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USA Dog Behavior Blog

Legal Implications of Dog Ownership, The “One Bite Rule”

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are numerous laws regarding dog bites. One that is important for dog owners to be aware of is known as the "one bite rule". Simply stated, the one bite rule means that dog owners have limited liability the first time their dog bites a human (this rule does not apply to dog-dog bites).  There are 18 states that offer some version of this protection to dog owners. The other 32 states (and Washington D. C.) hold the owner liable for the first and following bites.


As is true with all things legal, there are exceptions to this rule that cause it not to apply:

  • The dog owner is aware that his or her dog acts aggressively to humans and the dog acts in ways that indicate a dog bite is imminent.
  • The owner is negligent in handling his or her dog around humans or knowingly puts the dog in situations where it is inevitable there would be a bite.
  • The owner is in violation of local animal control laws (e.g., leash laws).

"Once a dog has bitten someone in a one bite rule state, the owner could be open to misdemeanor charges or even felony charges…"

Needless to say, this rule is controversial. As is true with many laws and regulations about dogs, it is based in part on popular cultural beliefs about dogs, not necessarily the realities of canine behavior or aggression.

Books have been written about the logic behind the one bite rule. The rule demonstrates some naiveté by the legal system of dog-to-human aggression – something I regularly see as an expert witness and consultant in dog bite cases.

The thinking is that pet dogs are domesticated and therefore naturally coexist peacefully with humans. Because of this, dog owners could not anticipate their dog would bite a human. It is only after the first bite that an owner would realize that his or her dog has a propensity to bite humans.

Dogs don’t aggress to humans because they are “mean” dogs; they aggress because they are afraid of humans. Discovering the exact nature of a dog’s fear of humans and managing that fear is the first step in safely handling these dogs and avoiding dog bites. With some fairly predictable exceptions, dogs rarely bite humans for the first time when there is no prior history of aggressive behaviors such as growling, barking, lunging, etc.

An aspect of the one bite rule that is troublesome is that it is virtually impossible to know with certainty whether a dog has, or has not, bitten a human before. And what exactly is considered a dog bite? If the teeth touch the skin, is it a bite? Do the teeth need to penetrate the skin?  

Once a dog has bitten someone in a one bite rule state, the owner could be open to misdemeanor charges or even felony charges if the next victim is wounded seriously. In addition, the dog could be required to be euthanized.

There are also additional penalties that can be brought by the victim or victim’s family. Texas, for example, provides compensation for mental anguish of someone witnessing the bite if the following criteria are met:

  • The witness must be a parent or child of the victim.
  • The victim had to be severely injured or killed.

It takes just a fraction of a second for dogs to inflict serious injury to humans. Everyone loses when a dog bites a human. If your dog displays any type of aggression toward humans or appears as if he or she may bite a human, please seek the help of an independently certified professional full-time dog behavior specialist.

I consider dog to human aggression the most serious type of canine behavior problem and it is critical that the right kind of advice is sought in handling these dogs.

The information presented in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended nor implied to represent legal advice regarding dog bite liability in any context.


Service Dogs, Frequently Asked Questions


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"People who use fake service dogs…make it exceedingly more difficult for those who need and rely on legitimate service dogs."

The state of affairs in defining and regulating service dogs is in flux to say the least – it’s the Wild West. Governmental entities, including the federal government, are looking at ways to more tightly control the definition and use of these dogs.

It seems as if every third dog I see these days has some kind of service vest on which tells me there are a lot of dogs identified as service dogs. I’ve also observed a large number of dogs being used as emotional support dogs that appear to be poor candidates for this kind of work (i.e., they are nervous, unruly, hyperactive and even aggressive).

People who use fake service dogs, or those who use untrained and unruly dogs as emotional support dogs, make it exceedingly more difficult for those who need and rely on legitimate service dogs.

There are 4 types of service dogs:

Service Dog – Dogs that are specifically trained to perform tasks to assist people with disabilities. These dogs can be taken to most public places including those identified as a no-pets-allowed location.

Service Dog in Training – This is exactly what the name implies. Because of the potential for some to claim their untrained pet dog fits in this category, there are local and state laws that govern this definition.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA) – The purpose of these dogs is to provide comfort for the owner, but there are no agreed on criteria as to what training should be required for these dogs. While service dogs have virtually unlimited access to public spaces, ESAs only have access to airplane cabins and housing that would otherwise restrict access to dogs.

Therapy Dog – There are few local and state regulations regarding these dogs and no federal definition. Therapy dogs assist people other than the owner (e.g., comforting patients in a hospital). They do not have access to public places including airplanes and no-pets-allowed housing. Organizations that allow therapy dogs normally have their own definition and requirements for the therapy dogs they allow at their facilities.

The following are commonly asked questions regarding service dogs. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is the accepted standard for these definitions.

Are emotional support dogs considered service dogs?

