Dog bites from a different angle

Serious dog bites are common causes for Court disputes. Apart from intent to cause harm and obvious negligence, two principles are usually used by the defense in these cases, namely accountability without any negligence by the owner of the dog and whether the dog acted contrary to its nature.

Dog bites from a different angle

By: Prof. Johannes Odendaal
Registered Veterinary Ethologist (animal behaviourist)

Serious dog bites are common causes for Court disputes. Apart from intent to cause harm and obvious negligence, two principles are usually used by the defence in these cases, namely accountability without any negligence by the owner of the dog and whether the dog acted contrary to its nature.

Serious dog bites are common causes for Court disputes. Apart from intent to cause harm and obvious negligence, two principles that are usually used by the defence in these cases are actio de pauparie (accountability without any negligence by the owner of the dog) and whether the dog acted contra naturam sui generis (whether the dog acted contrary to its nature).

However, the questions are:

· How far does accountability of the owner stretch to encompass negligence?

· What is the nature of a domestic dog?

1. Accountability of dog owners

Assessment criteria for responsible dog ownership must be practical, logical, and attainable by the average owner. Responsibility /accountability by the owner to determine negligence should be considered as follows:

· Choice of animals

Owners have the choice to keep a dog or to live without one. When obtaining a dog it is a fair criterion to hold owners responsible for the type of dog/s in terms of breed, gender and number.

· Socialisation

Socialisation of dogs is a world-wide accepted principle. In many countries, including South Africa, puppy socialization classes or information about socialization, are readily available. The purpose is to ensure that adult dogs accept all people as social company. When dogs are kept as part of a human social system there should be acceptable levels of tolerance and acceptance between the species.

· Training

Training does not mean that dogs should execute funny or complicated tricks. It means they need to learn where their places should be in a social structure in same sense as they learn it among themselves. Many ‘dog problems’ arise because dogs simply do not know what are expected of them. It is not necessary to be an expert to achieve such a level of training but one needs some knowledge of animal behaviour, which is available in every popular bookstore.

· Care and welfare

After the first three aspects have been attended to, owners must consider home care and specialised care for their dogs. Care by owners should be based on the dog’s basic needs. Lack of care requirements could result in unacceptable dog behaviour.

· Good neighbourliness

Human societies organize their lives according to customs and laws, and therefore, local authorities use rules, regulations or by-laws to keep order. These laws are also applicable to dogs’ presence and behaviour in human communities; and dog owners should be aware and informed of such local laws. It is expected of dog owners:

· To keep the environment clean from excretions (hygiene)

· To avoid disturbances (incessant barking)

· To ensure that dogs are no danger to people or other animals (attacks)

· To be in control of dogs’ movements at all times (during the presence and absence of owners).

These criteria could determine owner negligence or lack of owner responsibility in cases of dog attacks. In legal terms it is proposed to replace the Latin term actio de pauparie with ‘responsible dog ownership’.

2. Nature of a domestic dog

Internationally, dogs are referred to as companion animals. Companion animals are defined as those animals staying in the company of humans or providing company to humans. Humans and companion dogs live in a social symbiotic system.

Domestication is an ongoing process where humans take responsibility for the selection and care of their animals. Selection for genetic behavioural traits (breeds) is a critical part of the domestication process, and in cases of unacceptable behaviour, it is inappropriate to blame breed characteristic without considering humans’ contribution to such behaviour. Characteristics of companion dogs did not develop by themselves, but are due to human selection.

Guard dog breeds play a pertinent role in the official public and private security services, which places a serious legal burden on the providers of such services. But, what about dogs used for security by the ‘man in the street’? He should either comply with criteria associated with companion animals (suitable for all human company under all circumstances) or take full responsibility for a potential dangerous dog when innocent persons are being attacked. Backyard security dogs should be controlled by the same strict laws pertaining to security dogs used by the public and private sectors.

In legal terms, it is proposed to replace the Latin term contra naturam sui genericwith ‘contrary to the nature of a companion animal’.

3. Conclusions

· The accountability of dog owners should be assessed by the five criteria for responsible ownership

· Behaviour of dogs should rather be assessed in terms of the criteria for a companion animal than breed characteristics and circumstances

· Clear and understandable terminology will assist Court decisions, protects innocent victims, and will force dog owners to view their ownership in a much more serious way.

· An example where these principles was applied is State vs. Rix

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