A Primer On Dangerous Dog Laws

How do communities protect against dangerous dogs?

Communities protect against dangerous dogs by educating people about keeping a dog and behaving safely around dogs, by enacting laws (called “dangerous dog laws”) that protect people from dangerous dogs and protect dogs from cruelty, and by enforcing those laws with appropriate penalties.

What is a “dangerous dog law”?

A “dangerous dog law” is a law that sets forth what conduct of a dog and owner shall be illegal (including things like the dog being off-leash, trespassing, or being at large), establishes consequences for the dog and owner, and provides reasonable rights of notice and hearing before the imposition of penalties. This type of law can cover the entire range of unacceptable behavior, everything from biting to trespassing, running at large, or being walked without a leash. It is up to the particular jurisdiction to decide what the dangerous dog law should outlaw.

These laws also can prohibit people from keeping a particular breed of dog that appears to be too risky to the community or can impose special requirements for keeping such dogs. For example, pit bulls must be “fixed” in many cities and in some places are not allowed.

A “dangerous dog law” may be the basis for civil liability under the doctrines of negligence and negligence per se, but is only one of a number of potential civil causes of action against the owner of a dog that bites or injures a person.

Enacting a law is not effective unless the animal control authority has the manpower and the determination to take dangerous dogs off the streets. Under some circumstances, the victim of an attack by a dangerous dog can recover compensation from the animal control authority that failed to impound that dog before the incident took place. For example, the family of Jennifer Lowe retained Attorneys Kenneth M. Phillips and Wayne A. Ritchie II to sue the County of Knox, Tennessee, after she was brutally killed by pit bulls, and the case was won by showing that the animal control department knew that the dogs were vicious but failed to impound them before the fatal attack. (See Animal Control Liability for Dog Bites.)

What is the most important part of a dangerous dog law?

Each jurisdiction must decide exactly what behaviors of the dog and the owner cannot be tolerated. Something which is dangerous in a crowded city would not necessarily be dangerous in a rural area; a dog that guards property, for example, might be dangerous in an apartment building but a necessity on a farm. (See Vicious Dogs.)

How are the dog laws established?

The dog laws are established by city ordinances, county ordinances, state statutes, federal regulations (for dogs on federal property such as federal parks), and military regulations (for dogs on military bases).

What other laws protect against dangerous dogs?

Each city, county, and/or state should have all three of the following types of laws: A “dangerous dog law” and an “irresponsible dog owner” law. Criminal laws against dog fighting and cruel treatment of dogs. Civil laws make dog owners, harborers, and keepers legally liable for the payment of damages to a dog bite victim and his family. For details, see:

What do the civil laws provide for a dog bite victim?

Civil laws consist of civil statutes, and civil cases decided in the courts. The statutes generally require a dog owner, harborer, or keeper to pay compensation to a dog bite victim, provided that the state’s prerequisites for dog bite liability are met. In two-thirds of the states, dog bite statutes make dog owners strictly liable for dog bites that are not provoked, as long as the victim is not a trespasser. In the other states, the dog owner is liable only if he previously had reason to know that his dog had the desire to bite people (this is referred to as the “one bite rule” although an actual bite is not required). The court cases impose liability on the basis of negligence, negligence per se, and other legal doctrines in addition to the civil statutes. (See Plain English Overview of Dog Bite Law.)

There is no general rule that determines the amount that a surviving victim will receive. The categories of compensation, however, are well established:

  • Medical treatment such as first aid, emergency room, hospital, and ambulance.
  • Future medical treatment for scar reduction, pain management, physical therapy, etc.
  • Psychological counseling to overcome the emotional trauma of the attack, fear of dogs, fear of being outdoors, and dealing with disfigurement.
  • Loss of earnings from work or loss of profits at the victim’s business.
  • Loss of the capacity to earn money in the future as a result of disfigurement or disability.
  • Veterinary medical treatment for the victim’s dog if it also was injured in the same incident.
  • Torn clothing and broken glasses.
  • Medications.
  • Pain and suffering.
  • Future disability.

What criminal penalties are dog owners subject to?

Dog owners are subject to criminal penalties for a variety of actions that we regard as dangerous toward other people or cruel to the dogs. Owners have been convicted of murder, having too many dogs, allowing their dogs to be outside without a leash, and keeping dogs chained to a tree without food or water. Additionally, all states make it illegal to engage in organized dog fighting, and most states make it a crime to even attend an organized dog fight.

How can a person get a new law passed?

It is remarkably easy to interest a lawmaker in presenting a new bill to local government or the state legislature. It takes only several well-thought-out letters from his constituents. One should tell him who you are and establish that you are a constituent, describe the problem that must be solved, personalize the problem (i.e., bring it “home” in a compelling manner), and call for a solution. If you have a model law, it will be carefully studied. After you send your letter, follow up on it in a respectful but diligent manner. Enlist other constituents to endorse your approach, too. There are a number of great books on the subject of grassroots campaigns for change.

What other methods are used to prevent people from keeping dangerous dogs?

There are laws and court decisions that have the indirect effect of preventing people from keeping dangerous dogs. Here are some examples:

  • People who rent their homes and apartments have to have a lease from the landowner, and landowners can be held civilly liable for allowing a dangerous dog to live on their property.
  • Stores and restaurants can be held liable for allowing people to bring a dog onto their premises under certain circumstances (but not all circumstances).
  • Airlines do not permit dangerous dogs to travel even in the baggage area, because some of those dogs have escaped and chewed through the walls and wires of the aircraft.
  • Insurance companies exclude pit bulls and other high-risk breeds from coverage, which dissuades responsible homeowners and renters from having such dogs.