In fantastic news, Lady Freethinker has learned that the Vacaville Police Department is now contracting with a K9 trainer who only uses positive reinforcement and also has made other systemic changes to K9 handling and training.

The department is now contracting with D-Tac K9 and lead trainer Gregg Tawney, who has “20 plus years of experience, and he only utilizes a variety of positive reinforcement methods to ensure training is done as safely and humanely as possible,” Vacaville PD Capt. David Kellis told LFT.

Kellis added that all Vacaville K9 handlers also must complete 16 hours of required training each month, with offerings encompassing all areas of canine training — from searching for controlled substances to patrol techniques.

All handlers document their K9 training into a database, which is reviewed by a unit supervisor. Tawney and his support staff, as well as the K9 unit supervisor, also supervise handlers during training to “ensure only humane, positive training methods are being used,” Kellis said. 

Gregg and Rango

K9 Trainer with his Police Partner K9 Rango (Courtesy of Gregg Tawney)

The department came under scrutiny in December 2020 after a passerby’s cell phone video of a K9 handler punching dog Gus in the face went viral. 

LFT sent a petition, which has since been signed by more than 41,000 people, to the Vacaville police department asking for a thorough investigation into Gus’s mistreatment as well as a thorough review of all K9 handling protocols. 

We followed up with an investigative report about whether the video indicated an isolated incident or a collective canine crisis, and also sent a second petition, since signed by more than 32,000 people, to the Vacaville City Council with multiple requests, including a review of the city’s contract with its K9 trainer,  to require ongoing and humane training to K9 handlers, and documented training supervision.

We weren’t the only ones calling for accountability and change. Public outrage spurred the department to commission several audits of the K9 unit, including by an independent analyst and the OIR Group, a Playa del Rey-based firm headed by a former civil rights attorney.  Areas addressed included the training program, contracted K9 trainer, recordkeeping, deployments, report writing, and K9 team selection.

Kellis said the department publicly announced the results of the audits, regularly reported back to the city council about the changes and held two public forums  — both of which addressed the K9 program and departmental changes made.

Lady Freethinker applauds the department for making systemic changes to ensure no other police dogs are needlessly harmed in “training.” We also applaud Gregg Tawney and his team for showing law enforcement that effective training for K9s also can — and should — be done as humanely as possible through positive reinforcement rather than abuse.