Many dog bite victims are reluctant to press a claim against the owner in court because they are afraid that if they succeed, the dog will be killed. This reluctance can be even greater if the dog’s owner is a friend or neighbor of the victim. Since dog bite law is complex, there is no universal “yes” or “no” answer to the question of what will happen to an aggressive dog – it depends on the circumstances of the case and the law of the local jurisdiction.
“Dangerous Dog” Laws
A “dangerous dog” law is a statute or regulation enacted by a state, city or county government that defines unacceptable conduct by dogs and their owners/handlers, sets out penalties for unacceptable behavior, and provides victims of dog attacks with enforceable legal rights. Although these laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, they typically address issues such as:
- Prohibitions against allowing a dog to roam freely, trespass on the property of another or leave its owner’s property without being leashed
- The classification of a dog as “dangerous” or “vicious”
- Prohibitions against “nuisance” behavior by a dog such as excessive barking, chasing animals or defecating on public or private property
- The “punishment” of dangerous or vicious dogs
- Civil and sometimes even criminal liability for dog owners/handlers
- Identification of dogs and their owners (through tagging, microchipping, etc.)
- Notification and right to a hearing for people whose dogs have been subject to a complaint
“Dangerous Dogs” vs. “Vicious Dogs”
Depending on the jurisdiction, a court or an animal control authority might declare a dog to be “dangerous” or “vicious”. A dog doesn’t necessarily have to behave in a “bad” way to be declared dangerous – it might be declared dangerous because it has been trained to fight or even because it belongs to an aggressive breed such as pit bulls.
If the dog fits the description provided under local law, the dog owner might be required to report the dog to animal control authorities, who might respond by declaring the dog “dangerous”. If the dog is declared dangerous, the authority might impose certain requirements on the owner, such as erecting a “Beware of Dog” sign or leashing the dog while in public. It may even prohibit the dog from living within city limits.
If the dog commits an antisocial act such as intimidating, biting or attacking people, or even fighting with other dogs, in many jurisdictions a victim may file a complaint with a court to have the dog declared “vicious”. The owner will be entitled to a hearing on the matter (and may hire a lawyer to represent him), and the court may prohibit the owner from taking the dog out of the court’s jurisdiction. If the dog is declared “vicious”, the judge will have the authority to impose various consequences, including:
- Impounding the dog in an animal shelter
- Requiring the owner to keep the dog on his property at all times (with certain exceptions such as veterinary appointments)
- Requiring that the dog be muzzled
- Prohibiting the dog owner from leaving the dog unattended while off its owner’s property (even if it is leashed)
- Requiring that the dog wear a special leash or collar identifying it as a vicious dog
- Requiring the owner to purchase liability insurance
- Preventing the owner from giving the dog to anyone else (the owner must either keep the dog or destroy it)
- Destroying the dog, even over the owner’s objections (typically by painless lethal injection)
A dangerous dog can subject its owner to significant legal liability. The services of a lawyer may be required to secure an acceptable outcome if a claim against the dog or its owner arises.