Dogs are the most popular pets in the United States. Estimates state that more than 78 million dogs are kept as household pets, so chances are you or someone you know has a dog or has owned one in the past. While there is no question that dogs can make excellent companions, owning them also comes with risks and responsibilities.

Here in New Jersey, like many other states across America, if your dog bites someone you are most likely liable for the consequences. Period. This is known in the law as “strict liability” and it is something you should be concerned about. Why? Because you may not be insured from the harm your dog may cause. Millions of us rent rather than own our home, and if you rent, it means you may not have liability insurance applicable to your dog. Additionally, even if you do own a home, you may not have insurance protection.

While it is true that the majority of dog bites do not prove fatal, there is still the chance of serious injury. Statistics show that an average of 30 people die in the United States annually from injuries caused by dog attacks. Further, the non-fatal injuries from these attacks are frequently severe. Dog attacks on children commonly result in facial wounds which frequently leave scarring or other disfigurement. Mauling of the extremities and loss of fingers are also common injuries.

So what can you do?  

  1. Consider your breed of choice carefully. Dog lovers will frequently say that there is no such thing as a “bad breed” if the dog is properly socialized and raised in a loving environment. There is certainly some truth to that, but the statistics still show a greater propensity for attacks amongst a handful of breeds. Most notably, Pitt Bulls, Rottweilers and some “specialty” cross-breeds, such as wolf-hybrids.
  2. Don’t take any breed for granted. It’s easy to look at a toy poodle or other “lap dog” and think that they pose no risk.  But remember, ALL dogs have teeth and ALL dogs can bite.  And even an attack by a toy poodle can cause a tremendous amount of damage to a human face.
  3. Keep your dog under control AT ALL TIMES.  If you have a yard, make sure your fence is secure. Remember, dogs are most likely to bite if they feel threatened or insecure and you can be liable for ANY injuries they cause, not just bites. This means if your dog knocks someone down, you may be held accountable, so it’s a good idea to keep your dog on a leash.
  4. Consider an obedience class. They are a good resource for socializing and training your pet, and for teaching you tips on how to safely introduce your pet to new people and other dogs.  
  5. Look at your liability insurance coverage. If you own a home, make sure you have liability insurance on the policy AND THAT IT COVERS INJURIES FROM DOGS. You may be surprised to find that your current policy EXCLUDES such injuries. If you rent, look to buy a renter’s insurance policy and, again, make sure it offers liability coverage.
  6. Be sure you purchase ENOUGH liability insurance. Something like $50,000 may sound like a lot, but it pales in comparison with the exposure you may have if your dog bites a child in the face, severs a finger or, heaven forbid, causes death.

Remember, the time to find out what liability protection you have, is BEFORE an incident occurs, NOT AFTER!

Mark Davis is a member of Stark & Stark’s Lawrenceville, New Jersey office, specializing in Accident & Personal Injury Law. For more information, please contact Mr. Davis.