If someone’s dog is used to help prevent anxiety attacks, does that quality the dog as a service dog?
The law differentiates between psychiatric and emotional support dogs. Dogs that have been trained to sense an anxiety attack and take action to prevent it can be considered service dogs. Dogs that provide emotional support to an owner by their mere presence are not considered service dogs.

Do service dogs need to be trained by professionals?

Can employees of a restaurant or other public place where dogs are not normally allowed ask someone if his or her dog is a legitimate service dog?
Yes, but they can only ask two questions: 1) is the service dog required because of a disability? and, 2) what specific task does the dog perform in relation to this disability? No other questions can be asked including those about the dog’s certifications, etc.

Do service dogs have to wear a vest or use an identifying harness?

Do hospitals have to allow patients to keep a service dog in their room?

Do ambulances have to allow service dogs to ride along?
Yes, if possible.

Do service dogs have to be certified as service dogs and provide documentation?
No. While there are online organizations that provide service dog “certification”, these documents are not recognized and are unneeded.

Can service dogs be any breed?
Yes, and no entity can refuse entry of a service dog because of its breed type.

If a city has an ordinance prohibiting certain breeds of dogs (e.g., Denver has breed specific legislation prohibiting pit bulls), can that prohibition be applied to service dogs of that breed?

Are there any situations where service dogs can be removed or prohibited from entering?
Yes. If the presence of a dog would significantly change the functioning of an entity or if a service dog is out of control, the dog can be required to leave the premises.

Are places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques and temples required to allow service dogs in their buildings?
No. These institutions are specified as being exempt. In some cases, there may be local or state laws that allow for this.

California Makes a Mess of Just About Everything, but They Got This Right

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"I’ve observed the AKC increasingly turn a blind eye to puppy-mills and the physical and behavior issues they cause."

There are probably a number of reasons why the population growth rate of California has continued to decline over the last 30 years (1). Excessive government regulation is one of the reasons that is frequently cited.

However, on October 13 California governor Jerry Brown and the California assembly got it right with a new regulatory change. On that date, governor Brown signed AB485 into law. AB485 makes amendments and additions to California state law that requires pet stores to source their dogs exclusively from animal shelters or animal rescue organizations. The law takes effect on January 1, 2019.

This will be a significant change for pet stores that sell puppies; they have historically purchased 100% of their puppy inventory from puppy-mills. For more information on puppy-mills, please see Puppy Mills 101 .

This may sound like a new idea to stem the number of puppy-mill puppies being bred across the US like livestock, but it isn’t. Thirty-six cities already have such laws; California is the first state to make it a state law.

Why is AB485 so important when it comes to animal welfare?

  • Puppy-mills have negatively impacted every breed of popular dog because they only breed for appearance with little to no regard for physical or behavioral health. For an example of what I’m talking about, please see German Shepherds are the Second Most Popular Dog in America. Why do you Rarely See Them in Public?
  • Puppy-mills raise dogs in such large numbers that supply grossly exceeds demand. Unwanted puppy-mill dogs are ultimately dumped into shelters by their owners in such large numbers that 670,000 dogs are euthanized at shelters each year in the US (2) . This law should significantly reduce the number of dogs being euthanized in California.
  • The breeding male and female dogs in puppy-mills are virtual prisoners-of-war. They're kept for years in horrible conditions with virtually no interaction with humans or dogs. The abusive way the breeding females are managed in order to pump out as many litters as possible is almost unspeakable. And guess what happens with these breeding male and female dogs when they are no longer “producers”? They are frequently euthanized or abandoned in a field. This law will hopefully reduce the amount of animal abuse found at puppy-mills.

Unfortunately, the AKC (American Kennel Club) is adamantly against AB485. You have to understand that the AKC’s very existence is predicated on breeders producing puppies.  California is not saying that breeders can’t breed puppies for sale; the new law simply specifies that pet stores can’t sell these dogs. Individuals can continue to buy directly from breeders if they wish. I’ve observed the AKC increasingly turn a blind eye to puppy-mills and the physical and behavior issues they cause. I’m bothered, but not surprised, that they don’t support this regulatory change.

I've always been a fan of rescuing dogs since so many are euthanized simply because of oversupply – primarily caused by puppy-mills. Until these regulations are instituted in your city or state – and hopefully they soon will be – please encourage your friends, family and co-workers to rescue a dog instead of purchasing from a pet store. For more information, please see Buying a Puppy Instead of Rescuing? Consider These 7 Facts Before You Do.

(1) First Tuesday Journal
(2) ASPCA estimate

A Dozen Reasons to do Your Homework Before Sending Your Dog Away for Training


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

It sounds so convenient. Just ship your dog to a dog training facility for two weeks and she’ll come back the dog you’ve always envisioned.  If only it was that easy.

"Some of my professional peers manage reputable and competent board-and-train facilities. I have no problem whatsoever referring dog owners to them."

