What Is Your Liability If Your Dog Attacks a Person or Animal? An Expert Weighs In

An animal expert from the Humane Society of the United States advises that prevention is the best defense against liability for a dog attack

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It’s one of a dog owner’s worst nightmares: Due to an unforeseen collision of circumstances your canine has lashed out and attacked another animal — or a person.

To get some insight into what a dog owner is liable for if their dog is involved in a dog attack, and what the best course of action is after an attack has occurred, PEOPLE spoke with Amy Nichols, vice president of companion animals and equine at the Humane Society of the United States.

Nichols has worked with animals for 20 years, and knows the good and bad situations that can arise when caring for a pet.

As with other issues, the best way to keep your dog out of an attack situation is prevention.

“Be a responsible pet owner, always have them on leash when in public, train and socialize your dog and take steps to not put them in situations where a dog attack could occur,” Nichols advises.

Situations that can lead to a dog attack vary for each canine, because “just like people, dogs are individuals, and so what starts a fight for one dog may not start one for another, and so many factors can contribute.”

Take the time to notice and remember what stresses out your dog and causes him to behave erratically or be more defensive than normal. These are the triggers to avoid. While every dog is different, Nichols says some common stresses that can lead to dog attacks are:

  • Dogs meeting on uneven ground: “If one dog is on a leash, and an unfamiliar unleashed dog runs up to him, it can make even the friendliest dog react poorly, as they may feel protective, fearful or just plain annoyed. I have often seen this when out for walks with my dog, where the owner of an unleashed dog will say, ‘Don’t worry he’s friendly’ as their dog runs up to my dog. I often think to myself that I’m lucky my dog is not only friendly, but doesn’t seem to mind dogs running full speed into his face, when I would understand completely if he did!”
  • Not wanting to share: “If there is high-value treat or toy in the mix, and one dog doesn’t want to share. Just like with kids, dogs often want whatever the other dog has, even if it’s the same exact thing, so owners need to be aware of this, particularly with new or visiting dogs.”
  • Need to protect their home: “If a dog is in their home, or a place they may see as ‘theirs,’ and a new dog (whether visiting or a new addition to the family) is first introduced in the home, it often doesn’t set them up for success. It’s why when people adopt a new dog, shelters and rescues will often advise that they introduce their current dog to the new dog on neutral territory and spend time there before bringing them inside the house.”
  • Not spaying/neutering: “Whether or not a dog is spayed or neutered can play a role. It used to be that people would recommend not having two male, or female dogs, because they wouldn’t get along. This was often based on the fact that spaying and neutering wasn’t as common as it is today. Two unneutered or unspayed dogs will often have more disagreements, based on hormone levels, than dogs who are spayed or neutered.”
  • Lack of socialization: “Socialization is a key factor. Dogs who are well socialized, and continue to be socialized, can often handle even bad situations. I attribute my own dog’s demeanor and extremely high level of tolerance of even the most ill-behaved dogs to him having practically grown up in the doggy daycare I used to run. This exposed him to many different dogs with different personalities.”

Along with being familiar with your own dog’s personality, it is also vital to make yourself familiar with the municipality, city and state ordinances and laws regarding dogs. The differences between these can vary greatly from place to place, so it’s important to keep up to date, especially if you move. These laws and ordinances can also give you insight into your liability as a dog owner if your dog attacks another dog or a human.

“Laws really differ on this in each jurisdiction. Sometimes owners are required to pay for the medical care of the injured pet or person, sometimes people will push for costs associated with injury ranging from time they had to take off work to emotional cost,” Nichols says. She adds, “Dangerous dog laws are often used in cases of dog attacks and bites, and range from requiring additional insurance to requiring the animal be re-homed outside of the community, or even euthanized.”

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The laws and ordinances can also inform an owner on what licenses, insurance and vaccines are required based on their canine’s size, breed and other factors.

It is not just your dog’s history and local laws that can affect the outcome of an attack situation; an owner’s history in the neighborhood and their reaction to an attack can have just as much weight when it comes to what a dog owner ends up liable for.

“Think about it this way: How would you react if you have a neighbor with whom you have a great relationship, and their dog is usually very well-behaved but got out one day, and bit your dog? Now think about how you’d react if it’s a neighbor who you find rude and inconsiderate, and whose dog you have seen running loose dozens of times,” Nichols explains.

“For a lot of people, what the existing relationship is with the owner and dog plays a big role. Shelters will often start getting calls about dogs who have been running loose for years, but the complaints are only now being filed because the owner did something to anger the person filing the complaint. Other factors include (but aren’t limited to) how the owner reacted both at the scene and afterward, the severity of the injuries for both dogs and people, and the resulting veterinary and medical costs,” she adds.

If you do find yourself in a dog attack situation, Nichols recommends approaching the situation from a place of safety and understanding, similar to what is expected of the responsible party after a car accident.

“After containing your dog, preferably inside or with another person, go over to the other owners and ask them if their pet is hurt, or if they are hurt. If they are, think about if you want to offer to pay for a vet visit to get checked out, and be clear about what you’re willing to pay for and what you’re not,” Nichols says.

“If they seem uninjured, exchange information in case they later see an injury or similar, and also so that you can follow up with them in writing should you need to. Take note of who else was around when the attack happened, not only in case you need to call on them as witnesses, but also because in this day and age of technology, someone may have recorded it.”

As Nichols stresses, working on prevention with your pet can keep you from needing to consider any of the above advice.

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