Mark Roberts had fallen asleep in the family room of his Puyallup rambler, the windows open to take in the breeze of a mild September evening. He was jolted awake by the sound of a helicopter.
Roberts, clad in a T-shirt and boxers, walked out the back door and took a few steps into his driveway for a better look.
Seconds later, he was in a bloody life-or-death struggle with a beast with a badge.
I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye, recalled Roberts, 58, of the split-second before he was flattened by K-9 Officer Vasko, a police dog with the Pierce County Sheriffs Department, that night in 2008.
Vasko, a big German shepherd, hit Roberts at full stride, knocking him to the ground. The snarling dog grabbed Roberts right thigh in its mouth and bit.
The pain was something indescribable, said Roberts. He screamed. It was a sound Id never heard before coming out of me.
Roberts is not the only innocent bystander to be caught in the crushing grip of Vaskos jaws.
Three people, including Roberts, have filed claims against Pierce County after being bitten by the dog. Two claims have cost Pierce County $352,500: the $350,000 settlement with Roberts earlier this year after he filed a federal lawsuit, and $2,500 awarded to a 53-year-old woman after she was bitten by Vasko while the dog was tracking a suspect, according to court documents.
A third claim, by a woman bitten by Vasko while she was painting a sign in 2010, is pending.
A Seattle Times review of dog-bite claims from the risk managers and insurers of more than 100 Washington cities and counties shows such incidents happen several times a year in the state.
Over the past five years, at least 17 people claim they were mistakenly attacked by police dogs from Western Washington law-enforcement agencies. As a result, the agencies have paid nearly $1 million in damages, with several large claims pending.
In many cases, individual dogs are responsible for several attacks, an issue that dog trainers and experts say is a warning sign that the dog and handler might need additional training.
Of those 17 incidents, three dogs two from Pierce County and one from Seattle were responsible for nine of the incidents and more than two-thirds of the damages paid.
Even after multiple bites on innocent people, many K-9s remain on duty.
A Pierce County sheriffs dog, K-9 Officer Cliff, has been named in three claims, which have cost the county $247,000.
One lawsuit Cliff was named in he severely bit a passenger in a car that police had been chasing. That was the same incident in which Roberts was attacked by Vasko, who also was involved in the search for the driver.
A federal judge dismissed the passengers civil rights claim, finding that the bite was the accidental effect of otherwise lawful government conduct.
Sgt. Jerry Bates, a spokesman for Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, said Cliff remains on the force.
Critics say the frequency and severity of bites on innocent people are tied directly to training. Most U.S. dogs are trained to bite and hold, releasing their prey only on orders from their handlers.
In Europe, dogs are trained to track prey, but rather than attack, they are taught to circle and bark at the target a technique known as find and bark or bark and contain. The dog bites only if the suspect attempts to flee or the dog or handler is attacked.
Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommend this type of training for U.S. police dogs. However, there is resistance to the find and bark method among many law-enforcement agencies.
K-9s, like any other tool issued to and used by law enforcement in the application of any force ... carry an inherent risk, said Bates, the Pierce County sheriffs spokesman.
Bates said one way not to be injured by a dog is to do what the dogs handler tells you to do.
That is, if the handler is around.
Roberts, the Puyallup man attacked outside his home, said Vaskos attack lasted at least five minutes before the dogs handler, Deputy Micah Lundborg, was able to locate him and call him off.
In the meantime, the dog inflicted a muscle-crushing wound to his right thigh that took nearly two years to heal.
This was a life-or-death situation for me, Roberts said.
Bates said Vasko retired when Lundborg was promoted.
Another dog, from the Lakewood Police Department, has been named in two claims involving serious injuries, including attacking the wrong man in a field while searching for a suspect in a domestic-violence assault in May 2011.
Chad Boyles was simply taking a walk to cool off following the argument when he was attacked by K-9 Officer Astor, according to his claim. The dog bit him on the arm and shoulder, leaving a deep wound in his forearm.
All I could hear was crunching, Boyle recalled. He filed a $3 million claim against the county last week.
Lakewood police have declined to comment on the claim.
Astor is also named in a federal lawsuit filed by Noel Saldana over injuries he suffered on June 27, 2010.
In this instance, Saldana was being sought by the dog and his handler after police responded to Saldanas apartment on a report of domestic violence.
Saldana, 27, said he was intoxicated and urinating in some bushes several blocks away when he heard a loud voice telling me to get down.
I did exactly as I was told, he said, but Astor tore into his leg.
Saldana was never charged with a crime.
Astor continues to work, the department said.
In the U.S., police dogs are trained to bite and bite hard.
A study comparing injuries caused by police dogs and bites from domestic dogs, published in 2006 in the medical Journal of Injuries, found much higher rates of hospitalization for those who tangled with K-9s. The studys author, Dr. Peter C. Meade, found that police dogs were far more likely to inflict multiple, serious bites than were domestic dogs, and victims injuries were almost twice as likely to require surgery.
Part of the reason, Meade concluded, was that the dogs used by police were bred for size and trained to bite and not let go.
Most U.S. police departments use large breeds such as German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Rottweilers. With the police-dog injuries he studied, Meade said the forces the animals inflicted reached 800 pounds of pressure per square inch enough to puncture sheet metal.
Many, if not most, of the K-9 patrol dogs used by police departments today are bred in Europe and receive their initial training there. The dogs can cost up to $4,000 and their training an additional $10,000, according to experienced dog trainers and handlers.
U.S. K-9 trainers, handlers and researchers say that find and bark method sounds great but doesnt work in practice.
They claim it endangers the dog and handler, and leaves too much discretion to the animal.
The ready availability of firearms in the U.S. unlike Europe also undermines the use of the find-and-bark technique. A dog that stands off and barks makes an easy target, and so does the police officer/handler coming up behind it, they said.
Zbigniew Kasprzyk, vice president of the Washington State Police Canine Association and a 27-year veteran dog handler for the King County Sheriffs Office, said the threat of the bite is what its all about.
If Im going to deploy my dog, I want that person to know they are going to be bitten unless they come out. Its a huge incentive, he said.