Saskatoon police Chief Troy Cooper says the police dog that bit a young girl while tracking break-and-enter suspects has been taken out of service.
During a news conference on Monday, Cooper said the child was bitten by the three-year-old Belgian malinois as it came around the corner of a house, out of sight of its handler.
Police said the girl was not connected with the investigation.
Cooper told reporters he is not aware of a previous incident like it in Saskatoon.
He said the police service will be assigning the dog to a training officer to start a review, which will look into what occurred, the dog and its training, and the handler’s actions.
The service has also launched a use-of-force investigation. While that is underway, Cooper said, the officer will remain on duty.
He said it is too early to determine whether the dog will ever return to duty.
Cooper said he has attempted to speak to the family of the girl, and the service will be offering victim services to them once they are available.
“I don’t want to downplay this. This is a serious and terrifying event for a little girl and a horrible thing to go through as a family,” he said. “I can only imagine what that would feel like.”
Autumn Clifford, 6, was bitten by a Saskatoon police dog. (Leslie Welder/Canadian Press)
Supt. Mitch Yuzdepski, a former canine handler, also spoke to reporters.
He said that when police dogs are tracking suspects, they are in harnesses and attached to six-metre leads. In the case of the recent biting incident, Yuzdepski said the lead had been shortened to half length. He said the officer heard the girl cry but didn’t see the dog make contact with her.
He said the biting incident was highly unusual for a police dog.
“The only time a dog will typically bite someone is if the dog itself is threatened, the handler is threatened or on command of the handler,” he said. “This was an accident, a terrible accident. This isn’t something that happens commonly.”
Yuzdepski said the nine Saskatoon police canine teams respond to about 5,000 calls a year, deploying dogs about 1,000 times. He said bites are rare.
Each team completes a 16-week program, regulated by the Saskatchewan Police Commission. In the case of the team involved in the biting incident, he said no issues had come up during training.
“I spoke with the member … he feels horrible about this accident as well,” Yuzdepski said. “I think the member is probably going over in his mind, ‘What could I have done different?’
“So I think that’s something that he’s asking himself and something that we have to take a look at when we review this incident in earnest.”
Witness says dog wouldn’t let go
A witness said the dog bit and shook the child and officers had a difficult time getting the animal to release her.
Saskatoon police said in a news release that the dog, which was in a harness on a leash, rounded a corner of a building while officers were tracking suspects in a home invasion on Saturday afternoon and latched onto the girl.
Police said the dog “instantly” released her when commanded by the handler.
But Amanda Pritchard, who watched the incident from her front steps, said the handler shouted repeatedly to the dog to let go while it held the girl tight in its jaws.
She compared it to the 1980s horror movie Cujo, which was based on a Stephen King novel about a rabid St. Bernard.
Pritchard said she was just inside her doorway when she heard a growl and looked back to see the six-year-old, who was with other children including her own daughter. The dog grabbed the girl and pulled her from the step.
“Out of nowhere there was two officers that I saw. One was on top of the dog. Three times he had told the dog to let go. ‘Let go! Let go!,’ he was saying to the dog. The dog did not let go. The dog, in fact, growled at the cop and shook his head like he was going to tear her,” Pritchard said.
Police said in their news release that the girl was taken by ambulance to hospital with her mother, and her injuries aren’t life-threatening.
Leslie Welder said her daughter, Autumn Clifford, required many stitches to her abdomen to close wounds from deep bites.
Tissue was sticking out of some of them, she said.
“Right away, I saw the blood on the side of her shirt,” Welder recounted after the attack.
“I lifted her shirt and it was way worse than just one bite.”
The attack happened shortly after Pritchard, Welder and their children returned from spending the hot afternoon at a nearby spray park.
“My other daughter — she’s seven — stated that all Autumn did was look over and say, ‘Oh, look! Puppy!’ And next thing you know he was on her, pulling her down to the ground and attacking her,” Welder said.
The chase for the home invasion suspects was called off, and police said the attack on the girl will be investigated.
Welder said her daughter is recuperating now at home.
“She taking it pretty well,” Welder said.