With all the pet dogs in the U.S.—nearly 80 million by some estimates—it's no wonder that dog bites are common (an estimated 4.5 million every year). Most dogs are friendly, at least when they aren't provoked or scared. But a few dogs are truly dangerous, usually because of ill treatment or training. At least 39 states—as well as many counties and cities—have passed laws designed to protect the public from these problem animals and to place special restrictions on owners who want to keep them.
While the specifics vary, most dangerous dog laws include:
Some states, while making it illegal to keep dangerous dogs, don't spell out the process for deciding when dogs fit that description. Certain states (like Washington and Montana) explicitly leave the procedural details up to the counties. Even when they don't, many cities and counties enact their own ordinances, which may mirror or go beyond the state requirements. (You should be able to find the relevant rules by calling your local animal control department or searching under your county's website.)
Many people picture certain breeds when they think of dangerous dogs. And some local governments still ban pit bulls and other breeds that have a bad reputation (although several states prohibit breed-specific regulations). In contrast, the definitions of dangerous dogs in state laws are generally focused on the animals' actual behavior. While the definitions range from vague to extremely detailed, a dog may be declared dangerous if it has:
Some states have more than one category of problem dogs, to put their owners on notice before they're subject to more serious restrictions and penalties. Illinois, for instance, has three levels: potentially dangerous, dangerous, and vicious (510 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/2.05a, 5/2.17c, 5/2.19b). In New Hampshire, a dog can be declared a "nuisance," a "menace," or "vicious" for behavior ranging from barking too much or chasing cars to attacking people or animals (N.H. Rev. Stat. § 466:31).
In those states with clear procedures for deciding when dogs are dangerous or vicious, there are different ways of starting the process. Some states allow people to file a dangerous-dog complaint only if they meet certain conditions, like having been attacked or having witnessed an attack. Massachusetts allows written complaints by anyone, period. However, the law also makes it clear that a dog won't be found dangerous just because it growls and barks, or because it attacked or threatened someone who provoked the animal or trespassed in a space where it was contained. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 140, § 157.)
More often, dangerous-dog proceedings are set in motion when animal control or law enforcement officers file a petition and/or impound a dog because they have probable cause or a reason to believe that it's dangerous—for instance, because it has already attacked someone. Of course, that belief is often based on the victim's report about the attack.
If they haven't already done so, animal control officers will usually impound the animal once the dangerous-dog proceedings have started. Owners aren't likely to get their dogs back until there's been a final decision (if then).
Typically, states with these laws require a hearing before a dog is declared dangerous or vicious, but the procedures vary from state to state. In some states, the owner has to request a hearing, while others require a hearing in all cases. In a few states like Florida and Georgia, authorities make the determination first, and then the owner may request a hearing to contest the decision.
Regardless of the specifics in state law, some fundamental constitutional requirements apply. Dogs are considered property under the law. That means that before government can take away that property—a potential outcome of dangerous-dog proceedings—owners are entitled to "due process," including notice of the proceeding and the opportunity to contest it. The Ohio Supreme Court overturned a former version of that state's vicious dog law because it didn't give owners a meaningful opportunity to be heard before their dogs were labeled dangerous. At the time, the law authorized a dog warden to make the decision unilaterally, without any administrative hearing or right to appeal. (State v. Cowan, 814 N.E.2d 846 (Ohio 2004).)
Still, because dangerous-dog proceedings are usually administrative hearings, dog owners aren't necessarily entitled to all of the due process rights they would have in a criminal trial (such as the right to cross-examine witnesses). Administrative hearings are basically a less formal version of a trial, and the rules are more relaxed. The dog owner, the person who complained, and the animal control officers may present evidence about the dog's behavior or disposition. Sometimes, the hearing officers will limit the evidence to written statements and reports, which might include hearsay evidence that wouldn't be allowed in criminal trials.
Owners may appeal dangerous-dog decisions, usually in the local superior or municipal court.
Once dogs have been declared dangerous, their owners have to meet certain conditions in order to keep the animals. The laws list many of these restrictions, but hearing officers may impose others as appropriate. At a minimum, laws generally 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.
Depending on the law and the danger posed by the dog, other conditions for keeping a dangerous dog may include:
Several counties (and a few states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia) have registries of dangerous or vicious dogs.
Dangerous-dog laws usually include provisions for ordering dogs euthanized. In some states, authorities may (or must) issue "kill" orders as soon as they find that the dog is dangerous or vicious. More often, the dogs will be killed only if they've seriously injured someone or pose a threat to the public. In Michigan, the judge must order a dangerous dog destroyed if it has seriously injured a person or another dog; otherwise, it's up to the judge's discretion (Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 287.322). New Jersey requires that all vicious dogs be euthanized, but they won't be declared vicious unless they've already seriously hurt someone or they've been involved in dog fighting (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:19-22(c).)
When a dangerous dog has been spared immediate euthanasia and returned to its owner, the animal is unlikely to get a second chance if it attacks someone—or sometimes if the owner simply doesn't follow the conditions for keeping the dog. For example, dogs will be killed in New Mexico if their owners haven't met those conditions within 30 days (N.M. Stat. Ann. § 77-1A-4(D)(2)). In Washington, they'll be killed if the owners don't correct any violations (Wash. Rev. Code § 16.08.100(1)). And in Kentucky, peace officers may kill any vicious dog that's running at large (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 258.235(7)).
Besides the possibility of having their animals killed, owners who violate the dangerous-dog restrictions may also face civil or criminal fines, as well as jail time in some states. (See "Criminal Penalties for Owners of Dangerous Dogs.")
If the dog injures someone, the owner 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 same is true in Massachusetts whenever a dangerous dog injures a person or livestock (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. Ch. 140, § 159).
If you're facing proceedings to have your dog declared dangerous or vicious, it would be a good idea to consult with a lawyer. An attorney experienced in animal law or criminal defense can help protect your rights, and maybe even your dog's life. Some of the questions you may have include: