The Legacy of Race

Transforming Police Dogs — It’s All About the Training

Birmingham Police Department trains K-9s downtown. (Source: Police Department Facebook page)

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Certainly not Johnnie Johnson Jr., who as a West Precinct captain in the Birmingham Police Department in 1987 turned police dogs that were known for attacking civil right protestors into pups you could pet.

“We had them retrained and the trainers retrained,” Johnson recalled. “The dogs were taught that, as long as there was no aggressiveness on the part of the suspect, a dog would sit by. The dog would only attack if the suspect was aggressive or running.”

That was a big shift from when Johnson arrived in the police department in 1966. Then, dogs were taught that their reward was to bite if they caught a suspect.

“That was one of the issues that we had,” said Johnson, who would eventually rise to be the city’s first Black police chief. “When we got to the reopening of (Kelly Ingram) Park, we were able to have a dog out there and the kids could pet that dog because the dog was not trained to attack, unless the owner said so.”

The difference, he said, was the training.

“If you train the dog to bite (and) you reward them with a bite because they’ve caught a suspect, then that’s what they’re going to do,” Johnson said. “They’re going to bite. If the suspect is running and he stops running and gives up, the dog sits there and watches him until the owner gets there to retrieve the suspect. It was just a matter of training. That was the big deal.

“It’s all about training. The same is with officers. It’s about training.”