Jan 29, 2020
by Debra Newby, Newby Law
DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.
Did you hear about the woman who was walking the Graton trail when she and her little dog were attacked by a dog who escaped from a neighboring yard? In an attempt to protect her dog, she picked her dog up, only to have the attacking dog rip the dog from her arms and brutally kill it in front of her (she also suffered bites and abrasions). What legal rights does that poor woman have?
Yes, I did hear about it, and was shocked by the brutality and horror that the woman must have experienced, both during the attack and after, as she and her family go through the process of mourning and grief. My sympathies go out to her. Frankly, it is hard to muster much sympathy for the attacking dog or its owner(s), especially if the deadly attack was not the first sign of aggressive canine behavior.
The regulation of such aggressive animal behavior falls within the jurisdiction of our Sonoma County Animal Services. Any individual can report inappropriate animal behavior to the County by calling707-565-7100. Or, check out their website at www.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Animal-Services, which has a cadre of helpful information.
Upon receiving a report of aggressive animal behavior, an investigation will be conducted by an Animal Control Officer. If sufficient evidence exists (and the injured party is willing to testify) then a hearing is set before a Superior Court Judge (limited civil action), with proper notice to the Dog Owner required. Animal Control will also look at “mitigating factors”, such as whether the animal was provoked or whether the injured party was trespassing. If the Owner cannot confine the dog(s) or if the dog bit someone as a stray, the dog will be impounded while awaiting “trial”. The Dog Owner always has the option of making an independent decision that the dog is a public threat and can choose to euthanize their own pet.
Evidence will be presented at the hearing, and the Judge has the ultimate authority to designate the animal as either “potentially dangerous” or “vicious”. If the dog is designated as “potentially dangerous”, the Court may order the Dog Owner to comply with certain conditions, such as proper licensing and vaccination, keeping the animal indoors or in a secure enclosure, and requiring a “substantial leash not exceeding 6 feet” if the animal is off-premises. The animal is also placed on a “potentially dangerous” list kept by the County, unless the animal dies or 3 years pass without the animal engaging in dangerous behavior.
If the animal is deemed to be “vicious”, legal remedies might include that the animal be “humanely destroyed” if the release of the animal creates a significant threat to the public health, safety and welfare. “Vicious” animals may not be kept on premises where minor children reside, plus the Owner must maintain at least $100,000 in liability insurance. Lastly, any animal found to be “potentially dangerous” or “vicious” must be sterilized and have a microchip implanted. If the animal is found unattended, it may be euthanized.
Not pretty stuff. I know. To own is dog is a HUGE responsibility. State law requires that all dogs be licensed (Here in SoCo, only $27 if the animal is spayed or neutered; 50% discount for owners over 62-years old). Licensure for unaltered dogs is slightly higher ($104). Contact Sonoma County Animal Services for licensing. Also, given the fact that most rabies-carriers are bats, raccoons, and skunks (critters which are prolific in SoCo), don’t hesitate — vaccinate. Do the right thing—License and Vaccinate your dog.
What happened on our local walking trail is a tragedy. I hope the Dog Owner(s) step-up and take individual responsibility. “Nothing strengthens judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility”, as noted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 19th Century social rights advocate.
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