Dog Law: How Dog Owners Can Avoid Being Bitten by a Lawsuit


Filed in Dogs, Safety

Copyright © 1999

The numbers are up, and it's not good news: Dogs bite two million people every year. About 800,000 of the injured seek medical attention, which means someone seeks treatment for a dog bite every 40 seconds, according to epidemiologist Dr. Jeffrey Sacks at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The explanations are nearly as numerous as the dogs, now counted at 58 million. Some speculate that Americans, frightened of crime, are favoring fiercer breeds. And busy owners too often leave their pets home alone, untrained and unsocialized. Dogs that spend a lot of time by themselves (especially if they're tied up), aren't used to being around strangers and haven't received basic obedience training are prime candidates to bite.

Who's Liable?

Those injured usually have the law on their side. In the old days, the law gave dog owners what was called "one free bite." Put simply, an owner wasn't liable for injuries unless the dog had already shown it was likely to hurt someone. The dog didn't actually have to have bitten someone--for example, if your dog lunged at the neighbor, teeth bared, you were considered to be on notice that the dog might bite.

But most states now make owners liable for any harm their dog causes, whether or not the owner had reason to suspect that the dog was dangerous. Dog owners can find themselves on the hook for an injured person's medical expenses and lost wages, or even the therapy bills of a traumatized child. The dog owner may not be liable if the dog was provoked, or if the injured person was trespassing, but claims like these are often very hard to prove after the fact.

It's far better, of course, to avoid injuries rather than fight about legal liability after they happen. And the truth is that dog owners could prevent most bites.

Teach Your Dog

It's your job, as an owner, to train and socialize your dog. Humane societies everywhere offer low-cost basic obedience classes, which are a good way to teach your dog to behave around other dogs and people. And plenty of good tips are available in books such as How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend and The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete.

It's also up to you, as a responsible pet owner, to spay or neuter your dog. It will cut down not only on the number of unwanted dogs, but also on injuries to people. Unsterilized dogs are three times more likely to bite, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Sterilization will also make it easier to keep your dog from straying.

Here are some other simple steps to take.

Never let a dog run at large. In some states, you're automatically liable for any injury your dog causes while at large.

Keep your dog's vaccinations current. Rabies vaccinations are required by law. If your dog bites someone, the authorities, not to mention the victim, will view it a lot more seriously if the dog hasn't had a recent rabies shot.

Keep the dog out of strangers' paths. Lots of people--mail carriers, salespeople, poll-takers, girl scouts -- routinely come to your front door. Keep the dog away from it. A fenced front yard isn't good enough; most people will open a gate and walk on up to the door.

Post warning signs. If you have any reason to think that your dog might injure someone coming onto your property, post "Beware of Dog" signs prominently. But remember that young children can't read. If you think children might still be at risk, put a lock on the gate.

This Year's Bad Breed
The latest breed to be looked upon with suspicion, supplanting the pit bull, German shepherd and Doberman pinscher, is the Rottweiler, a heavy, quiet-tempered and protective dog. How did this breed--the gentle "Good Dog Carl" of the children's book series--get to be a villain?

Several factors are at play. Breed popularity is faddish, and Rottweilers' popularity has exploded; they now rank second only to Labrador retrievers. More dogs, of any breed, mean more bites.

Another consequence of growing popularity is that it encourages irresponsible breeders to turn out litters of puppies for quick profit, without regard to the temperament of the breeding dogs. And Rottweilers' protective instincts make them attractive not only to people who want security but also to people looking to enhance their own tough image--people who may know nothing about training and socializing a dog.

All these trends add up to a bad reputation and growing numbers of bites. But in a few years, some other purported canine menace -- Akitas? giant shar-peis? -- will no doubt capture the headlines.

Teach Your Children

Children are much more likely to be bitten than are adults, and boys are more likely to be bitten than girls. In large part, these injuries occur because the children have never been taught how to behave around dogs. All kids should know these basic rules:

  • Don't pet a dog without letting the dog sniff you first.
  • Never disturb a dog that's eating, sleeping or caring for puppies.
  • Don't run from a dog.
  • Try not to make eye contact with a dog; it can be threatening to a dog.

Finally, don't assume that familiarity breeds safety. Many children are bitten by dogs they are familiar with, on the dog's home turf. Children may take more chances with a dog they know, and a dog is more protective in its own home.

This article appears in Dog Law from Nolo Press.

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