If you're attacked by a dog or see someone else attacked, you can, of course, defend yourself. The laws of nearly every state authorize anyone to take whatever action is necessary, including killing, to stop a dog caught in the act of attacking a person. (See "When Killing a Dog Is Legally Justified.") Dogs rarely, however, engage in a sustained attack on a person. Most dogs that bite do so quickly, out of fright, nervousness, or misdirected protectiveness.
The dog's owner is likely to be legally liable for your injury. For information about owner liability, see "A Dog Owner's Liability for Injuries."
You'll want to check local animal control department records for prior attacks by the dog. That could help you negotiate with the owner or win a case in court if it goes that far. If the dog has been officially labeled "dangerous" (as some cities and states designate dogs who have bitten people), the owner may be fined, and a judge may order the dog to be destroyed. (See "Dangerous Dogs.")
What to Do First
- Get the names and phone numbers of the dog's owner and witnesses. Even if you don't think you'll be asking for any money, get the dog owner's name and address. You may change your mind the next day, when you discover that jumping out of the way of that lunging dog has given you a swollen ankle.
- Get any witnesses' names. You may need them to back up your version of what happened if you and the dog's owner later disagre or if you don't know who owns the dog. Animal control authorities may be able to find the dog from your description and then find its owner.
- Get medical attention if you need it. If your injury is serious enough to require medical attention, get it quickly. Keep records of doctor's office or hospital visits and copies of bills. You won't have much of a chance of getting reimbursed for your medical expenses unless you can document what you paid.
- Report the incident to animal control authorities. This is especially important if the dog wasn't wearing a license tag and you don't know who owns it. City or county authorities will try to pick it up so it can be quarantined. Many cities and some states require that a dog that bites someone be quarantined, to see if the dog is rabid, for seven to 20 days, either at the owner's home or in the dog pound. Confinement may not be required if the dog has a current rabies vaccination.