Retired Texas police dogs had to be sold or destroyed under state law. Voters just changed that.


Karin Brulliard, The Washington Post

Police dogs spend all day working with handlers. They typically live together.

But when law enforcement K-9s in Texas have retired, they haven’t always gone home with their handlers. Laws in the nation’s second-largest state treated the dogs as surplus public property that, like firearms or police cars taken out of commission, needed to be auctioned off, donated to charity or destroyed.

That changed Tuesday, when voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that allows dogs, horses or other law enforcement animals to be adopted at no cost by their handlers or other “qualified” caretakers.

It was backed by the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, whose members were regularly perplexed by how to handle dog retirement legally - complying with laws that viewed the animals as surplus - and ethically, in ways that made sense to officers who view K-9 partners as family and departments who mark dogs’ retirements or deaths with ceremonies.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner, who chairs the legislative committee for the sheriffs’ association. “There’s been a lot of great dogs with great handlers, and the right thing should have been done by them. But it’s better late than never.”

The change is one of the latest examples of nuance legislators and courts are bringing to laws that view animals as property. Some animal rights activists have pushed for far more, including legal personhood for animals, but smaller shifts have already changed animals’ status to something different from appliances - or inanimate police equipment.

“It’s a really antiquated law,” Richard Geraci of the Retired Police Canine Foundation said of Texas’ former approach, which he added is common across the United States. “These issues really need to be modernized in the interest of the animals. . . . It’s a living thing.”

In Texas, the previous laws led departments to come up with creative workarounds. When Skinner became sheriff in Collin County in 2017, two K-9s were “old and ailing” and ready for retirement, he said. Instead of euthanizing them or auctioning them off, he said he “took them out of active duty,” but didn’t officially retire them. That kept the dogs and handlers together, but it prevented Skinner from being able to replace the dogs. The Austin Police Department has sold its retired dogs and horses to handlers or employees for $1, the Statesman reported.

But Skinner said some departments over the years have put down their retired dogs.

“There’s different ways that people have tried to deal with this. But here’s the reality: We’re peace officers, and we stand for the rule of law, and we want to do the right thing,” he said. “We’ve asked for this exception, to not treat these animals like property, for all the obvious reasons.”

Skinner said the issue was particularly important to him for personal reasons: Nearly four decades ago, he was an Air Force K-9 handler in the Philippines. He was so attached to his dog, Jessie, that he extended his tour to stay with her.

“I knew I might be her last handler. That was during the time period when dogs were done, they were either abandoned or euthanized,” Skinner said. “That’s what the military did with them, and it broke a lot of hearts.”

(Things changed for U.S. military working dogs in 2000, with the passage of a law that made them available for adoption. A 2016 law funded overseas military dogs’ repatriation and gave handlers the first pass at adopting the animals.)

Skinner and other sheriffs approached members of the Texas legislature, which unanimously passed a proposed amendment in April and referred it to the ballot that went to voters Tuesday.

“Few people are qualified to humanely care for and properly supervise a police dog or horses,” one sponsor, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R, wrote to constituents this year, “and these animals need to be cared for by a capable individual at the end of their service.”