Dog Attacks: What Are My Legal Rights?

What Legal Rights Do I Have if My Dog or I Am Attacked by Another Dog While Off-leash at an Off-leash Dog Park or Just Walking My Dog On-leash?

Here is the list of topics we'll cover in this article:

  1. List of Things to Help Keep You and Your Dog Safe on a Walk
  2. List of Things to Do to Keep You and Your Dog Safe at an Off-leash Dog Park
  3. Dog Injury or Damage to Property Lawsuit Overview
  4. What Happens if Your Dog Does Get Into a Fight?
  5. What to Do if You Are Sued
  6. What to Do if You Receive a Letter From an Attorney
  7. Cost of Treatment
  8. The Difference Between Market and Replacement Value
  9. Description of Emotional Distress Damages if Your Pet is Killed
  10. The Future for You and Your Dog After an Attack Has Occurred
  11. Additional Resources

I’m sure at some point in your life you and/or your dog have been approached by a dog who was off-leash.  Most of the time, it’s a harmless encounter.  However, attacks on owners and/or their dog(s) by an off-leash dog do occur.  When this scenario does happen, owners of both dogs need to know what their rights are and what to do next.

As a responsible dog owner, prevention of dog fights or attacks are key.  Whether you are on a walk or at an off-leash dog park, here are some things you can do to create a safe and pleasurable experience for everyone.

1. List of Things to Help Keep You and Your Dog Safe on a Walk:

  • Review all of the city and state regulations for your location to ensure that you are following the rules and to avoid any fines.
  • If your dog shows signs of aggression, muzzle the dog when it’s around people.
  • Keep your dog in an enclosed yard or indoors with you.
  • Never allow your dog to roam the neighborhood.
  • Always have current license and rabies vaccination tags on your dog’s collar.
  • If you think your dog might injure someone, don’t allow people to approach your dog; post signs on your property, and never let your dog be the one to be the “greeter” when visitors come to your front door.
  • When walking your dog, keep him/her on a leash.  For most states, dogs must be on a leash (no more than six feet long) at all times, except in dog runs and designated off-leash areas at the prescribed times.  Here are 5 reasons you should obey the leash laws:
  1. It’s the law. 
  2. When your dog is on leash and under your control, he’s less likely to get into something he’s not supposed to.  Your dog may eat something he’s not supposed to, step in a bee hive, fall into a hole, drink from a polluted puddle of standing water, eat a dead animal, etc. 
  3. Just because your dog is friendly doesn’t mean every dog is friendly.  Not all dogs do well in puppy play groups or on pack walks, and that doesn’t make them bad dogs.  Some of them just need to walk alone.  Having your dog leashed can help prevent a dog from charging at a person or another dog which could cause injury.
  4. Not everyone you encounter on a walk is physically able to withstand a dog jumping on them. 
  5. People have the right to walk in a public park without being confronted by loose dogs. Dog owners do not have the right to let their dogs run loose in undesignated off-leash areas of the park.  In reality, not everyone likes your dog, or wants your strange dog jumping on them, running at them, or otherwise interacting with them without their permission.

