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This article was created for a prior year's Lost Pet Prevention Month. While the article isn't new, the information provided is still relevant, which helps to dispel myths about Animal Control Officers and the work that they do in the communities that they serve.
Most of us have seen a movie where there is a “dog catcher” and they are usually not portrayed as very nice characters. Over the years, this has created a stereotype for Animal Control Officers (ACOs) which has also caused a sense of distrust for some community members. People tend to hesitate to report a dog who may be lost or in trouble because they assume if they call, the dog could be put down.
These assumptions are not true.
We have the great pleasure of partnering with National Animal Care & Association and Code 3 Associates for Lost Pet Prevention Month this year! We were able to ask an active ACO questions that we received from social media so that we can work to change the narrative around these hard-working individuals.
People often think of ACO’s as the stereotype of a “dog catcher” - What do ACO’S really do?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) The role of the animal control officer has changed drastically over the last 75 years. Contrary to conventional thinking, the main role of an animal control officer is not to interact with the animals at all. It is a focus on working with people in their community to ensure safety and education for all. Animal Control officers can utilize various organization resources, programs, and services to help keep citizens safe, ensure care for animals in their community and help keep pets with their owners.
(NACA - Jerrica Owen) Animal Control Officers often have a wide variety of duties. They work to protect the public and defend voiceless animals. Oftentimes ACO’s are working to rescue injured, or animals trapped in dangerous situations, working to reunite lost pets with their owners and educating the public about responsible pet ownership. ACO’s also provide testimony in course for animal related cases of cruelty or severe neglect.
What training goes into becoming an ACO?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) While animal control officer training partially focuses on safe animal handling and medical care of animals, there are many other factors associated with becoming a premier animal control officer. A focus on public speaking, report writing, grammar, decision making, critical thinking, prioritizing emergency situations and many other skills are utilized by animal control officers every day in their role as community representatives.
(NACA - Jerrica Owen) Training varies state by state. One of the things NACA is focused on is setting a standard like that of the police, fire and doctors. NACA offers foundational level ACO 1 course as well as an advanced ACO course 2 – both available online with the hopes of removing barriers. In addition, there are in person trainings through Code 3 which support advancing technical training skills and aim to enhance and expand the role of ACO’s across the country.
What does your day to day look like?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) One of the major benefits of becoming an animal control officer is guaranteed variety in the workday. Although there are some daily tasks that need to be completed, an animal control officer never knows what their day will consist of. One day it may be helping a small puppy that has been roaming the streets, looking for its home. The next, the officer may be investigating an animal cruelty case alongside local law enforcement. Somedays may be filled with dozens of educational conversations with citizens in the community, helping to grow pet safety. Other days may be spent in a court room, providing testimony for an active case. Officers work long hours and perform difficult tasks, but the job is rewarding, knowing you are helping people and pets in your community.
What cases do you work on the most?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) As most animal control officers are not sworn law enforcement and instead work alongside sworn law enforcement, most animal control officers work ordinance compliance cases and nuisance calls. This consists of a lot of animals running at large, animals acting aggressively in the streets, and animals without proper care. With that being said, there is a massive variety in what an animal control officer sees everyday and this is one of the major factors in keeping the job exciting and the community safe. With every call, comes an element of education for the community, regardless of the original call type.
Why did you become an ACO?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) Although my current role is that of administration, I am a certified animal control officer and I do oversee the entirety of animal control for my county. I originally got into this industry because I was able to look at helping people and animals in my community from a unique perspective. I find that the animals are not the main focus and the people caring for the animals are the real customers of our industry. Helping people, making my community a safer and better place and continuing to change the organization and industry for the better drives me to show up to work every day, and do the absolute best I can.
What do you use to catch animals? What happens after you catch them?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) There are a variety of tools in the typical ACO tool belt. But what we can say is that oftentimes less is more and ACO’s are encouraged to use the least amount of restraint necessary to reduce the stress of the situation for the animal. There are situations in which the animal is showing dangerous behavior and that animal may need to be restrained on a control pole until safely able to confine them in a safe space.
(NACA - Jerrica Owen) When the animals are contained and no longer at risk of injuring themselves or others, oftentimes officers will work to reunite that pet with its owner prior to making the trip to the shelter. If not possible or no owner is identified, the animals will enter the shelter for safekeeping until their owner is located or the most humane outcome is determined.
Some people still believe in the stereotype of the “dog catcher” - what do you say to people in those situations?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) Individuals are simply under-educated when it comes to the incredible changes and advancements in the industry over the last several years. So many organizations are now focused on not only saving lives but helping the people in their communities. To those that feel organizations and animal control officers can either be “life saving focused” or “enforcement focused” I would say to look to successful organizations throughout this country that are doing incredible things in their communities with a combination of both. The truth is the vast majority of animal control officers do not want to catch dogs at this point. It is way easier and way more rewarding to help people in the community.
