I watched a show on television yesterday about a dog attack in San Francisco 5 years ago that resulted in someone’s death. This particular incident was different than most attacks that end with death for two main reasons, the first being that the woman who was killed was a healthy, 30 year old woman (dog attacks that result in death are generally limited to attacks on children or the elderly), the second being that the dog(s) that did the attacking were not pit bulls. At least the breed was called something other than pit bull, although they look just like them, only considerably larger.
Whenever someone’s dog attacks someone, the owners are held to some level of responsibility for it. Their legal accountability for their pet’s action is (very generally speaking) criminal negligence and some form failure to control a vicious animal -whether the dog got out of a yard, off a leash, etc. It got to the person it killed somehow. Occasionally there will also be charges of involuntary manslaughter. In the case that I saw yesterday, though, the prosecution was seeking murder charges.
There have only been three cases in U.S. history where a dog’s owner has been convicted of murder in an attack. The burden of proof required to convict someone of murder in such cases requires that the owners know that their dog is capable of killing a human, and that they willfully allowed that dog to come in contact with someone while in an agitated state (it has been some time since I actually read about the cases and I don’t want to research them again, so that may not be the exact legal definition, but it is close enough for my purposes today). In order to be convicted of murder, your dog has to be specifically trained to attack humans and you have to basically command it to attack.
Being a dog owner myself, I was rather surprised by my reaction to this. It turns out that I think that the owners in this case should be convicted of murder (or the one who was in control of the dog when it actually happened). When you buy/adopt a dog -particualarly a large breed dog- you become responsible for the actions of that animal, and it should not be limited to negligence if it does kill. It doesn’t matter if your dog has never shown aggressive tendencies, it will snap at some point. It is your responsibility to excercise physical control over the dog when it does. That point is very important. No amount of training and voice command is ever going to be able to stop an animal when its base instincts take over, you have to be able to physically subdue it. Failure to do so could and should result in being held criminally responsible for its actions, up to and including murder.
The dogs that I currently have are not aggressive. One is a Labrador mix, the other some form of terrier mix, neither one has ever even snapped at a human. I know, though, that if I take them out into the public it is entirely possible that something will happen to them and they will attack. Being that they are dogs, if they do attack they will not stop short of killing unless I physically stop them (the larger of my dogs weighs about 60 lbs. I have had to physically subdue him when he has gotten into a fight with another dog and let me tell you that even though I outweigh him 3:1, it takes all my body strength to do so. Keep that in mind when buying a dog that weighs 100 lbs.). This may not be the first thing I think about when I leash them up for a walk, may not even be in the back of mind as we are out in the park, but it is something that, if that time should come, I know I will have to do. If I fail to physically subdue my dog if it attacks, I am responsible for the attack. Putting him on a leash and taking him into public is my implied acceptance of that.
There really should be laws in place that make taking ownership of a dog an expressed acceptance of the fact that your are assuming ownership of a potential killer. That way simply claiming ignorance will not be possible when sparky eats the neighbor’s newborn.