DANGEROUS OR VICIOUS DOGS
Dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend.” And yet, at the same time there are jokes about dogs biting mailmen, and issues with people promoting dog fighting, not to mention vicious dog bite cases popping up on the new on a regular basis. As such, every state has enacted laws regarding dangerous and/or vicious dogs.
What are the laws that regulate dangerous or vicious dogs?
The laws relating to dangerous or vicious dogs are governed by NRS 202.500.
NRS 202.500 – Dangerous or vicious dogs; Unlawful acts; penalties.
- For the purposes of this section, a dog is:
- “Dangerous” if:
- It is so declared pursuant to subsection 2; or
- Without provocation, on two separate occasions within 18 months, it behaved menacingly, to a degree that would lead a reasonable person to defend himself or herself against substantial bodily harm, when the dog was:
- Off the premises of its owner or keeper; or
- Not confined in a cage, pen or vehicle.
- “Provoked” when it is tormented or subjected to pain.
- “Vicious” if:
- Without being provoked, it killed or inflicted substantial bodily harm upon a human being; or
- After its owner or keeper had been notified by a law enforcement agency that the dog is dangerous, the dog continued the behavior described in paragraph (a).
- “Dangerous” if:
- A dog may be declared dangerous by a law enforcement agency if it is used in the commission of a crime by its owner or keeper.
- A dog may not be found dangerous or vicious:
- Based solely on the breed of the dog; or
- Because of a defensive act against a person who was committing or attempting to commit a crime or who provoked the dog.
- A person who knowingly:
- Owns or keeps a vicious dog, for more than 7 days after the person has actual notice that the dog is vicious; or
- Transfers ownership of a vicious dog after the person has actual notice that the dog is vicious,
- is guilty of a misdemeanor.
- If substantial bodily harm results from an attack by a dog known to be vicious, its owner or keeper is guilty of a category D felony and shall be punished as provided in NRS 193.13o. In lieu of, or in addition to, a penalty provided in this subsection, the judge may order the vicious dog to be humanely destroyed.
- A local authority shall not adopt or enforce an ordinance or regulation that deems a dog dangerous or vicious based solely on the breed of the dog.
- This section does not apply to a dog used by a law enforcement officer in the performance of his or her duty.
- As used in this section, “local authority” means the governing board of a county, city or other political subdivision having authority to enact laws or ordinances or promulgate regulations relating to dogs.
I’ve heard about the “one bite rule,” what is that?
The “One Bite Rule” is an attempt by legislatures to provide civil liability for a dog owner who allows a knowingly vicious dog to attack or bite someone.
No matter how much we believe that dogs are tame and/or trained, a dog is still a wild animal at heart, and as such, may still bite if they feel scared, cornered, or otherwise threatened. In response to the knowledge that a dog may bite under certain circumstances, many states have enacted what is often referred to as a “one bite rule” or “one bite law.”
Essentially, the “one bite” system generally means that until a dog has bitten someone, they are deemed safe. However, if the dog has bitten someone, and the owner knows about that bite, then the owner is ‘on notice’ that the dog is dangerous. The owner will consequently be liable for any future attacks by the dog. Moreover, in practice, the “one bite” rule applies to more than an actual bite; if the dog has shown aggressive tendencies or tried to bite someone in the past, that will often suffice to show that the dog has dangerous propensities and may bite someone in the future.
PLEASE NOTE: Just because your dog has never bitten someone before does not mean that will not be civilly liable if your dog bites another person. If you were acting negligently at the time that your dog attacked and/or bit someone, then you can still be sued for damages. Generally, negligence in such situations is found when the owner or keeper is not acting reasonably under the circumstances (for example, if the owner allows his a newly adopted, full grown dog to roam free in the front yard without any knowledge of how the dog might react to other animals or people, or if a skittish dog is left unattended with a small child).
PLEASE ALSO NOTE: In some cases, you may be held civilly liable if your dog bites someone under what is known as negligence per se. Negligence per se, essentially means that the fact that the bite occurred, under the circumstances, means that you are at fault as the dog’s owner. In order to be held liable under a claim of negligence per se, the dog bite must have occurred at a time when the owner was violating a law or ordinance (for example, if the dog was previously labelled “dangerous,” but was off the owner’s property without a leash or muzzle; or if the owner did not have adequate fencing to keep the dog confined to their yard and the dog subsequently got loose and bit someone). The fact that you were in violation of an ordinance and your dog bit someone as a result is proof that you are liable for the injuries.
What do you mean by “dangerous propensities”?
While the “one bite” rule does not technically include aggressive behavior, such behavior can lead to a dog being labelled as either “dangerous” or “vicious.”
If a dog has bitten someone in the past, then they will automatically be labelled as either “dangerous” or “vicious,” depending on the severity of the bite and/or attack.
What would be considered a “dangerous” bite?
There are a few different ways that a dog can receive the “dangerous” label:
- If the dog is used in the commission of a crime by its owner or keeper;
- Bites a person, but does not cause substantial bodily harm or death;
- If the dog causes serious injury or death to another dog, regardless of whether the other dog was restrained or in a pen;
- The dog’s behavior causes an Animal Regulation Officer to believe that the dog is a threat to public safety; or
- If, within 18 months, the dog acted “menacingly” toward a person twice while the dog:
- Was off the owner’s property;
- Was not confined or restrained by a leash; and
- Was not provoked prior to the “menacing” behavior.
What do you mean by “menacing”?
