What Are Dangerous Dog/Reckless Owner Laws?
“Dangerous dog laws” address the problems of:
dogs whose behavior poses a threat to public safety, and
the reckless dog owners whose actions often give rise to this behavior.
These laws may be passed on the state or local (municipal/county) level.
The ASPCA views breed-neutral dangerous dog/reckless owner laws as the smart alternative to breed-specific legislationalso known as BSLin which certain breeds of dog are highly regulated or even banned completely in the hope of reducing dog attacks.
The ASPCA believes that dangerous dog laws should target only those dogs who truly pose unjustified risks to people or other animals. They should also acknowledge that there are situations where aggressive behavior is justified, such as when a dog is protecting herself, her guardian, her puppies or her home, or where the dog has reason to fear a person or animal.
The best, most effective breed-neutral dangerous dog laws include the following elements:
License law enforcement
Anti-cruelty and animal fighting law enforcement
Progressive/tiered levels of violations and enforcement of laws
Responsible ownership programs & dog bite prevention training
Owners held civilly/criminally liable
Prohibit known reckless owners from having dogs
What Makes a Dog “Dangerous”?
The broad definition of a dangerous dog is one who inflicts unjustified, serious injuryor poses an imminent threat of unjustified, serious aggressiontoward people or other animals. However, “dangerous” is defined differently by different jurisdictions. It is up to the court to decide whether a particular dog satisfies its jurisdiction’s definition.
Terms used to define other symptoms or levels of canine aggression include “potentially dangerous” and “vicious.” (These are discussed in more detail in “Do Breed-Neutral Dangerous Dog Laws Label Dogs for Life?”)
What Is the ASPCA’s Policy on Dangerous Dog/Reckless Owner Laws?
The ASPCA favors laws that hold dog guardians responsible for unjustified harm or damage done by their pets. People who breed dogs for their aggressiveness, or train dogs to be aggressive or to fight, should not only be civilly liable for damage done by their dogs, but also held liable under criminal provisions that prohibit such conduct.
Furthermore, laws should focus on the behavior of the dog and all of the surrounding circumstances, including factors that may justify the dog’s actions. Laws should ensure that common puppy behaviorsuch as jumping up, rough play and nippingare not deemed evidence of “dangerousness.”
The ASPCA opposes discriminatory laws that define specific breeds of dogs as “dangerous” or “potentially dangerous” without regard to the temperament or behavior of the individual dog. Dangerous dog laws should define dangerous dogs as those who, without justification, have either attacked a person or other animal, causing serious physical injury or death, or who exhibit behavior that creates a grave risk of such an attack, as determined by a certified applied behaviorist, board-certified veterinary behaviorist or other qualified expert.
How Do These Laws Address Reckless Owners?
Well-written, breed-neutral dangerous dog laws recognize the role reckless owners play in a dog’s poor behavior. They hold guardians responsible for the proper supervision of their dogs and for any actions on their part that either create or encourage aggressive behaviorincluding knowingly allowing a dog to run at large. At the same time, laws that address dangerous dogs must be mindful of the rights of pet guardians.
Why Are Breed-Neutral Dangerous Dog Laws Necessary?
Good, breed-neutral dangerous dog laws are necessary to keep communities safe. It is important, however, that such laws address the behavior of owner and dog and also uphold the constitutional rightsincluding the right to due processof individuals and their pets.
In addition to the impact of breed-specific legislation on a personal levelthe forced separation of responsible dog owners from well-behaved companion animals who happened to be classified as the “wrong breed”BSL fails to acknowledge that any dog can bite, and that the breeds with “bad reputations” change over time. Individuals who want to possess aggressive dogs will always find a way to do soban or regulate one breed, and another will rise in popularity to take its place. Today, American pit bull terriers and similar-looking breeds are most often targeted, but not long ago, Dobermans, Rottweilers, German shepherds and even bloodhounds were particularly feared. Unlike breed-discriminatory legislation, however, breed-neutral dangerous dog laws will never fall behind the arc of a popularity trend because they address individual dogs and their owners.
Are Breed-Neutral Dangerous Dog Laws Effective?
