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What should I do if my dog bites someone? - A practical and legal checklist

07/12/2020 - Dog Training Advice

Even well-trained and socialised dogs can sometimes be aggressive if they are afraid and feel trapped. Many owners assume the worst when they consider the legal repercussions of an attack involving their dog.
However, both before and after an incident involving your dog, there are important actions you can take to help ensure the best outcome for all parties.

How common are dog bites in the UK?

Although very serious attacks involving dogs get heavily reported in the press, the actual number of such incidents is vanishingly small.

A study published in the British Medical Journal estimated that around a quarter of the UK’s population have been bitten by a dog, but that includes everything from nips requiring no medical treatment, to serious attacks. Only 0.6% of dog bites required hospital admission.

There is evidence from the Royal College of Surgeons that dog bites are increasing, by over 5% in the last three years, but this may be a result of people being more likely to seek medical advice following a bite.

The increasing popularity of smaller breeds may also account for a rise in incidents. It has been suggested that these breeds are assumed to be less dangerous, but they can potentially still inflict serious injuries and permanent scarring.

What is the law on dog attacks?

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 makes it a criminal offence for a dog to be ‘dangerously out of control’ in public. A dog is considered to be dangerously out of control if it injures someone, or causes someone to have a ‘reasonable’ fear they could be injured.

In 2014, the law was extended to include dog attacks on private property, including homes.

The Act also includes breed-specific legislation (BSL), outright banning certain breeds labelled as ‘dangerous’, and restricting the ownership of some other breeds.

The Act, particularly the BSL, has been heavily criticised as ‘knee-jerk’ legislation that is unsupported by scientific evidence, and for failing to reduce the overall number of serious incidents involving dogs.

A range of other legislation and common law concerns dog-related offences. If a farmer believes that a dog is worrying their livestock, the farmer can offer this as a legal defence for killing the dog, although this must be a last resort.

What happens if my dog bites someone?

In concert with other legislation, the Act makes it technically possible for a dog to be confiscated following a serious incident, and the dog may be destroyed. If your dog’s breed is believed to be banned under the BSL, it will be destroyed.

Penalties imposed on the owner of a dog that is ‘dangerously out of control’ could include:
  • A permanent ban from owning a dog
  • A control order
  • An unlimited fine
  • A prison sentence

The legal consequences of a dog attack will depend on the specific circumstances. Factors that may be considered include:
  • The dog has attacked someone before
  • The dog was provoked
  • The owner gave a warning and the warning was ignored
  • The dog was guarding property and the injured person was trespassing
  • If someone else was responsible for the dog at the time of the incident, the owner reasonably believed they were ‘fit and proper’
  • The injured person put themselves in danger, e.g. if the dog was fighting with another animal, or they approached when the dog was already visibly stressed and aggressive 

Aside from the criminal consequences of an attack, the owner of a ‘dangerous’ dog may also be sued. Regardless of whether the police or council take action, a person injured by a dog may also be entitled to claim compensation from the dog owner.

Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance Legal Services added, “Under the Animals Act 1971, a dog’s keeper can be held liable for a dog’s behaviour. A key factor in a civil compensation claim for a dog-related injury is whether the dog owner was negligent. If the dog had never attacked anyone before, or the attack was not reasonably foreseeable, then a claim may not be possible.”

What can I do to reduce the risk of my dog being aggressive

Given the potentially serious consequences of a dog attack, on the dog, the owner and the injured person, prevention is much better than a cure.

Even if you don’t believe your dog is capable of biting someone, there are several steps you should consider to minimise the risk of an incident.

Socialise your dog

Dogs that are familiar with other dogs and people are less likely to be aggressive. Gradual socialising is particularly important in the case of rescue dogs. Dogs with a history of abuse may have unpredictable triggers, and you could seek expert help from a behaviourist for specific advice.

Use positive, reward-based training

Dog Training is a hugely important tool for de-escalating a stressful situation where your dog could become aggressive. If you have built up a training-based bond with your dog, they are more likely to trust you and respond to recall commands. Training will also help you be more aware of your dog’s moods, triggers and behaviour.

Use a lead

Using a lead is particularly important if your dog is in a new or unpredictable situation, like a busy park. Not only will a lead make it easier to control your dog, it may also be useful evidence that you had taken reasonable steps to prevent an incident, should one occur.

Situational awareness

Be aware of other dogs and people around you. If you know your dog is affected by certain triggers or situations, try to avoid them. If you see signs that your dog is becoming stressed or aggressive, warn nearby people and remove your dog from the environment.

Pet insurance

Although insurance won’t reduce the likelihood of an attack, it can mitigate the financial consequences if you are sued following an incident. Defending a dog attack injury claim can be expensive. Not every pet insurance policy will cover legal fees and compensation payout relating to an animal attack, so you should check your policy to see if you are covered.

What to do after an attack

As an owner, you can do everything right and your dog could still be involved in an attack. Just like people, dogs can be unpredictable. A seemingly-calm situation can escalate quickly, particularly where children and other animals are involved.

Precautions can help mitigate the legal consequences if an incident does occur, but it is important to know what steps to take following an incident. 

Help your dog to get safe

Your first priority should be to secure your dog to prevent any further incidents. You will know how best to control your dog, but you should try to stay calm and avoid shouting. Making eye contact can make a stressed animal more aggressive.

Remember their training, or use a familiar toy to distract them. Get the dog back on their lead as soon as it is safe to do so.

Get medical attention

Once your dog is secure, try to help and support the injured person as much as you can. Even though the visible injuries appear to be relatively minor, if the person has fallen, they may have a concussion or sprain.

You should consider calling an ambulance or waiting with the injured person until they can contact a friend or family member for support.

Witness statements and evidence

It could be a mistake to walk away from the scene of the incident without exchanging contact details with the injured person. The authorities may consider your case more favourably if you are clearly cooperating and supporting an investigation from the outset.

That said, if you think your dog was provoked or that there were other mitigating circumstances, you should ensure you have the contact details of any witnesses to support your defence. You could also take photos or video of the scene.

Take precautions

Whatever the immediate outcome of an incident involving your dog, you should take steps to prevent something similar happening again.

You could keep your dog on the lead in public places, and seek expert advice to assist with additional training. You should also be ready to preemptively warn ‘touchy-feely’ animal lovers and children that your dog can be skittish and not to get too close.

Protecting your dog

Sanctions like confiscating animals and lifetime ownership bans are generally used only following serious attacks or as a last resort.

For a ‘first offence’ involving only a very minor injury at worst, you may receive a caution or a small fine. If there is strong evidence that your dog was provoked or that you could not have foreseen the series of events that led to the attack, the authorities may take no action at all.

However, you and your dog will be held to a higher standard after an incident. You can no longer easily argue that your dog’s aggressive behaviour is not ‘reasonably foreseeable’. You should consider what precautions to take very seriously, and if you have concerns you should speak to a behaviourist or a charity like the Dogs Trust or RSPCA for specific advice.

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