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The fight over a dog bite: 7 ways to protect you and your pup

Monday May 4th, 2009

By Christine McLaughlin

If your dog has never been bitten by another dog, consider yourselves lucky. Dog bites happen every day — at the vet 's office, on walks around the neighborhood, and at dog parks.

On the flip side, if your dog bites another dog, you need to know what to do to protect yourself and your dog.

The nation's leading dog bite expert, attorney Kenneth Phillips, author of Dog Bite Law and What to do if Your Dog is Injured or Killed, offers the following advice.

Stay away during the fight or bite: If dogs are fighting, to keep from getting injured and possibly not getting compensated for it, Phillips says to grab one of the dogs by the hind legs and lift and swing the dog as carefully as you can.

Get names and be nice: If your dog is injured, it's important to be able to identify the owner or whoever was with the dog when the dog bite happened. Get their names and names of any witnesses. If your dog is the one who bites, be courteous to the person whose dog was bitten. Phillips says that the victim may decide to be easier on you and your dog if you are kind to him or her.

Contact animal control: If your dog is severely injured, Phillips suggests contacting animal control or the police department, depending on who handles dog bites in your area, to make a report, especially if you don't know the law. It may be that the dog that bit yours has a history of biting and animal control would be interested in that dog. However, if you feel a crime was committed, then contact the police. (Philips says dog crimes are relatively rare.)

Be your own lawyer: Lawyers are rarely involved in dog vs. dog bite claims as most are debated in small claims court, so it's important to be prepared. The reason lawyers are not involved is because, historically, dogs have been regarded as property and you as the owner are liable, not the dog. Because of this, home owners or renters insurance may cover the cost if your dog is at fault. Phillips cautions against claiming it on your insurance as your rates could increase significantly or you could be dropped from a policy if the bill goes into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Look at the laws: Dog laws vary not just from state to state, but from county to county and city to city. Phillips suggests researching all the "dangerous dog" laws governing your area. It's helpful to know how many laws you're dealing with because you could be dealing with three different laws (city, county and state). "One of your avenues as a dog owner, either the one injured or accused, is to know what is in those laws and insist upon the enforcement of the one that gives you the outcome that you want," Phillips explains.

He further explained that, in some states, if your dog is severely injured and you owe $2000 in vet bills but paid $200 for your dog, you'll receive $200. Other states like Florida are the other extreme, where you will get full compensation for vet bills and grief, loss of work or loss of enjoyment. And then there's the third group, which according to Phillips is a growing middle-of-the-road group. "It says we're not going to limit compensation to the price tag of a new dog. So if you have a $200 dog and $2000 in bills, then you'd get $2000," he says.

Prove negligence: The next step is to try to prove negligence of the person whose dog bit yours. This means proving the individual did either something he shouldn't have done or failed to do something he should have done. The other way to prove negligence is to show that the person broke an already-existing law, such as a leash law. Or you can show an anti-trespassing law was broken because the biting dog was on a leash but came on your property without your permission.

Emphasize how his pain affects you, not him: Finally, Phillips suggests that as much as you love that dog of yours, if you do go to small claims court, don't discuss how the dog has been harmed by the bite. You instead need to emphasize how you are being affected. "You won't get a penny if you talk about how your dog is now afraid of other dogs and he can't sleep at night," says Phillips. "But if you say that your dog is keeping you awake at night because he's whining all the time, you're more likely to get the money you deserve."

For more information on dog bites, visit Phillips' web site: dogbitelaw.com.

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