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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.

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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?leash law sign


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.

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9 Comments
  1. Great article. Of course, our laws here in South Africa differ quite a lot but the issue around being a responsible dog owner should be universal.

    April 19, 2013
  2. First, a head halter would never be used for a reactive dog. It will make things worse.

    Second, we live in an imperfect world where things happen that don’t make sense, so feeling that “if I can control the environment around my dog, thus controlling how my dog responds, everything will turn out OK.” Of course that won’t happen.

    Ultimately, it comes down to your dog and their issues. If your dog has aggression issues toward either people or dogs, and will attack, you are responsible for the dog’s actions, and that dog will need to be kept in a bubble. I have had dogs that were outwardly dog aggressive, so I have faced these issues daily. Personally, I would never, ever have a dog that was people aggressive. I see “0” tolerance for that kind of dog in a civilized society, and I am barely tolerant of a dog-aggressive dog. This is not the same as your dog that won’t tolerate another obnoxious animal flying in their face while your dog is on leash. However, if another dog approaches slowly in a friendly manner, I would expect that any dog-friendly dog should tolerate that. A truly dog-aggressive dog would not even recognize a dog approaching in a slow, friendly manner.

    If a person chooses to continue to bring into society a dog that is truly dog and/or people aggressive, they should face still penalties and regulations if that dog causes harm. As a former Animal Control Officer, I have seen the other side of the cases where animals and people were harmed by animals with known histories of aggression, and the people continued to keep those animals without regard to the safety of their neighbors. That is intolerable in my mind, and the animal should not be given the privilege of remaining and should be removed.

    April 19, 2013
    • Trillium #

      I had a dog who was blind in the left eye as she got old. Even dogs approaching in a slow and friendly manner from the left would be met with a startled response. Small dogs and cats with a snap, larger dogs she would jump backwards from with a growl and perhaps a snap. My other dogs learned to approach her from the right and I kept her in the bubble of a fenced yard. I can’t keep wandering cats out of my yard and refuse to be responsible for them. The same thing happened with people and children. When we had visitors I’d put her in an ex pen blocked by another ex pen, so she wasn’t completely excluded but has a safe space. Her quality of life otherwise was fine. We considered her a dog/people aggressive dog but I let her live out her final days with the family she had always known, and consider it our privilege to have done so.

      April 22, 2013
    • NUNYA #

      JACKIE PHILLIPS, DID YOUR MOM HAVE ANY KIDS THAT LIVED DEAR? LEASH LAWS ARE IN PLACE FOR A REASON, AND PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE THE BIGGEST REASON FOR THOSE LEASH LAWS! ANY ANIMAL THAT APPROACHES MY SERVICE ANIMAL OFF A LEASH WHILE MINE IS ON A LEASH IS SEEN AS THREAT TO MY SERVICE ANIMAL BY ME! AND I WILL PROTECT MY SERVICE ANIMAL BY ANY MEANS NESSASARY! INCLUDING AND UP TO THE USE OF DEADLY FORCE! AT THE VERY LEAST, THAT ANIMAL WILL MEET MY BOOT! REPEATEDLY!, AS SOON AS IT GETS CLOSE ENOUGH FOR ME TO KICK IT! I DEPEND ON MY SERVICE ANIMAL AND MY LIFE DEPENDS ON HER! I BET IF AN OFF LEASH DOG ATTACKED YOUR CHILD, YOU WOULD HAVE A MORE REALISTIC OPINION ABOUT THIS INSTEAD OF TRYING TO SHIFT BLAME TO SOMEONE WHO OBEYS THE LAW! SHAME ON YOU! AND THANK GOD YOU ARE NO LONGER AN ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER!, AS YOU ARE CLEARLY TO IGNORANT ABOUT A DOG’S TRUE NATURE FOR YOU TO DO THAT JOB! NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT THIS KIND OF ATTITUDE IS WHAT LEADS TO MULTIPLE MAULING’S AND EVEN DEATH’S OF SERVICE ANIMALS EVERY YEAR! YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE NO CLUE HOW THIS AFFECTS NOT ONLY THE SERVICE ANIMAL, BUT THE HUMAN WHOSE LIFE THAT ANIMAL IS DEPENDANT UPON AND VISA VERSA!

      April 28, 2013
      • jackie phillips #

        Clearly you have misunderstood. Go back and re read what I wrote.

        April 28, 2013
  3. Jackie, actually using a head halter with a reactive dog increases control significantly.
    Second, why euthanize a reactive dog without attempting behavior modification? MANY dogs who have this issue are trained and modified every day to be tolerant and safe with other dogs. One stipulation to behavior modification is to control the environment, yes. This can be done easily as long as people are responsible and don’t allow their dogs to go running straight up to other dogs without permission.

    April 22, 2013
    • Please go back and re-read what I said.

      Nobody said a thing about euthanizing a dog without behavior modification.

      Your last sentence is the issue. My point exactly. You can’t control the environment. People will allow their dogs to go running straight up to your dog, no matter if you have a bright red bandana or a red jumpsuit set on fire. It will happen once, twice, three times and more. You can tell people over and over and over not to allow their dog up to yours, and they will still do it. That is the tough part. If you have a dog that is reactive or unfriendly or even outright aggressive, you will have a tough time because the world is imperfect and does not follow any standard and set rules about this subject. I have been there many, many times and had very difficult time with outright re-active, defensive, over re-active and outright aggressive dogs. Even my friendly dogs have been blatantly attacked by loose dogs, even to the best of my ability to stop it.

      It will happen and does happen. These are the decisions we must face everyday if we walk our dogs in public. We must decide what to do and how to handle it when it does happen. Each experience will be different, but there will be some similarities.

      The closest thing I have come to dealing with these incidents is to cut off the offending dog and any incident before they even get close. First, all dog-dog encounters are 100% avoided, no questions asked. When you see a dog up ahead, make plans to go off to the side with plenty of space in between you and the other dog and handler. Even when the other handler approaches, insisting their dog is friendly, make plans to remain polite and say, “No. Please keep your dog away.”

      Second, if you see a dog approaching and the dog is off leash, you will need to step in between you and that dog and outright, with full force, stop the dog at all cost. The other person will be mad and upset and confused and call you every name in the book, plus more. So what, your dog is safe and you are safe. If you are willing to do those two things, 99% of incidents will be avoided. The remaining 1% is the unplanned and unprepared for incidents. They are extremely rare. Most will fall into the first and second steps.

      Good luck!

      April 28, 2013
  4. Excellent article, I had never heard of Team DINO before, great info!

    April 22, 2013
  5. I always worry as we often times meet with off-leash dogs on our walks. I trust that most owners would not let an unfriendly dog run loose, but I do try and always keep my eyes sharp and try to avoid when I can.

    Thanks for the informative post.

    April 24, 2013

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