Dog Bites

The state of Washington has a dog bite statute that is favorable to dog bite victims. The law makes the owner of the dog strictly liable for dog bites. Additionally, anyone who harbors, keeps or is negligent with a dog can be held liable for injuries caused by the dog. Washington dog bite law generally protects landlords from liability for canine-inflicted injuries, however, unless the landlord is a keeper or harborer of the dog. If a dog has bitten before, or indicated that it might bite someone, or if it has injured a person in another manner, or indicated that it might do so, then the owner, harborer or keeper having knowledge of the dangerous propensity of the dog may be held liable if the dog inflicts injury by doing any of those things in the future. The law refers to that advance knowledge as "scienter." This rule applies not only to dogs but to all domestic animals. People who are liable for their scienter of an animal's dangerous include the animal's owner, keeper, and harborer. When there is proof of scienter, the range of activities causing liability is expanded; instead of just bites, all activities of the animal can cause liability. Furthermore, when there is proof of scienter, the circle of potentially liable persons is also expanded; instead of just owners, the persons who may be found liable include the owner, harborer and keeper.

People who are liable for negligence in a dog case include anyone who unreasonably failed to control the dog on that day, and thereby caused injury to another person. The activities of the dog which caused the injury are without limit when it can be shown that the actions or inaction of the defendant were unreasonable, and those actions or inaction were the proximate cause of injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

What motivates a dog to bite?

Dogs might bite for a variety of reasons. A poorly trained or abused dog is more likely to bite. A well-trained dog is likely to be more balanced, more trusting, and less wary of strangers. Dogs can bite out of fear, to assert dominance, to protect territory or based on a survival instinct. Dogs should not be taught to bite, and to do so is to train them inappropriately. Young children are the most vulnerable and should generally not be left alone with animals, including dogs. Dogs can perceive an infant as "prey" and a natural instinct can cause them to attack. The risk increases if the child interferes with a feeding dog. Proper training, observation, awareness and diligence will best prevent a dog attack. Without a doubt, dogs are great for home security to alert homeowners to the presence of trespassers. Dogs are great companions and are often viewed as part of a family. Training and care are important. So often, dogs are bought on the spur of the moment and then forgotten. Instead, dogs should be seen as a full-time, long-term responsibility with great reward.

Is there a certain breed that is more likely to bite?

All dogs can bite. From the little “lap” dogs to the bigger varieties, a dog can become mean and be more prone to bite for a variety of reasons. Again, it comes down to training and proper care. Some breeds receive more attention when they do bite due to the physical make-up of the particular breed of dog. Some dogs have very strong jaws and teeth that are more likely to cause injury. Some breeds, such as pit bulls, have been banned by cities given a propensity to bite and cause severe injury. So, genetics can play a role, yet other factors such as whether the animal has been fixed, appropriately trained and socialized, and safely confined are quite important as well. Probably the biggest factor is how well does the owner takes care of the dog.

Do laws aimed at preventing dog bites help?

Laws are only as good as they are enforced. With tight city budgets, animal control is often the first to receive budget cuts. The key with Washington state dog bite laws is that the owner of the dog is responsible. Identifying the owner often becomes an issue. Sometimes people run from responsibility and claim they do not own the dog. Homeowners policies will often cover a dog bite event. Some homeowner’s insurance policies explicitly exclude dog bites. Insurance coverage rarely exists when the dog's owner rents, and landlords are rarely found liable for their tenants’ dogs that bite. The best defense is awareness, and when you are out and about, keep an eye out for dogs, particularly when children accompany you. Dogs can act quickly, so stay aware. The law is not generally a preventative device, but instead, provides a remedy after the fact. The law generally operates to penalize the offending dog owner and/or dog (or both) in terms of fines and/or civil judgements. In extreme circumstances, criminal sanctions can be imposed against the offending dog owner.

Should children be taught about dogs?

This is common sense in most circumstances. Again, teaching your child awareness is key. Children should know that dogs are animals and not people. While this seems obvious to adults, children see cartoons and children's shows all the time where animals are humanized. In fact, all animals are in some ways represented in completely fictional ways. Bears, lions, snakes, etc. are portrayed as friendly and snuggly in a myriad of children shows. Children may develop a completely unrealistic perception of how animals behave. Dogs are no exception. Given this common perception, the first reaction for a child upon seeing a dog may be to run up and try to hug it. This could be a costly mistake with the wrong dog. Such actions may be interpreted by the dog as a form of aggression. Children need to learn that all dogs must be approached with a certain degree of caution, particularly when the dog is unknown, eating, with puppies or exhibiting signs of being stray. Dogs also can exhibit more aggressive behavior when running in packs of dogs. Children simply need to learn to be cautious and rely on parents to guide them.