Georgia Dog-Bite Laws

Dog owners' liability for bites and other injuries, Georgia's rules for dangerous dogs, and more.

By , MSLIS · Long Island University
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Georgia law covers everything from a dog owner's liability for bites, to when the state can charge owners with crimes and take away their pets. State law is also important to dog attack victims--it sets deadlines for filing lawsuits and determines what kinds of defenses owners may raise in court. Whether you own a dog in Georgia, or have been injured by someone else's pet, it's important to understand how state law applies to your situation.

Georgia Dog Owners' Liability for Bites and Other Injuries

Some states have laws on the books that establish a dog owner's "strict liability" for injuries caused by any dog, regardless of whether the owner knew (or should have known) that the dog might cause harm to another person or animal.

Georgia law, however, states that a dog owner is liable for injuries caused by their pet only when:

  • the dog is considered a "vicious or dangerous animal"
  • the incident occurred through "careless management or by allowing the animal to go at liberty," and
  • the injured person did not "provoke the injury by his own act."

(Ga. Code § 51-2-7 (2024).)

If an owner is found liable, then they must compensate the victim for their damages. This could include, for example, the cost of medical bills and financial compensation for pain and suffering.

Over the years Georgia's courts have clarified what a victim needs to prove in order to satisfy the requirements of the state's dog-attack statute.

Proving That a Dog Is Vicious or Dangerous

Under Georgia law, there are two ways to prove that a dog is vicious or dangerous.

Using evidence of the dog's past behavior. A dog is vicious or dangerous if it has "a history showing a tendency to bite or attack." Under this approach, a victim must provide evidence that the dog had displayed violent or threatening behavior on previous occasions. Owners can defend themselves with evidence that the dog had never threatened or attacked anyone before. (We'll talk more in the next section about what kind of behavior should put an owner on notice that their dog might be dangerous.)

Showing a violation of a local ordinance. A dog will automatically be considered "vicious" if its owners break a local law requiring the animal to be restrained in a specific way. This definition of vicious would apply, for example, to a dog allowed to roam off-leash in violation of a local leash ordinance. Under this approach, the dog's past behavior doesn't matter. It's enough for the victim to show that, at the time of the attack, the dog wasn't being restrained in accordance with local law.

It might seem a little confusing that a dog with no history of bad behavior could be categorized as "vicious." But you can think of it as Georgia's way of creating the same level of legal responsibility for:

  • owners who disobey laws telling them how to restrain their dogs, and
  • owners who know their dogs are dangerous.

(Espinoza v. Morel, 367 Ga. App. 184 (2023).)

Proving the Owner Knew Their Dog Was Dangerous

Under Georgia law, a victim can only hold a dog owner liable if they can show that:

  • the dog was vicious, and
  • its owner's knew their dog was vicious.

Often the same evidence that supports a claim that a dog was vicious will also show that the owner knew (or should have known) that it might attack and injure someone. For example, if there had been previous incidents where the dog had tried to bite people while being walked by its owner, it would indicate both that the dog was dangerous and that the owner knew it.

On the other hand, imagine that a dog is well-behaved around its owners, but gets unruly when it's alone or being taken care of by a pet sitter. It wouldn't be enough to prove that the dog engaged in dangerous behavior. A victim would also have to show that the owners knew about the behavior—for example, they had received complaints from a pet sitter or a neighbor.

Proving knowledge of a dog's dangerous behavior. According to the Georgia Supreme Court, an owner can be put on notice if they know about "at least one incident that would cause a prudent person to anticipate the actual incident that caused the injury."

That doesn't mean the dog has to have actually hurt someone in the past. An owner could be made aware of their dog's dangerous tendencies if, for example, it had previously attempted to bite someone, or tried to break free of its leash and chase someone.

But an owner isn't automatically liable for future injuries just because they know their dog has a dangerous habit, or that it has hurt someone in the past. There has to be a connection between what the owner knows, and the injury the dog eventually causes. For example, just because a dog has bitten someone when it was startled or provoked, doesn't mean its owner should anticipate that it might attack a stranger for no reason. In one case, an owner knew that their dog had a habit of chasing people when it wasn't on a leash. But a Georgia court ruled that this knowledge didn't mean the owner should have anticipated that their pet might chase down a motorcycle and knock over the rider.

