Every state has different laws regarding criminal liability for pet owners if their animal attacks or injures another person. In many jurisdictions, an owner is subject to criminal penalties (including jail time) if their dog injures someone and the dog is considered “dangerous” or “vicious” under the local law. For example, in California a dog will be considered “dangerous” or “vicious” if one of the following is true.

  • The dog, while off the owner’s property, has acted aggressively in a way that has forced another person to defend themselves on two separate occasions in the last 3 years;
  • The dog has previously bitten another person without provocation;
  • The dog, while off the owner’s property, has bitten, injured, or killed another domestic animal twice in the last 3 years;
  • The dog’s owner has been convicted of a dog-fighting offense;
  • The dog has aggressively inflicted severe injury or killed a person;
  • Is of a breed that has been designated as dangerous and the owner has failed to follow regulations for keeping dangerous dogs.

When Can a Dog Owner Face Criminal Assault Charges?

Dog owners are usually subject to assault charges if:

  • The dog owner intentionally causes their dog to bite someone;
  • The dog owner knows that their dog tends to bite or injure others without provocation and fails to reasonably restrain the dog; or
  • The dog is declared to be “vicious” or dangerous according to local law and the owner fails to reasonably restrain the dog.

Can a Dog Owner Face Homicide Charges?

Sometimes, a dog owner can be charged with murder or manslaughter when someone dies as a result of a dog attack:

  • Dog Owner Charged with Manslaughter: In some jurisdictions, a dog owner can be charged with manslaughter or a similar charge if:
    • The owner knows their dog is dangerous (has the dog acted aggressively or injured others in the past);
    • The owner failed to take reasonable steps to protect the public from the dangerous dog (e.g. did the owner negligently or recklessly allow the dog to be unsupervised in a public area);
    • The dog attacks and causes the death of a person.
  • Dog Owner Charged with Murder: A dog owner may be charged with murder in some jurisdictions in two circumstances:
    • The dog owner intentionally directs the dog to kill another person; or
    • The dog is classified as a deadly weapon and the dog owner’s negligence or recklessness causes the dog to kill a person. This is the same as the charge of manslaughter with the additional factor that the dog is ruled to be a dangerous weapon according to the local court standards. Using a deadly weapon when committing a crime is known as an aggravating factor and usually leads to a more serious charge. Some examples of factors that might lead the court to consider a dog a dangerous weapon include:
      • Whether the dog was trained to attack and inflict injury
      • The breed of the dog
      • The type of attack training the dog received

Are there Other Relevant Criminal Charges Involving Dogs?

Dog owners can face charges of destruction or concealment of evidence if they destroy or conceal a dog after it commits an attack. 

Should I Contact an Attorney if My Dog Attacked Someone?

Penalties for owners of dangerous animals can be quite severe. If your dog has injured another person or animal, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can prepare possible defenses, interview witnesses, gather evidence, and represent you in court.