Yes, they are. While there is no evidence that breed-specific legislation is effective, there is significant evidence that well-enforced, breed-neutral laws are. Cities that have enacted BSL tend to discover that BSL does not result in a decrease in dog bites. BSL is also extremely costly to enforce, which stretches animal control resources thin, thereby reducing animal control’s ability to respond to other situations and help a greater number of animals.
Do Breed-Neutral Dangerous Dog Laws Label Dogs for Life?
Good, breed-neutral dangerous dog laws permit dogs deemed to be dangerousor who have otherwise obtained a “record” under these lawsto be declassified after a period of compliance.
In jurisdictions with such laws, incidents of aggression are generally ranked on a staggered scale according to severity. This allows dogs who have committed relatively minor infractions to have second and third chances to have their behavior and/or living circumstances corrected before authorities must take more serious measures to ensure public safety. The terminology used by such laws is often “potentially dangerous,” “dangerous” and “vicious.” Running at large with a pack of dogs may be included in the definition of a “potentially dangerous” dog (please see the Illinois law discussed below). The “vicious” classification should be assigned only where a dog has seriously injured or killed a human being. In such a case, euthanasia may be appropriate. (In New York State, in lieu of the vicious classification, dogs deemed “dangerous” may be euthanized if certain “aggravating factors” exist, such as serious injury or death to a human.)
Just like a human who has been convicted of a crime, a dog designated “potentially dangerous,” “dangerous” or “vicious” will have a record in the jurisdiction where the owner’s failure to act responsibly, or the canine aggression, occurred. After a predetermined length of time with no further incidents and a sustained record of compliance with any orders, the “potentially dangerous” or “dangerous” designation should be removed.
Has the ASPCA Been Involved in Creating Dangerous Dog/Reckless Owner Laws?
The ASPCA’s Government Relations department has a strong history of helping to create and promote comprehensive, breed-neutral dangerous dog laws.
As an example, here is a partial list of recent Illinois legislation that the ASPCA had a hand in drafting and/or passing:
IL, 2006: House Resolution on Dangerous Dog Education
This House Resolution encourages municipalities not to enact breed-specific laws, but rather to establish programs to educate residents and pass laws defining accountability for irresponsible dog owners. It encourages municipalities to address animal attacks by enforcing laws that encourage responsible and humane treatment of dogs and all other animals.
IL, 2006: Penalties for Dog Attacks
Spearheaded by the ASPCA, this law increased the penalties for owners who fail to properly restrain dogs who have been deemed dangerous or vicious. It also allows for the recovery of damages for injuries sustained immediately preceding or following an animal attack.
IL, 2007: Felons Barred From Owning Unsterilized Dogs
Given that 97 percent of dogs involved in fatal dog attacks in the U.S. in 2006 were not spayed/neutered, this creative spin on a dangerous dog law targets potentially irresponsible owners who use unaltered or aggressive dogs to intimidate community members. The law also states that any dog owned by a convicted felon must be microchipped. The law resulted in two arrests in its first few monthsboth arrestees were convicted gang members, one of whom was found to have nine intact dogs at his home. The ASPCA worked with the Illinois Department of Corrections to train its 400 agents to enforce this law.
IL, 2008: Potentially Dangerous Dogs
This legislation created a “Potentially Dangerous Dog” category in the Illinois Animal Control Act. A potentially dangerous dog is a dog who is unsupervised and running at large with three or more other dogs. A dog deemed potentially dangerous by an animal control warden or administrator must be spayed/neutered and microchipped. The designation of “potentially dangerous dog” automatically expires after a year as long as the dog receives no further violations within that time.
The ASPCA has also helped to defeat legislation in Illinois that would have:
Allowed municipalities to engage in canine profiling and to ban any breed of dog (2006)
Created a “dangerous” breed registry and required owners of German Shepherds, Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Chow Chows, Great Danes and Akitas to register their dogs as dangerous dogs and carry insurance (2006)
How Can I Help?
You can take a more active role by working with the ASPCA to:
Pass legislation that ensures that all animals are judged individually
Fight legislation that seeks to discriminate against entire breeds
Stay up-to-date about current legislation related to dangerous dogs/reckless owners by joining the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade.