There are news stories every week about someone killing a dog in self-defense. Ordinary, peaceful, unprepared individuals too often have to save themselves, a family member or a stranger from a savage dog attack. They do it with guns and knives. But is it legal? Under what circumstances can you kill or wound a dog without going to jail or getting sued?

General requirements of the self-defense doctrine

In general, a person can kill a dog without penalty if the dog is lethally attacking that person or another person, and there is no reasonable alternative to killing the dog. The attack must be directed against a person not an animal (with one exception discussed below), the attack must appear to be lethal (meaning capable of inflicting great bodily harm or death), the threat must be immediate (as opposed to something that happened in the past or might happen in the future), and there must be no reasonable alternative. If these conditions exist, the killing of a dog probably would not violate any law unless the means of killing the attacking dog were illegal (see below).  

The "person requirement" does not usually apply when the attack is directed against farm animals. The owner of farm animals is entitled to protect them from dogs that have come onto the owner's property and are stalking or attacking the owner's farm animals. 

The requirement of an immediate threat means it is not lawful to kill a dog because it did something in the past or might do something in the future. The law of self-defense permits aggression only for the purpose of meeting aggression. It does not permit revenge killing. "It is not the dog's predatory habits, nor his past transgressions, nor his reputation, however bad, but the doctrine of self-defense, whether of person or property, that gives the right to kill." (State v. Smith (1911) 156 N.C. 628, 72 S.E. 321.) There is no legal justification that will protect a person for killing or injuring a dog that bit him or her at a prior time, if the dog presented no threat at the time of the killing or injuring.

The method of killing the dog must be lawful

Even though a dog might be killed in self-defense, criminal charges might be brought because of the method in which the dog was killed. There have been many cases in which a person shot a vicious dog in self-defense but was prosecuted criminally for animal cruelty, discharge of a firearm within city limits, possession of a concealed weapon, or possession of an illegal weapon. These defendants included:

  • A police officer who shot a dog that was killing his own dog on his driveway.
  • A wheelchair-bound veteran who shot the pit bull that had ripped the wheel off his wheelchair the day before (and was lunging at him when he shot it).
  • A man who shot a dog that had bit his 3-year-old daughter's face a year before and which, right before the shooting, had gotten into his backyard and chased his kids into the house. 

Until the dog laws are changed, so that there is a presumption that one has acted in self-defense when killing a dog under these circumstances, killing a vicious dog must be regarded as a last-ditch, life-or-death alternative. 

Engaging in self-defense can cause injuries

On June 1, 2019, 33-year-old Robert Joseph Quick of Dallas City, Iowa, defended his 5-year-old daughter from a dog attack, and the dog killed him. There are other examples in prior years of people trying to defend others against a vicious dog, and dying the the process. Combat brings the risk of death or serious injury, and when the fight is against a dog, an unarmed, untrained and surprised individual has little going for him. 

What is the most effective and legal way to kill an attacking dog?

In rural areas and farms, a gun probably would be the best choice to kill a dog in self-defense or the defense of a farm animal. In other places, especially where possession of a concealed or unconcealed firearm or knife is prohibited or severely regulated, using a gun or knife might be impossible or at least unadvisable. Merritt Clifton has suggested that the safest and "most legal" weapon is a fire extinguisher. See 15 Real-Life Tips for Surviving a Dog Attack (2019 Edition) at Animals 24/7, Clifton's extraordinary website. In that article, he states that "a fire extinguisher has about a 70% success rate, with no risk to bystanders."