2. List of Things to Do to Keep You and Your Dog Safe at an Off-leash Dog Park:

  • Make sure your dog is up-to-date on his/her vaccinations.
  • Supervise dogs when they are playing and interrupt any rough play.
  • Check to be sure there aren’t a large number of intact males at the park.  Most parks don’t allow any intact males to enter the park, but that doesn’t mean owners still won’t take them.
  • Don’t bring treats or toys into a dog park as dogs will tend to fight over these things.  I once saw a woman have her two children bring in a large size pizza while she stayed safely outside the fence, and within about 5 seconds almost every dog in the park was all over her children which resulted in the dogs fighting with each other.  Within about 30 seconds, the adults all started arguing (and almost physically fighting) with the mom about her children’s neglect.
  • Be sure to take your dog’s temperament into consideration and don’t assume s/he’s having a good time.  It's always wise to leave the park if your pet shows signs of tiredness, stress or fear or if there are dogs present who seem threatening.
  • Be aware of the body language of all dogs in the park.  Here are some Red Flags that require intervention: 
    • Excessive mounting
    • Pinning (holding another dog down and standing stiffly over them)
    • Shadowing another dog (following) incessantly
    • Bullying: repeatedly bothering another dog that does not want to interact
    • Fast non-stop running with a group – high arousal situation
    • Full-speed body slams
    • Putting head repeatedly onto another dog's neck or back
    • Staring with a fixed gaze directly at another dog
    • Snarling or raised lips
    • Showing teeth
    • Hackles up at the shoulders
  • Evaluate the off-leash park prior to taking your dog there for the first time.  The things that you want to look for include:
    • Separate entrance and exit gates if fenced — Separate entrance and exit gates allow dogs to come and go without meeting each other in a cramped area.  Dog fights often break out when one or more dogs feel threatened yet have no way to remove themselves from the threat. 
    • Entrances and exits with a two-gate system so dogs can’t escape from the park accidentally — Parks with a two-gate system avoid the possibility of dogs escaping from the park, increasing the safety of all the dogs.
    • Natural visual barriers within the park (hills, trees, etc.) — Not only do natural visual barriers create a more enjoyable environment for both dogs and humans, they also offer dogs a way to avoid problems.  If a dog feels he is being targeted by a bully or pack, he can remove himself to a location where the bullying dog(s) cannot see him and they will quickly forget about him and move on to other activities.
    • Drinking water and shade provided — Dogs can’t cool themselves as efficiently as humans and therefore must have access to drinking water and shade. 
    • Enough space to avoid crowding — If dogs become too crowded, it is much easier for a “bully” or a pack of dogs to corner and harass another dog.  Fights tend to break out more often under crowded conditions.
    • Materials for cleaning up after dogs (bags and garbage cans) — The ability to clean up after our dogs is essential for basic good health for both dogs and humans.  It also helps prevent arguments and fights between humans when someone is discovered not cleaning up after their dog.
    • No 90 degree angles in the fence — Fences which have 90-degree angles allow dogs to corner other dogs and bully or attack them.  Fencing without a 90-degree angle makes it easier for a dog to escape.
    • Separate enclosed areas for smaller dogs — It can be very dangerous to take a small dog to a park frequented by large dogs.  The large dogs may not mean to hurt the smaller dogs, but they can play too rough and inadvertently hurt the dog.  One thing to be aware of is that if you have small and large dogs, almost every enclosed off-leash dog area requires an owner to be present with the dog, so you will want to bring a friend with you to supervise whichever dog you are not with.
    • Observe dog(s) bullying another dog or dogs forming loose packs — Although this will happen occasionally, if it happens often in a particular park, it is an indication that aggressive and/or fearful behaviors are more likely to develop in some dogs because of exposure to the dog park.  You should therefore avoid this park.  In a good dog park, the owners are on the lookout for this type of behavior and will not allow it to continue.

3. Dog Injury or Damage to Property Lawsuit Overview
Dog owners can usually be held liable when their dogs cause injuries to other people.  This is true whether the dog bites someone, or otherwise causes injury or damage to property. Sometimes, a fair settlement of the issue can be reached without having to file a lawsuit, but often the injured party will need to sue the dog owner to hold him or her liable to the full extent that the law allows – or to get an insurance company to move on the case.

The biggest problem with taking on a lawsuit is that even if you win, you usually do not recover very much money because most courts limit recovery to the cost of replacing the companion animal with another animal.  Because of the low potential for a large recovery, some lawyers are unable or unwilling to take these cases on a contingency basis (which means they get a certain percentage of any damages awarded by the court).  It is possible, therefore, that you could invest more money in legal fees than can be recovered even if you win.

In some states, the dog owner is subject to strict liability, meaning that fault on the part of the dog owner does not need to be established if the dog bites someone.  In these states, a few questions usually need to be resolved before the dog owner will be liable such as whether the person who was bitten was lawfully on the property where the bite occurred (trespassers generally can’t sue), and whether he or she did anything purposeful to provoke the dog.   

Other states follow a "one bite" or negligence rule, where the focus is on whether the owner knew or should have known that the dog might bite, and whether the owner took necessary precautions based on that knowledge.

