The regulation of dangerous dogs is accomplished by State penal laws, city and county ordinances, regulatory laws, and civil laws including civil litigation.

  • State penal codes usually contain a variety of laws which make illegal certain things about dogs. Examples would be dog fighting laws, cruelty laws, and dangerous dog laws. One specific example would be the law of the State of California, which you can read below. To find these laws for other States, one needs to look in the penal code(s) of the State.
  • City and county codes and ordinances usually have detailed laws that identify and regulate dangerous dogs. The laws vary widely in their approach to regulation. Attorney Kenneth Phillips has drafted a Model Dangerous Dog Law. Other examples of comprehensive laws are those of San Francisco and Los Angeles, which can be found below.

The dangerous dog laws generally attempt to define the characteristics of dangerous dogs, set forth the procedure for declaring a particular dog to be dangerous, and establish what will become of a dangerous dog and its owner. These laws differ widely in how they do all of those things. They might provide that a dangerous dog can be killed on the spot, can be seized and killed after notice to the owner and an opportunity to be heard, or can have conditions imposed regarding its confinement and appearances on public property. Additionally, the laws might impose upon the owner a period of time in jail, a fine, and/or a prohibition against owning another dog for a period of years.

In recent years there have been many calls for laws that would classify entire breeds of dog as dangerous, because of a perception that certain breeds such as the pit bull and the Rottweiler can be controlled. Such legislation is referred to as "breed specific law." This subject is explored at length at the section of Dog Bite Law (www.dogbitelaw.com) entitled Breed Specific Laws.

It is imperative for every community to have a dangerous dog law in addition to animal control laws. See the Model Dangerous Dog Law by Attorney Kenneth Phillips. To understand the reasons why such laws are needed, see Preventing Dog Bites.

Example of Dangerous Dog Regulation: the California Civil Code

The Civil Code requires owners to take reasonable steps to protect other people from dog bites from dogs previously known to bite:

3342.5.  (a) The owner of any dog that has bitten a human being shall have the duty to take such reasonable steps as are necessary to remove any danger presented to other persons from bites by the animal.

Do not assume, however, that California law permits every dog "one free bite." That is not the case; as seen in the section on Civil liability for dog bites, an owner is responsible in damages for that first bite and every subsequent one, and a dog that was trained to fight can be destroyed after the first bite, as will be seen below.

Any person, the local district attorney or city attorney may take action if the same dog has bitten a human being two or more times. This can be referred to as a "private animal control" case: 

3342.5   (b) Whenever a dog has bitten a human being on at least two separate occasions, any person, the district attorney, or city attorney may bring an action against the owner of the animal to determine whether conditions of the treatment or confinement of the dog or other circumstances existing at the time of the bites have been changed so as to remove the danger to other persons presented by the animal.  This action shall be brought in the county where a bite occurred.  The court, after hearing, may make any order it deems appropriate to prevent the recurrence of such an incident, including, but not limited to, the removal of the animal from the area or its destruction if necessary.

The "two bite" requirement of section 3342.5(b) is reduced to one bite, and any person may commence legal proceedings against the owner, if the dog has been trained to fight, attack or kill:

3342.5  (c) Whenever a dog trained to fight, attack, or kill has bitten a human being, causing substantial physical injury, any person, including the district attorney, or city attorney may bring an action against the owner of the animal to determine whether conditions of the treatment or confinement of the dog or other circumstances existing at the time of the bites have been changed so as to remove the danger to other persons presented by the animal.  This action shall be brought in the county where a bite occurred.  The court, after hearing, may make any order it deems appropriate to prevent the  recurrence of such an incident, including, but not limited to, the removal of the animal from the area or its destruction if necessary.

The foregoing provisions do not authorize proceedings if the dog bit a trespasser or was being used for military or police work:

3342.5  (d) Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (b) based on a bite or bites inflicted upon a trespasser, or by a dog used in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was actually performing in that capacity.

Another Example of Dangerous Dog Regulation: the California Food & Agriculture Code

The California Food & Agriculture Code contains a number of sections pertaining to dogs. See Division 14 (Regulation and Licensing of Dogs), Chs. 1 through 9, sections 3051 to 31683.

A "potentially dangerous dog" is a dog that meets the criteria set forth in section 31602 of the California Food & Agriculture Code:

31602. "Potentially dangerous dog" means any of the following:

(a) Any dog which, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, engages in any behavior that requires a defensive action by any person to prevent bodily injury when the person and the dog are off the property of the owner or keeper of the dog. 

(b) Any dog which, when unprovoked, bites a person causing a less severe injury than as defined in Section 31604. 

(c) Any dog which, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, has killed, seriously bitten, inflicted injury, or otherwise caused injury attacking a domestic  animal off the property of the owner or keeper of the dog.

A "vicious dog" is one that meets the criteria set forth in section 31603 from the same code:

31603. "Vicious dog" means any of the following:

(a) Any dog seized under Section 599a of the Penal Code and upon the sustaining of a conviction of the owner or keeper under subdivision (a) of Section 597.5 of the Penal Code.

(b) Any dog which, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner, inflicts severe injury on or kills a human being. 

(c) Any dog previously determined to be and currently listed as a potentially dangerous dog which, after its owner or keeper has been notified of this determination, continues the behavior described in Section 31602 or is maintained in violation of section 31641, 31642, or 31643.

A "severe injury" is defined as follows:

31604.  "Severe injury" means any physical injury to a human being that results in muscle tears or disfiguring lacerations or requires multiple sutures or corrective or cosmetic surgery.

A potentially dangerous dog has to be registered as such. Then it has to be kept indoors or in a securely fenced yard from which it cannot escape, and into which children cannot trespass. When off the owner's property, it has to be restrained by a substantial leash and under the control of a responsible adult.

A vicious dog can be destroyed by the local animal control department. If it is not destroyed, the Court must impose conditions upon the ownership of the dog to protect the public.

Examples of Municipal and County Codes

Local jurisdictions may have laws about dogs that bite. Large urban areas usually have the most detailed laws. The Los Angeles Municipal Code has a number of sections pertaining to vicious and dangerous dogs. See, for example, sections 53.33 ("Vicious Animals -- Private Premises"), 53.34.1 ("Menacing Dogs"), and the definition of "dangerous animal" in section 53.34.4(b). For more, see Criminal Penalties for a Dog Bite.

The City of Los Angeles also has its own procedure for determining whether a dog is "dangerous." See section 53.34.4. The County of Los Angeles has extensive and detailed laws pertaining to dangerous and vicious dogs.

The County of Sacramento permits any person to institute a "private animal control" case with the animal control department. Section 8.34.030 (Filing of Charges) states that "[a]ny person, including employees of Animal Control, possessing personal knowledge of facts that there exists a vicious or dangerous animal within the unincorporated area of the County or those incorporated areas served by the Chief of Animal Control may file with the Chief of Animal Control a written affidavit, signed under penalty of perjury" containing the charges against the offending dog owner. To see that county's definition of a dangerous dog, see Sacramento County Code of Ordinances re Definitions.