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That Really Bites

Every friendship can get ugly.

Even the millennia-long bond between humans and canines has its downsides. A vicious dog can attack and bite a person. But when that happens, who is responsible?

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Some municipalities are looking to strengthen dog-bite laws to make the owners of aggressive dogs liable. This September, Orange Village, Ohio, passed an ordinance that makes a dog bite a criminal misdemeanor that can carry a jail sentence of up to 180 days for the owner of the animal.

Most states have what’s known as the “one free bite” law, which means attack victims have to show that the dog had a history of aggression.

“It’s pretty unusual,” said Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council.

Most animal-control laws are enacted on the local level, but they’re usually civil laws that carry fines, she said. Very few hold the dog owner liable criminally, or even responsible, for the victim’s medical expenses.

It’s something that many dog-bite victims wish their states would do, too. Most have what’s known as the “one free bite” law, which means that attack victims have to show that the dog had a history of aggression, and that the owner was negligent in letting dogs off a leash in a public space.

“It’s essentially a free pass,” said Garrett Rosso, an expert urban dog walker and manager of the Tompkins Square Dog Run in New York. “No one bothers to report or register a first act of aggression, and no lawyer will touch it, so there’s never a legal record on a vicious dog.”

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The Flora family of Wappingers Falls, New York, is experiencing this first hand. Frank Flora had just turned 5 in April 2009 when he was mauled by a pit bull that wouldn’t let go for nearly 20 minutes. A plastic surgeon used donated skin to graft nerves and muscles to the boy’s left cheek. After 34 procedures, Frank is due for another surgery to help stretch his facial muscles, but his mother, Maria Flora, has held off to let her son acclimate to middle school, which he now attends.

“In crowded cities, we live so close to each other that a law making dog biting criminal would tie up the courts.”

“We would love a law like Ohio’s,” said Flora.

She is advocating for a bill in the New York Assembly to make owners liable for the medical expenses incurred by the bite victim.

Rosso is not optimistic it would pass.

“In crowded cities, we live so close to each other that a law making dog biting criminal would tie up the courts,” he said.

But tougher dog-bite laws are not the solution, according to behavior dog expert Brian Kilcommons.

“A law like the Orange Village one is really stupid. It’s expensive to implement, and it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that dogs need to be trained,” he said.

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It’s not fair to the dogs either, Kilcommons said.

“Most dogs turn aggressive because they’re treated badly. There are clear signs when a dog will get aggressive before a bad bite, but nobody wants to get involved and report it,” he said.

He suggests municipalities instead strengthen their animal-registration rules. As few as 10 percent of dog owners receive licenses. Legal registration would educate dog owners about animal behavior, identify the animals most likely to turn vicious and have them undergo behavior training. Moreover, the license fee can go into an insurance fund to cover medical expenses for bad injuries.

“When trained well, a dog is the best companion a person can have,” he added.