How Dogs Are Used in Cell Extractions

The dogs used for cell extractions typically are German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois—both large breeds of dog that usually weigh well over sixty pounds and stand over two feet high.3 The dogs are usually imported from Europe and often undergo preliminary training with breeders or those selling the dogs. Prison handlers continue the training, using decoys to train the dog in “apprehension”—i.e. biting on command and releasing on command. Usually, a dog lives with its primary handler, and the two develop a close bond. 

When a handler and his dog enter a cell block in connection with a possible cell extraction, the dog barks loudly and continuously, jumping up against the cell door and scratching at the window, as seen in two videotaped cell extractions with dogs that are available on the Human Rights Watch website.4 The dog’s barking and presence outside the prisoner’s cell is intended to terrify and intimidate the prisoner into compliance with the order to “cuff up.” If the prisoner continues to resist, he knows the dog will be loosed on him. Some prisoners will wrap blankets, towels, and even toilet paper around their limbs to try to protect themselves from dog bites. When the guards open the cell door, the leashed dog enters the cell first. The dog handler is supposed to maintain his hold on the dog’s leash while it attacks the prisoner. But this is not always the case. As one prisoner in Connecticut described his experience: “The dog was barking uncontrollably and jumping up and out towards me. The k-9 officers released the dog leash, and the dog, a German Shepherd, charged me.”5

The dog is trained to bite whatever part of the prisoner it can grasp first. According to an Iowa corrections official, “[The dogs are] taught a deep—a full-mouth bite. The dog opens his mouth real wide and gets as much as [he can] whether it’s a thigh or whatever in his mouth.”6

While the prisoner tries to fend off or wrestle with the dog, officers enter the cell, use whatever force remains necessary to subdue him, and put restraints on him. At some point, the dog handler will call off the dog, although the dog may remain in the cell.

When dogs were used for cell extractions in Arizona, the procedure was different. Instead of going into the cell with the dog, the dog handler would remain outside holding on to a thirty foot leash attached to a harness on the dog. The dog would be let into the cell, jump up on the prisoner, and bite him. Once the dog had a hold of the prisoner, the officers would pull on the dog’s leash and drag the dog and the prisoner, gripped by the dog’s jaws, out of the cell. A training video formerly used by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows a simulated cell extraction using this method; it is available on the Human Rights Watch website at

During cell extractions using dogs, there is almost always an injury to the prisoner—“at the very least a puncture.”7 If the prisoner resists, he might suffer more serious muscle or tissue tearing. A former prison dog handler from Arizona told Human Rights Watch that most of the injuries he had seen were puncture wounds. But, he said: “The most common mistake is for the person who is being bitten to jerk back. This creates a tearing.” He said that although people have been bitten pretty badly, he had never seen any unexpected injuries “like losing a limb, fingers or an ear.”8 A Iowa corrections official told Human Rights Watch that he was not aware of any serious injuries caused by the dogs.9

Some prisoners, however, have described long-term injuries as a result of dog bites that occurred during cell extractions.  For example, one Connecticut prisoner wrote:

I freed my leg from the dog’s mouth and I fell backward to the floor.  The dog charged me again while I was down.  I raised my left hand to block the dog’s bite and it sank its teeth completely through my hand … My left hand has suffered permanent damage.  I lost a lot of feeling in my middle and ring fingers and I have a “pin & needles” feeling in my index finger and thumb.  This is due to multiple nerves being severed from the dog bite. This information has all been recurred [sic] in my D.O.C. medical file.10

Prisoners also suggested that the handlers do not always have control over the dogs.  A prisoner in Connecticut described an incident in which he was in a two-man cell while officers with a dog were involved in an altercation with his cell-mate. Although he was kneeling against the wall with his hands up, he was nonetheless attacked by the dog. “The k-9 bit me on my back by my lower left shoulder by the back bone.”11 The dog handler who participated in this cell extraction noted in his incident report: “Inmate [O] went toward the wall and to his knees. K-9 Rony had slipped out of his collar and bit inmate [O] on the back.”12

3 As of August 25, 2006, 37 state prison systems have canine units. They are typically trained to sniff for drugs or other contraband and are sometimes trained and used for crowd control during riots.

4 The videos are of cell extractions using dogs in Massachusetts on June 14, 2004 and in Connecticut on November 3, 2000.

5 Letter to Human Rights Watch from M.B., a prisoner in the Connecticut Department of Corrections, March 17, 2006.

6 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with John Fayram, acting warden of Anamosa State Penitentiary, Iowa, December 12, 2005.

7 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with senior correctional officer in a state which has been using dogs, and who requested anonymity, November 28, 2005.

8 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with former corrections employee who requested anonymity, November 28, 2005.

9 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with John Fayram, acting warden of Anamosa State Penitentiary, Iowa, December 12, 2005.

10 Letter to Human Rights Watch from M.D., a prisoner in Connecticut.

11 Letter to Human Rights Watch from I.O., a prisoner in Connecticut, dated February 2006.

12 Ibid. Prisoner I.O. sent Human Rights Watch a copy of the incident report.