A lot of people think that an animal going to a shelter may not be cared for - how does your shelter (or most shelters in general) take care of the animals?
(NACA - Jerrica Owen) Yes – animal shelters care for the animals in their care. Animal shelters and ACO’s work extremely hard to ensure that animals are humanely cared for; ensuring they have food, fresh water, safe and adequate space to live and move. Beyond that, most shelters across the country have dedicated volunteers and staff that support with exercising the pets and engaging with them for walks, playing with toys and working to meet not only their physical needs like mentioned before but also their social and emotional needs.
Once you pick up an animal, do you take it immediately back to the shelter?
(NACA - Jerrica Owen) Depending on the situation and health of the animal, several things might happen once an animal is picked up and safely contained. Reunification efforts such as calling on a tag or scanning for chip. Another thing that might happen is that the pet might be injured and need to be urgently rushed to the veterinary clinic. Other pets might be taking to the shelter for safe keeping until the most humane outcome is determined.
If you are doing a wellness check or following up on a complaint and you see an animal that could be abused, can you take them away immediately?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) This depends entirely on the situations surrounding the case and the level of jurisdiction that an animal control officer has in their community. Animal control officers, that are sworn law enforcement officers working for the local sheriff’s office or police department may have more authority to seize animals in immediate need of assistance. Most animal control officers have excellent training at identifying emergent situations and working with the parties needed to get that animal the care it needs as quickly as possible. One important thing to remember in all of these cases is animal control officers are the trained experts and what may seem like animal cruelty or neglect to some, may simply require education or wellness on behalf of the pet owner. Most animal cruelty cases reported to animal control do not actually constitute animal cruelty and are quickly solved by the officer involved.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) Helping people. For some (or even most) the animals are the most rewarding part but for me, taking a situation in which a citizen may be facing charges or citations and turning it into a learning opportunity where our organization can help, is the most rewarding. The citizen gets to keep their family member (pet), and the organization gains an ally in the mission moving forward. Win-win.
What is the most emotionally rewarding experience you have had?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) There was a case involving loose owned dogs in an underserved area of the county. One citizen in particular called on these dogs being loose a half dozen times in the course of a couple weeks. The animal control officer went to the property and had every right to seize the animals and issue citations as a result. Instead, the officer knocked on the door and simply had a conversation with the citizen. Apparently, the citizen had three (3) large intact male dogs and holes in the fence. Instead of enforcement, the organization provided S/N surgery for the three dogs, leashes and harnesses and even helped purchase supplies and repair the fence. As a result, the complainant was happy because the dogs were confined, the citizen was thrilled because she got to keep her pets and receive medical care, the shelter was happy because they didn’t have to find new homes for the dogs that already had a caregiver, and the taxpayer is happy because they didn’t have to fund resources associated with finding these dogs new homes over the course of the next several weeks or even months. I love win-win-win-win opportunities such as this.
What is something they wished the public knew?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) For the vast majority of animal control agencies, the officers are not sworn officers. They are code enforcement officers working alongside the sheriff’s office, fire rescue, code enforcement or in some cases, even public service. Some citizens expect animal control officers to break down doors and seize animals, similar to what they may see in some tv shows or movies. Animal control investigations take time and often result in referral to another agency if proper charges cannot be filed based on the investigation. Please have patience with your local animal control, as they are doing everything they can to help you, within the power they have been awarded.
If you could give any pet parent advice, what would it be?
- (ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) Get your pets spayed and neutered. Animal control sees thousands and thousands of cases every year involving overwhelmed caregivers. Most of these cases are not cruelty related hoarding cases but instead, good people who simply let things get out of hand. Spay/Neuter surgeries are truly life saving procedures.
How can the public make a difference?
(ACO Officer - Spencer Conover) The typical answers of adopt, donate, volunteer, and foster always come to mind. But we have found that most animal control situations can be solved by the citizens involved, without animal control support. If you find an animal, odds are the animal lives in your area. Check with neighbors and post the animal on local social media pages. Having an animal control officer pick up that animal and remove it from the community to take it to a shelter, miles away, drastically reduces the chances of it finding its owner.
The National Animal Care & Control Association is a non-profit organization that is committed to setting the standard of professionalism in animal welfare and public safety through training, networking, and advocacy. NACA envisions a world in which all animal care and control professionals are respected as essential public servants and receive consistent support, resources and training allowing them to effectively and compassionately achieve the highest quality of life for the animals and citizens in the community they serve.
Code 3 Associates is dedicated to providing professional animal disaster response and resources to communities, as well as providing professional training to individuals and agencies involved in animal related law enforcement and emergency response. Our mission is accomplished through hands-on animal rescue and care operations during disaster events; and through our certified animal welfare training seminars which include animal cruelty training for investigators.