Willie Pete, a small, arthritic mix of a beagle and a basset hound — not exactly a fearsome combination. Police searching for a criminal suspect went into a backyard, and Willie Pete woke up from a nap on the porch. An officer shot at Willie Pete when he “growled and bared his teeth,” and the shot went wide. (The policeman obviously needs a little gun control.) The dog ran toward the house, and the owner pleaded with the cops to cease fire, but they didn’t, and three more shots killed the dog.

Some dogs are in fact dangerous, but many cops seem eager to shoot when they don’t have to, and a few shoot because they panic. Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” tracked more than 100 news accounts of “puppycide” in 2012 alone.

Mail carriers encounter dogs far more frequently than police officers, and they usually handle such encounters without killing. Every year mail carriers get two hours’ video training to learn how to read a dog’s body language, distract a dog with a toy, subdue aggression with a calm voice command or, if worse comes to worse, incapacitate it with pepper spray.

The Humane Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organizations make similar training available to law enforcement agencies at no cost. Dogs can be frightening, and some, like pit bulls, are instinctively vicious. But a little training can teach cops to know the difference, and resolve an incident before it becomes violent.