Your state has a personal injury statute of limitations that sets a limit on the amount of time an injured person can wait before filing their case in the state’s civil court system.  If you’re thinking about filing a lawsuit over dog bite injuries, you need to pay attention to and abide by this deadline.

4. What Happens if Your Dog Does Get Into a Fight?
If your dog does get into a scuffle with another dog and the other dog is injured, who is liable will depend on different factors.  In GENERAL, during a fight:
•    If your dog was leashed and the other was not, you are okay.
•    If the scuffle happened on your property, you are okay.
•    If the other dog was attacking or provoking your dog and your dog was defending himself, you are okay.
•    If your issue has escalated to the point where a petition for a dangerous dog hearing regarding your dog has been made, hire an attorney who specializes in animal law.

5. What to Do if You Are Sued
If you are sued, you need to turn the matter over to your renter’s insurance or homeowner’s insurance; if you were on the job, turn it over to your employer because an employer is required to defend employees from suit.  If you own a business and the incident occurred in connection with business activities or on business property, turn it over to your commercial general insurance carrier.

If you were not insured, you need to respond to the court.  If the case is in small claims court, you need to appear and defend yourself with whatever evidence you can gather. If sued in other courts, you need to retain an attorney to defend you because it is a complicated process and the rules are almost impossible to grasp.  If you retain an attorney, there is a chance that s/he can settle the case with the opposing attorney, which would reduce your costs.  If you can’t afford an attorney, then you still need to retain an attorney as a consultant – s/he will tell you what is going on and what you have to do.  If you hire an attorney this way, it will be cheaper but it will be a lot of work for you.

6. What to Do if You Receive a Letter From an Attorney
If you receive a letter from an attorney who represents the victim, respond to it. If you ignore it, the next person you will see will be a sheriff with a court subpoena.  Give that attorney your insurance information (homeowners or renters).  Answer questions about insurance -- but not about the dog and not about what happened.

7. Cost of Treatment
When a dog is injured, the person responsible for the injury can be found legally liable for the veterinarian's bills.

Generally, courts allow the owner to be reimbursed only for "reasonable" treatment.  If your dog is injured, keep records of all bills for treatment, medication, pictures, and hospitalization to use during negotiations or at trial.  You probably won't be paid back for the time you took off from work to care for the dog or take it to the vet.  However, as a general rule, the more proof of damages you have, the more you are likely to recover within legal limits; and the more organized you are, the better the chance of success if the case has merit.

8. The Difference Between Market and Replacement Value
All dogs have a market value—that is, a price they would bring if sold on the open market. Some courts award the dog owner the amount it would cost to replace the dog, instead of the dog's market value.  This replacement value is likely to be a larger amount.  Some states now allow sentimental value to also be considered.

Factors that are considered in computing market value include the dog's purchase price, age, health, breed, training, usefulness, and special traits or characteristics of value.

9. Description of Emotional Distress Damages if Your Pet is Killed
Some courts have recognized that a pet is not just a “thing” but occupies a special place somewhere in between a person and a piece of personal property.  This change in attitude is shown by courts' willingness to let people sue for the mental anguish they suffer when they lose a pet because of malicious or extremely reckless acts. 

Generally, people can sue for two types of mental distress: first, the shock and distress caused by seeing an accident or mistreatment, and second, the grief and long-term effect the loss has on their lives.  The more outrageous the conduct of the person being sued, the larger the monetary award is likely to be.  Proving mental suffering is not always easy, but the person suing can testify about how s/he felt about the death of the pet and how the loss disrupted his life.  If the person sought medical treatment or psychological counseling, that will strengthen the claim(s).

10. The Future for You and Your Dog After an Attack Has Occurred
If your dog has already bit someone, your dog is now considered dangerous by the local government authorities.  There are now precautions that you must take.   Because your dog has a rap sheet, you both could face serious charges in one of the three courts (criminal, civil, small claims) should there be a second incident.  You must protect your family, friends and strangers from your dog.  Consider taking your dog to an animal behaviorist certified by the Animal Behavior Society to help deter aggressive behavior in the future.

11. Additional Resources