Some of you may have read my blog a few weeks ago: “Preventing Terrorism Across the U.S.: The Crucial Role of American Muslims.” Today, I want to focus on a related topic: the growing importance of cultural awareness and sensitivity in the use of canine assets (K-9s) in homeland security as well as law enforcement.

Although trained police dogs represent an outstanding law enforcement resource for detecting explosives, interdicting drug trafficking, screening passengers and packages in airports, many of our fellow citizens – and members of the population approached or screened by K-9 teams – have legitimate social, religious and cultural belief systems that condition their attitudes and behaviors in the presence of these animals.

Attitudes Toward Dogs in Muslim Communities

Let me give you an example. In some Muslim societies, it is considered an affront for a male law enforcement officer to question a Muslim female in the presence of her husband. Those of us who travel in the Middle East are used to encountering separate screening areas for women at airports staffed by female security personnel who are Muslim.  

One Muslim expert has explained that, “the essential point [in the Muslim religion]…is that dogs are impure animals, or, at least, that their saliva is a contaminant that voids a Muslim’s ritual purity. Hostility to dogs, not just as a source of physical but moral impurity, are further expressed in Prophetic reports claiming that angels, as God’s agents of mercy and absolution, will not enter a home that has a dog, or that the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good deeds. Cultural biases against dogs as a source of moral danger reach an extreme point in reports that claim that Prophet commanded Muslims not trade or deal in dogs, and even to slaughter all dogs, except for those used in herding, farming, or hunting.”[1]

Attitudes Toward Dogs in Other Communities

Aversion to dogs – and especially police dogs – doesn’t emerge only from cultural or religious beliefs. Other sources include the experiences of many communities which have, at one time or another, encountered police dogs in confrontations related to social, political and economic conflict. Consider, for example, the use police dogs during the civil rights unrest of the 1960s. In other words, the symbolic fear of police dogs in a diverse society such as ours is not a new phenomenon.

Awareness, Options and Strategies

The solution is not to avoid the use of K-9 teams. Quite the opposite. They should continue to be engaged selectively because they are extremely effective in many applications. But the decision to do so should always be informed by an awareness of the cultural sensitivity issues and how these impact (1) the canines’ effectiveness and (2) the interpretations that law enforcement or homeland security personnel draw from the responses by various audiences. Cultural sensitivity integrated into law enforcement strategies has time and time again proven to be one of the most effective tools for successful disruption of criminal and terrorist activity.    

The Proper Deployment of Police Dogs

Take policing, for example. Successful community-oriented policing, as my friend and Hillard Heintze colleague Marcia Thompson insightfully points out in her blog, “has reinforced the need to provide the public and the police with guidance on how to counteract a deepening crisis by rebuilding relationships based on mutual trust, communication and respect.”

Marcia Thompson said it best when she stated; “So as we move towards establishing better police and community relations how well transparency is integrated into police policies, practices and procedures will be paramount to trust building and collaboration. I have personally seen success in community and police problem solving and I believe it works and I support it.” The proper deployment of police dogs is one of the steps we can take to improve our law enforcement strategies and community relations.

Fortunately, some law enforcement officials around the world have recognized some cultures have an understandable fear of dogs. For example, in 2013, the British Transport Department responsible for rail screening and security is “well aware of, and sensitive to, cultural sensitivities. They recognize the fact that some Muslims said they would avoid using a station with sniffer dogs because of their religious beliefs.“[2]

The Use of K-9 Assets in Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism

Now take the homeland security environment. Consider how nervous and stressed a person with a cultural fear of dogs will react to routine questioning on knowledge of suspicious activity. A person truly planning a terrorist attack surveillance if questioned by law enforcement, might naturally be nervous without the presence of a dog. How do you tell the difference?

Perhaps law enforcement in this situation should consider having an officer who is not accompanied by a dog to conduct the initial inquiry. If the individual is less fearful of the presence of a dog, a better baseline is developed to gauge the subject’s nervousness based on behavior rather than the presence of a dog.

Awareness and Prudence is the Answer

In order to succeed in their missions and duties, homeland security and law enforcement leaders, policy makers and front-line personnel need to be highly aware of these canine-related sensitivities and use this knowledge to make intelligent decisions and achieve the most desirable outcomes.

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[1] Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl. Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, s.v. “Dogs in the Islamic Tradition and Nature.” New York: Continuum International, 2004.