“Menacing” behavior, as it applies to NRS 202.500, is essentially any behavior that would lead the average, reasonable person, to believe that they were in imminent danger of being attacked or bitten by the dog.
Similarly, if an average or reasonable person had cause to believe that they would need to defend themselves against an attack from the dog, then the dog’s behavior is considered “menacing.”
PLEASE NOTE: The concept of what an average or reasonable person may think or do is often difficult even for new attorneys to understand. Under these circumstances, it essentially means that it refers to the average person who does not have any irrational fear of dogs, or who has a paranoia that everyone and everything is trying to “get” them. It also does not refer to dog trainers or behaviorists who have an extensive knowledge of dog behaviors and what those behaviors indicate. It basically refers to the average person with the average understanding of how dogs behave.
What happens if I have a dog that is deemed “dangerous”?
It is still legal to own a “dangerous” dog, so long as you follow a strict set of guidelines. You must:
- Obtain a permit for the dog through the Animal Control Office;
- Keep the dog securely enclosed on your own property;
- Post obvious and visible warning signs containing your name and telephone number;
- Keep the dog leashed and muzzled when you are off of your property;
- Spay or neuter the dog;
- Make sure the dog is microchipped;
- Obtain, and maintain, liability insurance of at least $50,000.
PLEASE NOTE: If you subsequently decide to transfer ownership of the dog to another person, you must first obtain written permission from the Animal Control Office.
What would cause a dog to be a “threat to public safety”?
Most Nevada laws have some form of vague or ambiguous language which allows prosecutors and other law enforcement officers to make a determination, based on all the surrounding circumstances. Here, this “threat to public safety” language gives Animal Control Officers wide latitude to label a dog “dangerous,” so long as there is some verifiable conduct that can be seen as threatening in any way.
Unfortunately, because this language is left intentionally vague, there is no definite way to define the term.
How does a dog get the “vicious” label, then?
This is the third, and most restrictive designation for a dog in Nevada. There are only two ways that a dog can be labelled as “vicious”:
- The dog continues to be reported for “menacing” behavior after receiving the “dangerous” designation; or
- The dog causes substantial bodily harm or death to a human being without being provoked into the attack.
What happens after a dog has been labelled as “vicious”?
Once a dog has been determined to be “vicious,” then it becomes illegal to keep the dog. Unfortunately, the only thing that can be done is that Animal Control must take possession of the dog, which inevitable leads to the dog being put down.
Once the owner is aware that the dog has been labelled “vicious,” he or she has 7 days in which to transfer possession of the dog to Animal Control.
Is there anything else I should know?
Yes. A dog may not be labelled “dangerous” or “vicious” because of its breed. There must be actual behavior that is dangerous or vicious in order for either label to apply.
Also, all of the regulations regarding “dangerous” or “vicious” dogs do not apply to dogs trained to be law enforcement agents.
What are the possible penalties?
If your dog is deemed “vicious,” and you keep possession of the dog for more than 7 days after receiving notice of the label, then you will be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries with it possible penalties of:
- Between 1 and 6 years in jail; and
- Possible fines up to $1,000.
If your dog is deemed “vicious,” and you attempt to transfer possession of the dog to anyone other than Animal Control, after receiving notice of the label, then you will be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries with it possible penalties of:
- Between 1 and 6 years in jail; and
- Possible fines up to $1,000.
If your dog is determined to be “vicious,” and subsequently causes serious bodily injury or death to another person, then you can be charged with a category D felony, which carries with it:
- Between 1 and 4 years in a state prison; and/or
- Possible fines up to $5,000.
PLEASE NOTE: After any dog bite, the Judge in a criminal proceeding may order that the dog by humanely destroyed or ‘put-down.’
Are there any Defenses?
Yes, of course there are. Some of the possible defenses include:
- Self Defense/Defense of owner – It may seem strange to think of self-defense as a defense for a dog, but dogs are pack animals who will seek to protect their pack leader (in this case their owner or keeper). This is one of the main reasons why dogs were domesticated in the first place. As such, the charges against you should be dropped or dismissed if you or your attorney can show that the dog was defending itself or you against:
- A person committing a crime or attempting to commit a crime against you (for example, assault, battery, or robbery);
- A person or other animal that has illegally entered the owner’s property;
- Another animal which was running at large or was in violation of an animal regulation.
- Provocation – As noted above, a dog cannot be deemed “dangerous” or “vicious” if it was provoked into attacking. This defense acts in much the same way as self-defense, as it relies on the dog acting on its own instinct of self-preservation. Provocation includes any conduct that would cause the dog to retaliate or act “menacingly” as a response. If you or your attorney can show that the dog was provoked into its aggressive conduct, then the charges against you should be dropped or dismissed.
- No notice – As noted above, it is illegal to keep possession of your dog for more than 7 days after learning that the dog has been labelled “vicious.” However, if you never received actual notice that your dog had been deemed “vicious,” then the 7-day time-frame does not apply. However, ignorance is not a defense; notice attaches at the moment you know or should know that your dog has been deemed “vicious.” If you or your attorney can show that you had no notice of the designation, then the charges against you should be dropped or dismissed.
- Lack of Evidence – As with any crime, the prosecution bears the burden of proving every element of the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If there is not enough evidence to uphold this high level of proof, then the charges should be dropped or dismissed.
What should I do if I’ve been charged with a crime involving owning a vicious dog?
As with any crime, it is very important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible so that you can discuss the specific circumstances as well as any defenses that may apply to your case.