(Cornejo v. Allen, 367 Ga. App. 618 (2023); McNair v. Jones, 137 Ga. App. 13 (1975).)

Proving knowledge when an owner has violated a local ordinance. As we discussed above, a dog will be considered "vicious" under Georgia law if its owners fail to follow local laws for how it must be restrained. In these kinds of cases, there are two types of knowledge that can make an owner liable:

  • The same kind of knowledge we just discussed--knowing about past dangerous or threatening behavior by the dog.
  • Knowledge that the dog wasn't being restrained according to the law. An owner has this kind of knowledge if, for example, they let their dog roam off-leash when this violates local law. On the other hand, it would be more difficult to prove this kind of knowledge if, for example, the dog managed to escape a fenced-in yard with a locked gate.

(Espinoza v. Morel, 367 Ga. App. 184 (2023).)

Proving the Owner Was Careless

Some states use a so-called "one-bite" rule, which makes owners automatically responsible for injuries if they know their dog is dangerous. Georgia law works differently. An owner who knows their dog might be dangerous has a responsibility to take precautions to protect people from the animal. But a victim still has to prove that they were injured because of the owner's carelessness.

This aspect of Georgia law works a lot like the negligence standard used by many other states. Owners are negligent when they fail to take the precautions that a reasonable person would have taken in the same circumstances. So, for example, if an owner knows their dog has tried to bite people in the past, it would be careless for them to allow the animal to roam around on an extremely long leash. A careful owner with that kind of dog would keep it on a short leash, so that it could always be pulled away from other people if necessary.

On the other hand, even a careful owner could trip and momentarily lose control of their pet, or be too slow to react when someone runs up and tries to pet the animal.

(Myers v. Ogden, 343 Ga. App. 771 (2017); S&S Towing & Recovery, Ltd. v. Charnota, 309 Ga. 117 (2020).)

Georgia's Rules for "Dangerous" or "Vicious" Dogs

In addition to the liability statute described above, Georgia's Responsible Dog Ownership Act has specific procedures for controlling dogs that are formally classified as "dangerous" or "vicious."

The process for classifying a dog as dangerous or vicious begins when someone reports a dog to a local animal control officer, who will investigate. If the animal control officer determines that the dog should be classified as dangerous or vicious, the officer must inform the owner within 72 hours, and notify the owner that they have a right to request a hearing with the local authorities to dispute the classification. If the owner does not respond with a request for a hearing with seven days, the animal control officer's determination will automatically go into effect. (Ga. Code § 4-8-23 (2024).)

When Dogs Can Be Classified as "Dangerous" or "Vicious" in Georgia

Under Georgia law, a dog is considered "dangerous" if it:

  • causes a substantial puncture of a person's skin by teeth without causing serious injury (a nip, scratch, or abrasion isn't enough)
  • aggressively attacks in a manner that causes a person to reasonably believe that the dog posed an imminent threat of serious injury to the person or another person, although no injury actually occurs (barking, growling, or the showing of teeth won't be enough), or
  • kills a pet animal while off the owner's property (although a dog cannot be classified as dangerous if the pet's death is caused by a dog that is working or training as a hunting dog, herding dog, or predator control dog).

The law defines a "vicious dog" as a dog "that inflicts serious injury on a person or causes serious injury to a person resulting from reasonable attempts to escape from the dog's attack."

Georgia law specifically states that a dog cannot be classified as dangerous or vicious when it:

  • is carrying out official law enforcement or military duties
  • attacks someone who was trespassing
  • attacks someone who was abusing the dog, or
  • attacks someone who was committing—or attempting to commit—a crime.

(Ga. Code § 4-8-21 (2024).)

