Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Responsibility for dogs who bite

My school has a large, fenced field. Traditionally, people have been free to let their dogs run off leash in this field. I’ve taken advantage of this resource myself. However, my school is considering the possibility of closing the field, because some dogs have menaced or attacked people while in the field. My school is fearful of liability — if a dog severely bites someone while loose in the field, the school could be sued. In this economy, simply being sued is something for a cash-strapped school to be very cautious of, even if they are found not to be liable in the end.

In my opinion, the responsibility for a dog which might bite falls squarely on the shoulders of that dog’s owner. And there are currently some potential consequences. The owner of a dog which bites may be sued; the dog may be destroyed if it is judged to be a public menace. I imagine that these consquences do deter some people from letting their unsafe dogs run free in public, but apparently not enough people.

In a perfect world, owners of reliable, safe dogs would have full access to resources such as large fields, and would not lose access to these resources because of the behaviors of owners who do not manage their dogs responsibly. I don’t know the specifics about what happened in this particular field, but it is my strong suspicion that the owners of the dogs in question suspected that the dogs were not completely reliable, and took them to the field anyway, hoping for the best.

This is a bigger issue than just setting a policy for my school’s field. I believe that keeping large spaces open to the public is important. It’s good for humans to have green spaces to walk in. It’s good for dogs to have large spaces to run in. It’s good for humans and their dogs to spend quality time together, for walks to not be a chore. Neither we nor they get enough exercise as it is. It’s also good public relations for institutions which own these spaces to let the public use them.

How can we make the owners of unsafe dogs take responsibility for their pets? It’s a problem society is really struggling with right now. Some people feel that the right answer is to ban particular breeds. I don’t believe breed specific legislation is effective, because I believe it’s not the breed that’s the problem, it’s the owner. How do you ban irresponsibility? How do the owners of a privately owned space control who uses the space, short of disallowing all access?

One solution that comes to mind is that owners of private spaces (or towns with public spaces) require some proof that a dog is reliable before it is allowed off leash in the space in question. For example, a dog might have to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, administered by the American Kennel Club, to prove that it has basic obedience skills. The CGC isn’t an off-leash test, but it’s a start, and more appropriate tests could easily be designed. However, obviously the overhead of such a system would be prohibitive. The owner of the space would have to maintain some sort of registration system, perhaps even give out tags with proof that access is allowed. They would also have to police the space to make sure unregistered dogs weren’t being allowed into it.

The other extreme is to push for punishment, after the fact, of owners whose dogs dangerously misbehave. The space owner could sue such owners themselves. (Is there any precedent for this, I wonder? What grounds would they have?) They could declare that the owners of dogs which menace or bite while in the space will be fined. (How would collection of such fines be enforced?) Perhaps simply posting that the owners of the space are not responsible for any altercations, and then hoping not to get sued if something happens, is the only practical course of action besides closing the space.

I like the idea of having consequences for irresponsible owners. Hopefully such consequences would encourage owners to think before they act, so that no one else gets hurt. Public spaces where dogs are let off leash might be very good places to post advertisements for off leash training classes! But I just can’t figure out the mechanism for what these consequences would be, or how they would be applied. I’m very sad to see open spaces gradually closing, as people are unable to behave responsibly in them.

What about you, Blogosphere? Any ideas?


  1. This is a serious issue where I live. In my town there is only one "dog park" (I use the term loosely, it's not much bigger than my small back yard) nearby. It is the only place where dogs are allowed off leash, and many of the dogs there have worse behavior and even more aggression than the average because their owners use it inappropriately--as a substitute for walking their dog and ensuring their dog gets adequate exercise--so the dogs arrive totally stir-crazy and kinda nuts. So what is one to do if one's dog really dislikes being treated rudely by the other dogs (who of course can't be blamed for the position their owners are putting them in) and doesn't enjoy being there?

    I think you may have been onto something with the CGC. True, it's not an off-leash test, but a dog that passes ought to be responsive to its owner, OK with strangers, and not a menace to other dogs in general. Most of the dog owners I know have never even heard of the CGC. The county I live in already requires dogs to have a tag indicating rabies vaccination, so here's a scenario: municipal regulation that provides a similar tag if your dog passes the CGC, and only dogs with that tag would be allowed off leash. Fines would apply as they already do for the leash laws here if the dog doesn't have that certification. For a responsible dog owner, passing the CGC should be a piece of cake, so it's wouldn't be much of a burden, assuming you can find someone to administer the test--not a problem where I live but I don't know if that is typical. And if your dog can't pass the CGC you probably shouldn't let it off leash with other dogs or strangers around anyway.

    I know, I know,

    Many dog owners here are left with the choice of never letting their dog off leash outside their yard, or intentionally breaking the leash laws by letting their dog off leash in public when they think the risk of getting caught and fined is not too high. Unpleasant, huh?

  2. I am often saddened by how rarely the CGC is actually used! It seems like a great incentive for people to train their dogs, if they could have proof of some sort to show to landlords, hotel operators, etc. As you say, so far it seems like it's not going to happen.