Dogs bring a lot of joy to our lives, but they can also bring problems. They sometimes piddle in the house, tear up pillows and bark in the middle of the night. But the absolute worst thing your dog can do, hands down, is to bite someone.
Every year in the United States, dogs bite an estimated 4.5 million people. One out of five of those people require medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And half of the people bitten by dogs are children between the ages of 5 and 9. Most dogs bite people they know.
Dog bites are often in the news, especially if they prove fatal. The consequence of this media attention is that the courts and the public have grown intolerant of this behavior in dogs, according to Kenneth M. Phillips, an attorney in Beverly Hills, California, and author of DogBiteLaw.com, who points out that dog owners are at considerable risk of being sued if their dog bites someone.
The steps you take immediately after your dog bites a person can make a difference in the consequences, according to Phillips, who recommends that you stay calm, don’t argue and don’t accuse.
“Be nice to the victim because he or she will have to make a decision about hiring a lawyer and pursuing you for damages,” Phillips says. “If you are nice, the victim may decide to go easy on both you and your dog.”
Note: While this article gives you some idea what to expect in a dog bite situation, it is not intended to take the place of legal counsel.
What To Do If Your Dog Bites Someone
Your dog can bite someone anywhere at any time. Even if your dog has never shown signs of aggression, something can happen that can trigger your dog to react with his teeth.
My friend Becky had a very sweet American Eskimo dog named Pebbles who loved people and never showed signs of aggression. One day, during a picnic at a local park, Pebbles was dozing on a blanket when a small child who had wandered away from his family ran up to him from behind and grabbed his fur. Startled, Pebbles turned around and bit the child on the arm.
Because of that one moment, my friend found herself at risk of a lawsuit, and Pebbles at risk for his life. The child’s parents could have sued for damages, and law enforcement could have chosen to euthanize Pebbles as a dangerous dog.
Fortunately for Becky, the child’s parents did not go after her legally, and did not report the bite to law enforcement. The child was not seriously injured, and the parents understood the circumstances of the bite.
Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you need to act responsibly. Taking the right steps will help minimize the legal risks to both you and your dog.
Phillips recommends making sure the victim gets medical attention. Offer to take the person to the hospital and to pay for the victim’s medical bills. In the meantime, take steps to protect others from your dog by confining him.
“If you pay the victim’s medical bills or insurance deductible and/or co-payment, you probably will favorably impress the victim and therefore will reduce the chances of a claim or lawsuit against you,” Phillips says.
In many states, it is illegal to leave the scene if your dog bites someone. Instead, act responsibly and communicate with the victim.
“If your dog bites someone, be sure to exchange information and open a clear line of communication,” says John Bisnar, founding partner of Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys in Los Angeles. “Often the biggest issue, if a lawsuit is filed, is miscommunication.”
Next, Bisnar suggests notifying your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance company or broker about the incident. Typically, it is this insurance that will cover you in the event of a lawsuit.
“Taking responsibility for your dog’s actions is necessary,” he says. “Make it clear you are in this with the victim. Immediately quarantine your dog at home if you can.”
Bisnar warns that if the bite is serious, the victim may report your dog to animal services.
“Should this happen, be sure to cooperate with the investigation,” he says.
What Might Happen To Your Dog And You After A Dog Bite
In some states, law enforcement is authorized to remove your dog from your premises after he bites someone. He will likely be quarantined at a local shelter or veterinarian’s office. If you can provide proof of a current rabies vaccine, you will save the victim having to endure treatment for rabies, and may reduce the amount of time your dog is held in quarantine.
Depending on the state where you live, laws vary on how dog bites are handled. California, for example, has a “strict liability statute” when it comes to dog attacks, according to Bisnar.
“This means dog owners are responsible for the actions of their dogs, no ifs or buts,” he says. “There are very few exceptions to this rule. If your dog bites someone, whether on your property or not, you are liable.”
If the attack happened because of an intruder, different rules could apply, Bisnar says, but generally speaking, any dog bite in California is considered the dog owner’s fault.
States that do not have a strict liability statute when it comes to dog attacks usually have a “one bite rule,” according to Bisnar.
“You have to be on notice that your dog might have a propensity to bite people before you are liable for the damages caused by that dog’s bite,” he says. “You might also be liable if you are a ‘keeper’ of the dog — someone who does not own the dog but houses the dog on behalf of the owner — and you know about the tendency of that dog to attack or bite people.”
Dog Bite Prevention
You can do a lot to reduce the chances of your dog biting someone by following these guidelines:
- Don’t ignore signs of aggression. If your dog snarls, growls or barks aggressively at someone in your family, or a person who has been welcomed by you into your home or on your property, seek help from a professional trainer.
- Keep your dog securely confined when outside in your yard. Dogs can become aggressive to passersby and may bite if they break out of the yard.
- Supervise young children. Keep an eye on kids when they are around your dog, especially if they are visitors. Children who are unfamiliar with how to behave around dogs are most at risk.
- Teach your kids about canine body language. A still, tense body, pulled-back ears, an intense stare, backing away and growling are all reasons to leave a dog alone.
- Vaccinate. Make sure your dog is up-to-date on all vaccines, especially rabies.
As a dog owner, it’s important to know the laws in your state regarding dog bites just in case an incident occurs with your dog. By showing compassion to the victim and behaving in a responsible manner, you can do a lot to reduce the impact of your dog’s behavior if he bites.