Our Rights and Responsibilities: Dog Law Q+A with Attorney Heidi Meinzer
When it comes to providing the best care for our dogs, we consider many issues: nutrition, training, socialization…but what about our legal rights and responsibilities as dog owners? We should be thinking about these issues too.
The Whole Dog Journal’s recent interview with attorney Heidi Meinzer about dangerous dog laws is a good place to start. If you haven’t read it, you should. Paul Miller, an animal welfare professional is also interviewed and it’s great stuff. Here’s the link. Go on. I’ll wait.
Good, right? Heidi and Paul’s answers provide information that every dog owner should know, such as how to be responsible dog owners, understanding dangerous dog laws, what to do if our dogs are deemed dangerous, and how to avoid coming into conflict with the law in the first place.
While reading the interview, I suspected Heidi might be a member of Team DINOS when she said,“…always take care when interacting with dogs and people wherever you are, including in your own home. If your dog shows any hesitation when meeting another dog or a person, do not force her to interact. Be your dog’s advocate and kindly tell the person that your dog needs space.”
It’s excellent advice, so I wrote Heidi to find out more and she does indeed share her life with a DINOS! She was kind enough to agree to answer a few legal-based FAQs for us too.
Here’s a little more about Heidi before we start the Q+A:
Licensed to practice in Washington, Virginia, Maryland, and D.C., Heidi specializes in animal law issues. In addition to her law practice, Heidi is a member of the APDT and an Assistant Dog Trainer with Fur-Get Me Not, as well as a board member for multiple animal welfare organizations.
It should be noted that in regards to dog laws, there is a lot of variation from state to state and even town to town. Heidi’s answers are a great jumping off point, but each one of us still needs to research this issue locally in order to be truly informed.
Q: Let’s get started with the basics. What are our legal responsibilities as dog owners?
Heidi: Dog owners have basic responsibilities regarding care that are governed by neglect and cruelty statutes (such as Virginia’s “adequate care” statute). And of course, other laws govern issues such as liability for dog bites.
Q: If someone has a dog with a known behavioral issue, is there anything they should be doing to protect themselves legally?
Heidi: Ensure the safety of your dog and the public. For instance, if your dog has a history of aggression, you should ensure your dog is properly confined (e.g., proper fencing) and is properly equipped on walks (e.g., double leash with harness and collar).
Q: What about DINOS gear? Does wearing a “Keep Back: My Dog Needs Space” t-shirt make someone liable if an incident were to occur on a dog walk?
Heidi: It should not make you automatically liable. There is a chance that a potential plaintiff could argue that you had reason to know that your dog had certain propensities (like viciousness) — but many dogs just need space without having demonstrated vicious propensities.
Q: In the WDJ interview you gave some very helpful advice for dog owners who want to avoid or are facing a Dangerous Dog citation, which I encourage everyone to read. In general, if your dog does bite someone or another dog, what do you suggest they do?
Heidi: If your dog bites someone or another dog, first and foremost — stay calm! If you can, take your dog to a safe place to let your dog calm down and reduce the risk of any other incidents. When your hands are free and your dog is safely out of the area, offer assistance to the person or the dog. Also, be prepared to share proof of your dog’s rabies vaccination. If there is any way to take photos of the injury and the area where the incident occurred without offending the person, try to do so.
Expect to be contacted by your local animal control officers. Again, you will need to share proof of your dog’s rabies vaccination. You may want to consult an attorney about what other information you should share with animal control. Your attorney can also advise you on what to do about liability issues, including whether to involve your insurance company.
Q: One of the biggest challenges for DINOS families are loose dogs. In order to avoid them, many of us are intentionally only walking in areas that have leash laws, but they’re often ignore or are not enforced. Is there anything we can do to increase their effectiveness in our communities?
Heidi: If you see someone disobeying the leash laws, you need to work with your local animal control officers to report the issue. If we don’t report, animal control won’t know about the issue and can’t take action!
Q: Many of us are calling to make reports, but we’re essentially being ignored or laughed off the phones by authorities who think leash laws are a waste of their time! Any thoughts on how we can effectively advocate for the enforcement of existing leash laws?
Heidi: If police or Animal Control Officers don’t want to enforce the leash laws, I would report it up the chain. But who actually oversees ACOs varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so you have to do some research to make sure you’ve found the right source. For instance, in Virginia, some ACO departments are supervised by the local police or deputy office, but others are supervised by the entity (often a nonprofit) that runs the local pound/shelter. You can also talk to the attorneys charged with prosecuting ACO cases — sometimes that will be the local prosecutors, and sometimes the local city or county attorneys. Ultimately, you can work your way up to the county or city board.
In any event, try to make the ACOs’ job as easy as possible, by taking photos or video, gathering as much identifying information about the dog and person, keeping accurate records of when and where you see the dog off leash, and call the ACOs as soon as possible — while the dog is still off leash if at all possible.
If your jurisdiction does not have leash laws, alert your local legislators and educate them about the need for leash laws.
Note: you can find state dog leash laws here.
Q: Here are two generic scenarios that many of us have encountered. Any thoughts?
A dog on leash is approached by a loose dog and bites the loose dog. Who is legally responsible? And can a dog be declared dangerous when it was being properly managed by its owner at the time of the incident?
Heidi: If there is an applicable leash law, it is likely the owner of the loose dog would be liable. Even with jurisdictions that have dangerous dog laws, typically protection is a defense, and animal control officers will likely consider that the loose dog approached and may not charge the leashed dog with dangerous dog proceedings if it attacked in that circumstance — especially if there is a leash law in that jurisdiction.
A person (with or without a dog) approaches a leashed dog. They are told to “stop!” and warned to stay back. If the other person ignores the warning and continues to approach, who is legally responsible if the leashed dog bites?
Heidi: It depends on the jurisdiction. There are some jurisdictions with “strict liability” statutes — although many of those jurisdictions typically have defenses that may be applicable. Also, the owner may be able assert other common law defenses such as “assumption of the risk” and contributory or comparative negligence.
Q: Let’s end on a happy note! Can you tell us about your dog, since she’s a DINOS too? What are some ways you set her up for success and advocate for her when you’re out in public?
Heidi: Sophie is a beautiful Shepherd mix who is very environmentally sensitive and can be reactive to dogs and people. I initially used a Gentle Leader with her, but I didn’t do enough to desensitize her to it and she hated wearing it. The last thing I wanted was to have her be uncomfortable and associate that with being out and about and seeing dogs and strangers. So I now use a Freedom harness, which has a clip on the back and front, and I use two leashes — one clipped to the back of the harness, and one double clipped to the front and to her Martingale collar. She also wears a red bandana.
I always take lots of high value treats with me any time I take Sophie anywhere, and I have done a lot of behavior modification exercises with her over the years. I make sure to keep plenty of distance between me and other dogs. I also make sure that I can see what is up ahead and that I turn corners ahead of her — otherwise, she is always on the lookout and could encounter something before I have a chance to see what is going on. I don’t hesitate to let people know that she needs space, but I always stay calm and polite.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions Heidi!
You can score more insights from Heidi on her Companion Animal Law Blog.
Disclaimer: This blog is for educational purposes only and intended to provide general information, not to provide legal advice. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.