Dangerous Dog Laws

These laws impose special restrictions on owners of dogs that are officially labeled dangerous.

"Vicious dog" or "dangerous dog" laws impose special restrictions on dogs that are officially labeled dangerous. By focusing on dogs known to pose a danger to people, these laws can protect the public and crack down on irresponsible dog owners. Many states have dangerous dog laws, and so do many cities.

Generally, the process of having a dog declared dangerous is set in motion by a formal complaint from an animal control officer or someone who has been threatened or injured by the dog. A hearing follows, at which a judge hears evidence and determines whether or not the dog is dangerous under the terms of the law.

If a dog is found to be dangerous, the judge will order the owner to take measures to prevent the dog from injuring anyone. At the least, the owner will have to keep the dog securely confined. If the judge determines that the danger can't be kept within an acceptable level, the owner may be ordered to have the dog destroyed or remove it from the city. An owner who violates the court's order will probably be fined and possibly be jailed, especially if the dog seriously injures someone. The dog will be impounded and probably killed.

States With Dangerous Dog Laws













District of Columbia


Rhode Island



South Carolina



South Dakota


New Hampshire



New Jersey



New Mexico



New York



North Carolina



North Dakota

West Virginia

*Cities or counties may enact local dangerous dog laws.

Many other states have laws on the books that make it illegal to keep vicious dogs or dogs that are a "public nuisance," but don't provide a procedure for having a judge determine what dogs are vicious. These laws aren't much help when it comes to preventing injuries; they serve primarily to increase penalties on owners after a dog injures someone.

Making a Dangerous Dog Complaint

If a dog has threatened or attacked someone, the frightened or injured person may file a formal complaint with the agency or court in charge of implementing the dangerous dog law. In many places, a local court receives complaints, but sometimes they are handled by the local sheriff, health department, or animal control department.

Who may make such a complaint depends on the law. Most laws allow anyone to complain, but in some states, only a person who has been attacked may lodge a formal complaint. In Vermont, someone who has been bitten seriously enough to require medical attention, and off the premises of the dog’s owner or keeper, may file a written complaint with the town legislature (selectmen, aldermen, or trustees). (Vt. Stat. Ann., tit. 20, § 3546(a).) Under most laws, law enforcement and animal control officers may also file a complaint.

After a complaint is made, a dog that has seriously hurt someone may be seized and held until the hearing is held. New York law, for example, allows a judge to order a dog impounded before the hearing if there is "probable cause" to believe the dog is dangerous. (N.Y. Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123.) As a practical matter, by the time a hearing has been scheduled to determine the viciousness of a dog, the dog will probably have been impounded.

The Hearing

Under most dangerous dog laws, after a dog owner has been notified of a complaint, a hearing is held to determine if the dog is dangerous, as that term is defined in the law.

In some states, however, a hearing is held only if the dog owner requests one, after an animal control officer has investigated a complaint and decided to classify the dog as dangerous. The owner is mailed a notice of the decision and gets a chance to argue only by requesting a hearing.

To meet constitutional due process requirements, the law must give dog owners some kind of opportunity for a hearing. The Ohio Supreme Court overturned that state's vicious dog law because it didn't give owners a meaningful opportunity to be heard. (State v. Cowan, 814 N.E.2d 846 (Ohio 2004).)

Basically, the hearing is a shorter, less formal version of a trial. The dog owner, the person who complained, and members of the public can attend and present evidence about the dog's behavior or disposition. Expert witnesses may testify about the likelihood that the dog will cause more problems.

Most often, judges in local courts preside over these hearings. Local health or animal authorities, however, may sometimes hold hearings and make dangerous dog determinations.

Ultimately, the judge's decision must be based on the statute or ordinance, which defines "dangerous dog." These definitions range from vague to extremely detailed. Generally, a vicious dog is one that:

  • threatens someone, unprovoked, in a public place
  • has a tendency to attack unprovoked or otherwise endanger people or other domestic animals
  • bites, injures, or attacks a person or domestic animal without provocation, on public or private property, or
  • is trained or kept for dog fighting.

Restrictions on Dangerous Dogs

Usually, a judge who pronounces a dog dangerous has fairly free rein to impose penalties or restrictions on the dog's owner. At a minimum, laws require that the dog be kept enclosed on the owner's property at all times unless it's leashed and, in some places, muzzled as well. The judge may also order the dog to be sterilized.

Depending on the specific city or state law and the danger posed by the dog, its owner may also be required to:

  • Post "Beware of Dog" signs prominently. Some states require a sign that contains a warning symbol, not just words, to alert young children.
  • Keep the dog in a locked enclosure, or one that meets certain specifications for height, strength, and other features.
  • Buy a certain amount of liability insurance (at least $100,000) that covers damage or injury caused by the dog.
  • Post a bond with the city or county to cover any damage or injury caused by the dog.
  • Obtain a special "vicious dog" license from the city or county. These licenses are much more expensive than the standard license; for example, in New Jersey, they cost $150 to $700 annually.
  • Have the dog permanently identified with a tattoo or microchip.
  • Have the dog wear a distinctive bright fluorescent collar when outside.
  • Notify animal control officials if the dog is sold or given away, and notify the new owner in writing that the dog has injured someone.

A judge who decides that a dog poses a great risk of serious harm may order that the dog be seized and humanely killed by animal control authorities. This penalty, of course, is reserved for dogs considered incorrigible: dogs that have repeatedly bitten people, severely injured or killed someone, or have been trained and used for fighting.

A few states, however, don't give the judge any choice. In Michigan, if a dog is found to be dangerous and has caused serious injury or death to a person—or to another dog—the court must order the dog to be destroyed. (Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 287.322.) The same is true in North Dakota; if a dog is found to be a public nuisance that "habitually molests persons traveling peaceably on the public road," the judge must order a peace officer to kill the dog. (N.D. Cent. Code § 42-03-03.)

Injuries Caused by Dangerous Dogs

Once a dog has been declared legally vicious but allowed to live, it's unlikely to get a second chance if its owner doesn't follow the judge's restrictions scrupulously. The laws of Kentucky, for example, authorize peace officers to kill any dog that has been found to be vicious if it is running at large. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 258.235(7).)

If the dog injures someone. Owners may also have to pay double or triple damages to the injured person. In Maine, for example, an owner who doesn't comply with a judge's order to confine or muzzle a dog is liable for three times the amount of damage the dog causes. (Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 7, § 3952.)

The owner of a vicious dog who doesn't comply with the law's conditions on keeping the dog securely confined and away from people may be guilty of a crime. (See "Criminal Penalties for Owners of Dangerous Dogs.”)

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