Along with the joy and companionship that a dog can bring its owner also comes a lot of responsibility, and not just for feeding, watering, and walking the critter. Generally speaking, the law holds that a dog owner has an absolute duty to keep her pet under control at all times, and that she is responsible for any injuries or damages the dog inflicts. And for good reason, too. Researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Control in Pittsburgh recently reported that there are upwards of 4.5 million dog bite incidents each year, and that the victims are frequently children. Dog bites can be so severe that some 334,000 dog bite victims end up at the local emergency room. Some dog-bite victims, sadly, die. The report also stated that male dogs do up to 80% of the biting, and that virtually all of them are unnuetered males.
Accordingly, the law holds, amongst other things, that a dog is allowed to run free only on its owner’s property. As soon as it steps over the property line, it is then said to be “at large.” Even while at large, a dog must always be accompanied by its owner or handler. Also, its owner must be able to see or hear the dog, or have reasonable knowledge of where the dog is at any one particular moment. Furthermore, the dog’s owner must be able to reasonably control her dog’s conduct at all times. Also, if your dog is an unspayed female, she must be confined when in heat in such a manner that she will not come into contact with a male dog except for intentional breeding purposes. In sum, you not only must be with your dog at all times when it is off your property, but you must always have it under your direct control.
Your dog can not continue barking for sustained periods of more than one-half hour during day light, or at anytime after dark, such that it disturbs the peace and quiet of the neighborhood. It is not permitted to growl, snap at, run after or chase a person, whether he is on foot, on a bicycle, or in a motor vehicle. And, no matter how loveable Fido may be at home, it can not run in a pack, and it can not bite, attack or otherwise prey on domestic or game animals, such as sheep and deer. Most particularly, it can not bite humans.
A Public Nuisance
If your dog is guilty of any of the above, it can then be found to be a public nuisance. If the offense is serious, the dog can be impounded or even killed. For example, if your dog is found to be running at large or to be a public nuisance, you can be ordered by the appropriate law enforcement official to restrain your animal. If you fail to take appropriate action, your dog can then be impounded by the police of the city or constable of the town in which the violation occurred and held until the matter is settled, usually in court. Moreover, you can be fined upwards to $50 for the first offense and $100 for the second or subsequent offenses. You can also be required to pay for the dog’s boarding costs while it was impounded.
Even worse, any conservation officer, state police officer, dog constable, or police officer may kill any dog that is discovered in the act of maiming or in close pursuit of a deer or a moose, a farm animal, or any other domestic animal. Besides suffering the loss of her dog, the owner can then be fined up to $500. With exceptions, the law also permits any person who, while peaceably walking or riding, is suddenly attacked by a dog to kill it. Some dog owner’s have found out the hard way that the law also permits a person, such as a farmer, to kill a dog that is found to be worrying, wounding, or killing sheep, lambs, fowl, or other domestic animals. Finally, anyone whose property, including sheep, lambs, or other domestic creatures, is injured or killed by a dog is entitled to recover damages from the dog’s owner. If faced with this situation, it is always a good idea to speak with a qualified injury attorney in New Hampshire.
Licensing and Vaccination
A dog owner has other responsibilities as well. For instance, every dog 3 months old or over must be licensed at the office of the clerk of the city or town in which the dog is kept. Regardless of when the license is obtained, it is effective from May 1 of each year to April 30 of the subsequent year. The license must be worn on a collar around its neck, along with its rabies vaccination tag, which is also required. In fact, the dog can only be licensed upon proof that the dog has been properly vaccinated.
A dog can be impounded if it is found off its owner's premises and not wearing a valid vaccination tag. Once impounded, it must be kept for a minimum of 7 days unless reclaimed earlier by its owner. To reclaim her impounded dog, she must prove that the dog has already been vaccinated, or else arrange for the vaccination prior to its release. She must also pay for her dog’s impoundment fees. If the dog is unclaimed at the end of 7 days, it then can be euthanized or placed for adoption.
A Dog Owner’s Strict Liability
The law holds that a dog’s owner is strictly liable for any damage the dog inflicts upon another’s person or property. Strict liability is a legal term that means the bite victim or property owner whose property is damaged has only to prove that the damage was the result of the dog's vicious or mischievous conduct. Since the owner is held to be strictly liable, it is not necessarily important that the dog was provoked. Nonetheless, if someone approaches an otherwise passive dog and hits it on the nose with a stick, thereby provoking the dog to bite him, his own misconduct will certainly be considered in assessing any damages to be paid by the dog's owner. Absent such outrageous behavior, however, a dog owner is responsible for keeping her dog under control at all time.
Despite its owner’s strict liability for its behavior, the rule is that every dog gets one free bite. That does not mean that the dog’s owner is free from any liability due to injuries or damages caused by the dog; it only means that, generally speaking, the dog itself is given the benefit of the doubt and not subject to a death sentence. Two or more bites, however, and the dog can be considered vicious, especially if the incidents are less than one year apart. Once this happens, the dog can be euthanized.
If Bitten by a Dog
If you or your child is bitten by a dog, especially if the bite punctured the skin, you should immediately report the incident, along with the dog’s identify and its owner, to the local animal officer or town clerk. Once reported, the animal officer or town clerk must notify you within 24 hours whether, according to town records, the dog has been appropriately immunized against rabies. If not vaccinated, the dog must then be quarantined for no less than ten days to check for rabies. However, if the dog displays symptoms which indicate a likelihood that it is afflicted with rabies, it will be immediately euthanized and its head sent to the state lab to check for the rabies virus. Its owner will be responsible for the testing.
If the dog has a current vaccination, it nonetheless still must be confined by its owner or other responsible person for 10 days, at which time the dog must be examined by a licensed veterinarian. As a practical matter, these rules also apply to cats and ferrets. The purpose of these rules is to give the bite victim a reasonable chance to be vaccinated for the rabies virus in the event the animal is found to be rabid. While the vaccination itself may be painful, it certainly is better than the alternative, which is almost always 100% fatal.
Finally, the one major exception to a dog owner’s absolute responsibility for her dog occurs when a trespasser is bitten by the dog while on its owner’s property. Depending upon circumstances, the owner may be exempt from any personal liability, especially if the trespasser is there to commit a crime. However, if the victim is on the owner’s land for a lawful business reason at a reasonable hour of the day, such as the plumber or delivery man, the owner would be strictly liable for any injuries the dog inflicts upon the victim.
By Michael L. Laws, Esq.