Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas unveils a memorial wall dedicated to DHS canine and equine service animals in May 2021.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas unveils a memorial wall dedicated to DHS canine and equine service animals in May 2021. Zachary Hupp / DHS file photo

Agencies Must Do More to Protect Their Canine Workforce from Abuse and Neglect, GAO Says

Although federal agencies and contractors have policies covering most elements of ensuring working dogs are employed and cared for humanely, they fall short on several issues, including identifying signs of abuse and neglect.

Federal agencies need to adopt stronger policies to ensure that dogs in their and federal contractors’ employ are not abused, neglected or otherwise overworked, a congressional watchdog agency said last week.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the health and welfare of the federal canine workforce both at agencies and contractors. While federal agencies that employ dogs largely have policies addressing the majority of issues relevant to ensuring the animals are treated humanely and receive appropriate care, both agencies and federal contractors lag behind on a couple of key issues.

According to GAO, about half of the federal government’s internally managed working dog programs do not have policies addressing abuse and neglect or requirements for the rest and shift duration of on-duty working dogs. And around half of contracts with private companies for working dogs do not include requirements to address abuse and neglect or how to handle working dog retirement or euthanasia decisions.

A total of 40 federal agencies use dogs as part of their work in some capacity, be they explosive or drug detection, passenger screening, patrol, wildlife management or search and rescue. Of the around 5,100 federally managed dogs as of February 2022, more than half were in the employ of the Homeland Security Department, which has around 2,900 dogs, followed by the Defense Department, which employs nearly 1,800 dogs.

GAO identified 18 issues surrounding which experts say organizations that employ working dogs should have comprehensive policies: abuse and neglect, emergency medical care, euthanasia, exercise, food and water, grooming, health and welfare training, housing, medical needs after retirement, medical records, medication, procurement, rest and length of on-duty time, retirement, routine veterinary care, routine welfare evaluations, sanitation and transportation.

On average, agencies demonstrated that they have policies covering 15 of the 18 issues, while the average for federal contractors was only 11 out of 18.

Areas where agencies most fell behind best practices were on abuse and neglect and the rest and length of on-duty time. Only 22 of the 40 agencies with dog programs had policies governing abuse and neglect, while 17 of the 40 agencies established procedures regarding the length of time dogs spend on duty and mandating rest for working canines.

Agencies often justified the lack of a policy governing a particular issue by saying it was covered by a broader federal workforce or management policy, or that the government’s responsibility for a dog ends when the dog retires and is adopted by a private home. But GAO argued having comprehensive policies governing all 18 key issues for managing working dogs help prevent incidents of mistreatment or neglect.

“Officials from one program said that their existing employee misconduct policies were sufficient to address cases of abuse and neglect,” GAO wrote. “Officials from some agencies reported that their policies did not address rest and length of on-duty time because working dogs’ needs vary too greatly with climate, type of activity and other factors for policy to address this issue adequately.”

“However, without comprehensive policies, agencies cannot ensure the humane treatment and optimal performance of their working dogs or ensure that officials carry out certain actions, like retirement and euthanasia, consistently,” the report states. “Comprehensive policies can clearly articulate standards and delineate responsibilities and, in doing so, help management ensure that important activities, such as providing routine medical care or processing dogs at retirement, are carried out according to established standards.”

GAO recommended that all agencies that employ working dogs revise their policies governing those programs to include policies for all 18 issues the watchdog agency highlighted, and that all agencies that contract with private companies for the use of working dogs do the same the next time those contracts are up for renewal.

Nearly every agency studied in the report concurred with the recommendations, except for the Energy Department.

“For both recommendations, the department indicated that it would evaluate the 18 issues GAO identified as important to the health and welfare of working dogs to determine their applicability to DOE’s canine program and would issue a policy clarification to address those areas DOE determines are applicable,” GAO wrote. “[We] agree that the department has some flexibility in determining which of the 18 issues are addressed in future contracts. However, with regard to our recommendation directed to the department’s agencies with federally managed working dog programs, we continue to believe that addressing all 18 issues is important to ensuring the humane treatment and optimal performance of federal working dogs.”