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I. Think before you get a dog

Everyone is seduced by a cute puppy, but before selecting that puppy or older dog consider:

  • bathing and grooming requirements
  • the dog’s temperament
  • whether you really have the time, patience and money needed to train it (and yourself)
  • if you can train the particular breed (some breeds are easier to train than others)
  • whether you can handle dog hair all over the place
  • if you are allowed to own dogs where you live
  • if you have suitable living conditions
  • if you can afford veterinary care and food
  • whether your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance policy will cover your dog’s breed if the dog hurts someone and if so, whether you know your reporting requirements

From a legal standpoint, the worst thing you can do is get a dog you are not genuinely prepared mentally, emotionally and physically to care for. Vet bills can get expensive fast and dogs in pain are more likely to bite.

Legally there is rarely a good excuse for your dog to bite or injure someone or her property. If the injured person files a complaint with Animal Control, your dog faces impoundment and possibly death if the injury is severe enough. You face criminal charges which may result in jail and fines, plus being sued by the injured person. If you’re sued in civil court, and you own a breed that your homeowners’ or renters’ policy excludes, you might have to defend yourself. The bottom line is your dog could pay for its behavior with its life - and you with your home, income, and other personal possessions.

II. Train your dog

A dog that has been consistently and humanely taught how to stay, come, sit and not jump on people is the dog to own. As I said above, most times you are legally responsible for injuries your dog causes. A well-trained dog is less likely to cause injury. Even very friendly dogs can be liability risks.

Basic obedience training is not very expensive or time consuming. You don’t need to be at class all night nor train you dog for hours daily. It is so important to be able to control your dog that every dog owner should teach her dog basic obedience commands.

III. Train yourself

Take the time to understand your dog. Dogs do not think they are people, they think people are dogs. If the owner does not appreciate the need to relate to the dog as a dog, rather than as a furry person, there can be trouble. Dogs will fill power vacuums and if they perceive that they are the top dog in their pack, they may become difficult to manage. Unmanageable dogs are legally risky to own because you still must restrain and protect the public from your dog no matter how difficult that may be.

IV. Leash your dog

Restraint of dogs is county law, not a choice. When in public, leash your dog unless your are in an area where dogs are legally permitted off-leash.

Many owners like to let their dogs run at large. They only think about the fun their dogs are having instead of the risks. The risks include, but are not limited to, having their dogs attack someone else’s dog, darting into the street and getting hit by a car or causing an accident, knocking people over from over-friendliness, defecating on lawns, encouraging them to escape their yards to roam, plus being cited for failure to protect the public from their dogs (see paragraph V).

When your dog hurts someone or their property while violating the law, the violation presumptively proves half of the main elements of a negligence suit. Also you can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Armor yourself against criminal and civil liability - ALWAYS LEASH YOUR DOG.

V. Public Protection from Dogs

County law mandates that owners must at all times prevent their dogs from:

  • attacking, biting, or otherwise causing injury to any person engaged in a lawful act,
  • interfering with the lawful use of public or private property,
  • damaging personal property which is lawfully upon public property, or upon private property with the property owner’s permission.
  • Persons guilty of violating this statute face a misdemeanor conviction and potentially serious civil consequences.

This is a catch-all statute that essentially puts the dog owner at fault in just about any situation. I pray for the opportunity to represent dog bite/dog-injured victims because such cases can generate thousands of dollars of damages and there is almost never an issue of who is at fault, just how much it will cost to settle. Don’t give me a chance to sue. Control your dog.

VI. Vaccinate and license your dog

A rabies vaccination is only $4. It protects your dog from contracting the deadly disease and potentially injuring someone if it gets sick. Also a licensed dog is easier to return to its owner if lost. Failure to vaccinate and license are grounds for criminal liability.

VII. Provide ID

Many dogs get lost within a few miles of their owner’s home. A tag with the owner’s name and address is an effective way reunite dog and human.

In addition to tags, owners now have the option to microchip and/or tattoo their dogs. Both are relatively inexpensive and don’t hurt the dog. They have the added bonus of being difficult to remove.

VIII. Spay and neuter

Fertile dogs are more likely to bite than their sterilized counterparts. Also unneutered male dogs have that urge to roam. Roaming (being at large) is against the law in many jurisdictions (see paragraph IV) and if the dog is caught being at large, its owner is exposed to criminal conviction and possible civil sanctions. Last but not least, licenses for sterilized dogs are a lot cheaper than for those who are intact.

IX. Watch your dog around children

Children are frequently dog bite victims. Even the most patient, gentle dog can get tired of kids pulling its hair and snap. The children may unknowingly provoke it. And kids being kids, they may ignore warnings to stay away from a potentially dangerous dog. Supervision is a small price to pay when faced with a dog-bite incident that may cause criminal and civil liability, not to mention the death of the dog if an attack is serious enough.

X. Be courteous to your neighbors

Monitor your dog’s barking. I receive more calls about barking dogs than anything else. People want to know how to get their neighbor’s dog to stop barking or how to handle Animal Control citations for barking dogs.

This may seem too obvious to mention, but a little courtesy goes a long way. Acknowledging that there might be a problem and showing a willingness to work with the complainer is an excellent beginning to resolve the situation and maintain cordial neighbor relations.

If you and your neighbor cannot resolve the problem, try mediation. It is an effective, private, relatively inexpensive, informal process by which a neutral third party helps the disputants craft their own solution. San Diego has several public and private mediation providers.

Remember to pick up the poop. All it takes is a plastic bag.

copyright 2001 by Kathryn V. Rogow


Disclaimer: This article is not intended to dispense legal advice. Only your attorney is capable of evaluating your specific situation and how best to proceed. The author takes no responsibility for your use of the information contained herein in order to act on your own behalf. All references to county law refer to San Diego County ordinances. The reader should check his or her local laws as they may differ from those of San Diego County.

For more information, contact:

Kathryn V. Rogow, Esq.

Offering legal assistance for
Family Law - Personal Injury - Dog/Animal Law

5333 Mission Center Road, Ste. 220
San Diego, CA 92108-1348

(619) 294-DOGS


copyright 2001 Unleashed!


Suggested Reading

For those who want more information about people, pooches and problems legal and otherwise, I recommend Dog Law (National 2d Edition) by Mary Randolph.

--Kathryn V. Rogow, Esq.