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What Could Happen When A Dog Bites Someone?

Serious dog attacks are very rare in the UK. According to research published in the British Medical Journal, only 0.6% of people who had been bitten by a dog required hospital admission.Professionally-trained protection dogs are much less likely to bite someone or become unexpectedly aggressive in inappropriate circumstances. Nonetheless, dog attacks are a contentious issue and the tabloid press has a tendency to fan the flames when a serious incident occurs.The following article looks at the sanctions the law can impose following a dog attack, the exceptions that exist for trained protection dogs, and what you can and should do if your dog bites someone.

What is the law on dog bites?

Britain has a long history of dog-related legislation. As early as the 800s, a fine of six shillings for the ‘first misdeed’ could be levied against an owner if their dog should ‘tear or bite a man’.Following a surge in incidents in 1991, the Dangerous Dogs Act made it a criminal offence for dogs to be ‘dangerously out of control’. The 1991 law applied only to incidents on public property, but the Act was amended in 2014 to cover attacks on private property.The Act defines ‘dangerously out of control’ as circumstances where a dog injures someone, or a dog’s behaviour gives someone a ‘reasonable apprehension’ or fear that they are about to be attacked.

What happens if my dog bites someone?

The outcome of an incident involving your dog will depend on:
  • The circumstances of the attack. Was your dog provoked? Did the injured person ignore warnings?
  • The seriousness of the attack
  • Whether your dog or you (as an owner) has a history of similar incidents
A minor incident may only result in a fine or control order, if any formal action is taken at all. The penalties for more serious dog bites or attacks include unlimited fines, prison sentences, confiscation orders and permanent bans on dog ownership.In some circumstances, the local authorities do have the power to order that a dog is destroyed, but severe sanctions are only applied in the most serious cases.

Are there exceptions for guard dogs and protection dogs?

Yes. The law makes it clear that although it is an offence for a dog to attack someone, a defence is available if the dog bites an intruder inside your home.Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance Legal Services commented, “The above defence may not hold up if the attack occurs elsewhere on your property, like in your garden, or if your dog is defending you on public property. However, other factors will be considered, including whether you gave a warning, or you genuinely believed you had no choice but to defend yourself.”The law restricts the use of guard dogs that are kept expressly for that purpose. Warning signs must be posted at entrances to the property, and the dog’s ‘handler’ must be present and under control of the dog at all times. A family dog with protection training would not be considered a ‘guard dog’ by default.

Can I be sued by someone my dog has bitten?

Legislation including the Animals Act 1971 makes an owner liable for their dog’s behaviour, including where the dog causes property damage or injures someone.Regardless of whether the police or local council take action, you could still be sued by someone whom your dog has injured. Although the injured person may be entitled to claim compensation for their injuries, they will need to prove you were negligent first.Negligence can be difficult to prove, and will usually depend on whether the attack was ‘reasonably foreseeable’. In the case of a well-trained protection dog, it is not likely to be foreseeable that the animal would randomly bite someone in an unprovoked attack.The law regarding compensation claims and trespass is more complex. The Occupiers Liability Act 1984 made it possible for a trespasser to sue the owner or occupier of propertyIf your protection dog bites an intruder in your home, the intruder may still be able to make a claim for compensation but they will need to prove that keeping the dog for the purposes of protection was unreasonable. Clear warnings, including signs, and evidence that your dog is a family pet, not just a guard dog, will support your defence against a claim.

What should I do after a dog attack?

There are several steps you should follow after an incident involving your dog to ensure the best outcome for all parties. Safety should be the priority, but gathering evidence can also help support your version of events. You should also consider taking precautions to avoid a repeat incident.

Safety

The safety of all parties present should be your first priority.Make sure your dog is safe and secured, and offer help and support to the injured person if you are able to. Remember that although you trust your dog, the injured party, and other bystanders, may be very wary of the animal. If your dog is causing distress, consider leaving or arrange for someone you are with to take the dog.Where appropriate, you could wait with the injured person until they can get help from a medical professional, friend or family member.

Insurance, witnesses and evidence

If your insurance covers third-party liability, you should report the incident to your insurer as soon as you can, and you should not admit responsibility for the incident without legal advice.Giving the injured party your contact details will help avoid any suggestion that you are trying to evade responsibility. Exchanging details will also encourage witnesses to provide their details, so they can support your defence if the local authorities take action.You should also take photos of the scene and gather any other evidence that would help your case.

Precautions for the future

Once your dog has been involved in an incident, even if the attack resulted from another party’s carelessness or provocation, you should consider taking more precautions.A key consideration when weighing up the legal consequences following an attack, both in terms of criminal prosecution and injury compensation, is whether an attack was ‘reasonably foreseeable’.If your dog does bite someone again, it will be harder for you to argue that the aggression was not foreseeable. To mitigate the risk, you could arrange further training for your dog, or speak to a behaviourist. You should also consider keeping your dog on the lead in potentially-difficult situations, like a busy street or park.

The importance of training and socialisation

Ensuring that your dog is suitably trained and socialised are hugely important steps. Training ensures that your dog trusts you and will respond to your commands even in stressful situations.Training and socialisation also helps you to understand your dog’s moods and triggers. If your dog is stressed, anxious, or confused, you should try to remove them from whatever is causing the distress before the situation escalates.

Third-party liability insurance

Although an incident involving your protection dog is very unlikely, it may be worth considering third-party liability insurance. If you were challenged, insurance will cover your legal costs and any compensation payouts you would otherwise be liable for. Not all pet insurance policies will cover these costs, so check the small print.Check the policy for conditions and exclusions on certain breeds, training and historic complaints.Policies also often have strict rules that you must follow after an incident. Your cover may be void if you accept liability at the scene, or fail to notify your insurance company immediately afterward.

Reward your dog’s trust

Penalties following a dog bite or attack tend to reflect the seriousness of the incident, and the most extreme sanctions are reserved for only the most serious incidents.That said, it is important that you reward your dog’s trust in you by only commanding them to defend you as a very last resort. Placing your dog in an avoidable situation that leads to an attack could have life-altering consequences for you, the injured party, and for your dog.

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