It’s that time of year again. The days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer and the runners and cyclists are getting restless-er. However, a word to all wise dog owners – make sure your pet does not follow suit and, following a lazy winter of prolonged naps and indoor play, become caught up in the spring fever and use all of his pent up energy to harass – or worse, injure – an innocent passer-by.

New York law imposes a high standard on dog owners, particularly owners of dogs that have ever shown “vicious propensities,” (legalese for prior displays of mean, unruly and aggressive behavior.) As a dedicated marathoner, I must say I am glad the law seeks to hold pet owners responsible for misdeeds, yet as a former and likely future dog owner, I recognize the necessity for understanding the basics of New York’s dog owner liability doctrine to avoid legal entanglements.

In brief, under New York law a dog owner is potentially liable for injuries his dog causes to another person if (1) the owner is aware his dog has displayed vicious propensities in the past or (2) the owner fails to properly restrain the dog on the owner’s property or use a leash when transporting the dog off the property, (i.e. when walking the dog.)

Under ways-you-may-be-liable for your dog’s delinquency #1, the law will impose liability on you if you have seen your dog act aggressively in the past but have failed to take any corrective action, (such as enrolling your pet in doggie obedience school or building a really high fence.) New York courts have defined “vicious propensity” as “a natural inclination or habitual tendency to act in a manner that might endanger the person or property of others.” In English that means your dog has displayed threatening or aggressive behavior, such as growling, snapping or baring its teeth, in the past. Thus, should you become aware of your dog’s “propensity” toward aggression, heed the warning and take action now to avoid any problems in the future.

Reasons-you-may-get-hauled-into-court-on-a-count-of-your-mutt #2 is much more straightforward. If your municipality has a leash law (as most do,) follow it. If your dogs frequently goes astray, erect a fence or build a doghouse or chain ‘em up or do something else to keep your pooch off the loose. I came across some information on a website devoted solely to dog-owner liability: www.dogbitelaw.com.

Specifically, I learned some decent tips for how to handle yourself if your dog attacks someone:

  • Stay calm. Don’t argue. Don’t accuse. Be nice to the victim.
  • Make sure the victim gets medical attention. Take him or her to the hospital or to a doctor. Be considerate.
  • Whether or not you have insurance, if you have any money or credit at all, you should offer to pay for the victim’s medical bills.
  • Take steps to protect others from your dog.
  • Obtain the name, address and phone number of every witness.

I also found the following statistical from the website to be very interesting and informative:


  • The death count in 2007-2008: There have been two fatal dog attacks in the United States 2008 and 31 in 2007.
  • The deadliest states: (8), Georgia (4), Tennessee (three), and Illinois (three).

The general rule with respect to dog liability is the same as it is with nearly every other situation — when in doubt, take extra precautions. There really is some truth to the old cliche saying, “You are always better safe than sorry.” And with that I need to head out for a run.

Thanks for reading,

Christina M. Bruner, Esq.