Requirements for Owning a Dog That Has Been Classified as Dangerous or Vicious

The law imposes a number of obligations on owners of dogs that have been classified as dangerous or vicious, including:

  • obtaining a certificate of registration from an animal control officer, which will be issued only if certain specific conditions are met, and
  • following detailed rules for containing or restraining the dog.

Dog owners who fail to meet any of the required conditions for owning a dangerous or vicious dog can be convicted of a crime and face fines, jail time, or both. So it's important to understand and follow all of these rules if they apply to you and your pet.

(Ga. Code § 4-8-27 (2024); Ga. Code § 4-8-29 (2024).)

Criminal Charges for Georgia Dog Owners

In addition to the potential civil liability described above, anyone who violates provisions of the Responsible Dog Ownership Act can also face criminal charges.

In most cases, the offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

But certain offenses related to a dog classified as vicious can be result in the owner being convicted of a "misdemeanor of high and aggravated nature," punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $5,000, or both. And an owner can be charged with a felony if:

  • their dog has been classified as dangerous or vicious
  • they have been convicted of violating any provision of the Responsible Dog Ownership Act, and
  • their dog then seriously injures someone.

If convicted of a felony, an owner could be sentenced to between one and ten years in prison, be fined between $5,000 and $10,000, or both.

Keep in mind that these criminal penalties don't replace an owner's potential civil liability. A owner who has been charged with—or convicted of—a crime in connection with their pet can still be sued in civil court by someone the dog has injured..

(Ga. Code § 4-8-29 (2024), Ga. Code § 4-8-32 (2024), Ga. Code § 17-10-3 (2024), Ga. Code § 17-10-4 (2024).)

When a Dog Can Be Euthanized in Georgia

The authorities in Georgia are permitted—and sometimes required—to euthanize a dog.

A dog is at risk of being euthanized if its owner has been convicted of violating a criminal law related to the dog, or if a local government authority has filed a civil action requesting the dog's euthanasia. In either of those situations, a superior court judge can order the dog euthanized if the dog:

  • has seriously injured a human, or
  • presents a danger to humans and can't be controlled

State law requires the euthanasia of a dog that has caused a serious injury to a human on more than one occasion.

And, in addition to other penalties, the law requires the euthanasia of a dog that has been formally classified as dangerous or vicious (as described above) if:

  • the dog's owner has a prior conviction for a violation of the Responsible Dog Ownership Act, and
  • the dog seriously injures someone under circumstances that constitute another violation of the Act.

Under Georgia law, an owner must be notified that their dog might be euthanized, and given an opportunity to attend a hearing where they can argue on behalf of their pet.

(Ga. Code § 4-8-25 (2024); Ga. Code § 4-8-26 (2024), Ga. Code § 4-8-29 (2024).)

Georgia's Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Under laws called statutes of limitations, all civil lawsuits are subject to strict limits on how much time can pass before the case must get started. Different kinds of cases are subject to different time limits, but the price you'll pay for missing the filing window is the same: the court will almost certainly dismiss your case as "time-barred," unless a rare extension of the filing deadline applies.

In Georgia, claims about injuries caused by dogs almost always fall under the larger umbrella of "personal injury." So the state's statute of limitations for personal injury cases usually applies. This statute gives you two years, starting from the date of the underlying accident or incident, to file a lawsuit. In the context of a dog-bite lawsuit, that means you'll need to file your personal injury case in the appropriate Georgia court within two years of the date of the bite or other injury.

(Ga. Code § 9-3-33 (2024).)

Defenses to Dog Owner Liability in Georgia

An owner could raise a number of defenses to a dog-bite lawsuit, depending on the circumstances surrounding the bite or other injury. For example, a Georgia dog owner could argue that the injured person:

If a defense is successful, the dog owner could avoid liability for the injured person's damages. (Note that different defenses could apply in a criminal case that results from a dog-related injury.)

Getting Help With Your Georgia Dog-Bite Case

If you find yourself involved in a dog-bite claim in Georgia—either as a dog owner or as someone who suffered a bite or other injury—it could be time to discuss your situation with a lawyer.

If you're facing criminal charges related to a dog bite or other injury, a criminal defense attorney can help you understand your options.

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