This concept is known as “board-and-train”. There are certainly good board-and-train dog trainers and dog training facilities; unfortunately, some use techniques and practices that make me, and should make you, uncomfortable.

I’ve provided a 12-point checklist below for you to consider before sending your dog to a board-and-train facility. These are presented in no particular order.

  1. Board-and-train facilities can charge in the thousands of dollars for training your dog. They can be very expensive. Dog trainers and dog behavior specialists typically charge a total of $300 - $1,000 to work one-on-one with a dog and owner at the owner’s home for a total of five sessions. Investigate what you are actually getting for your money.
  2. How much time are they going to give your dog? Are they going to work multiple hours a day with your dog or are they only going to work a few minutes a day and “cram” a day or two before you pick him up? Ask yourself; does your dog really need to be gone for two weeks to get this training?
  3. Remember, behind closed doors, no one cares for your dog more than you. Are you confident they will treat your dog humanely and properly in your absence?
  4. Any dog trainer or dog training school knows the quick-and-easy way to training results (or what looks like results) is through the use of aversive punishment such as shock collars, prong collars, etc. While this may be a time efficient technique for the board-and-train, it can cause all kinds of long-term behavior issues that revolve around fear. Ensure they only use positive reward training.
  5. Dog training is really people training. If a dog’s human family is not intimately involved in the training process, how can the family adequately reinforce what has been trained? A one-hour session with the owners after two weeks of boarding in order to “show what has been trained” is not enough. Ask what kind of “transfer-of-knowledge” training the facility provides.
  6. It’s common knowledge among dog behavior consultants and behaviorists that dog owners sometimes come to us for help after their dog has spent a stressful two weeks at a questionable board-and-train. Don’t just look at the marketing materials regarding a facility’s reputation; check multiple external sources.
  7. Larger board-and-train schools can employee part-time trainers who are relatively new to the business. Find out who will be training your dog and what his or her experience and dog training credentials are.
  8. Buying a puppy from a dog breeder? Be extremely careful if they offer to keep your new puppy an additional few weeks for training (i.e., board-and-train) before you pick up the new bundle. This is not the best way to train a puppy and can cause the young puppy to miss important social interaction periods with the public that are needed for behavioral development – just missing two weeks can be detrimental. Find out why the breeder offers these services and why he or she is recommending this. These additional services can be extraordinarily, and unnecessarily, expensive too.
  9. For dogs dealing with separation anxiety, aggression and fear issues, taking the dog out of the home can introduce anxiety into the training process that works against positive progress. Ask how they will recognize and deal with this issue.
  10. Generalization is a term used by dog trainers to indicate that a dog will perform certain behaviors in multiple contexts. For example, a dog that has generalized the “sit” cue will perform it in multiple locations and for anyone who asks the dog to sit. Your dog may learn to heel when walked by Sally at the board-and-train but has no idea what you are talking about when you ask for the same thing when you are walking your dog. Board-and-trains frequently video their training sessions. They do this to prove that your dog has learned a specific cue so you can’t claim they didn’t teach your dog this cue when your dog gives you a deer-in-headlights look. Inquire as to what they do to ensure that learned behaviors are generalized.
  11. It’s possible that your dog could spend 22+ hours per day in a crate or kennel when at a board-and-train. Investigate what they do with your dog when not actively training.
  12. It’s one thing for board-and-train facilities to train dog obedience. It’s another for them to take on significant behavior cases such as separation anxiety and aggression. For example, some forms of separation anxiety simply can't be treated properly at a board-and-train facility. Many of these facilities just don’t have the trained personnel to take on these cases. Using shock collars, for example, to treat these kinds of cases almost always makes things worse. All too often, owners bring me their dogs to clean up the behavioral mess created after two weeks of this. Investigate who in their facility has the proper canine behavior experience and certifications before turning your dog over to them for these kinds of issues.

Are there good board-and-trains? Yes. Some of my professional peers manage reputable and competent board-and-train facilities. I have no problem whatsoever referring dog owners to them.

However, before you send your dog away for training, please do your homework.

8 Indicators You’re Taking Good Care of Your Dog


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Animal professionals such as behaviorists, groomers, daycare workers, rescue workers and veterinarians should be concerned for dogs’ welfare in all areas (e.g., general health, behavior, nutrition, preventive medicine, environment).

While my expertise is in behavior, that doesn’t preclude me from checking with the client about other areas to ensure that there aren’t any possible issues that may impact behavior or general well-being. Every time I work with a new dog, I ask a lot of questions.

" is my responsibility as an advocate for the dog to educate the guardian."

Let me be rather blunt. Dog guardians who aren’t properly taking care of their dogs usually have a poor prognosis for any behavior modification program. Behavior modification can be difficult and time consuming; guardians with the highest level of commitment to their dog have the highest chance of success.

These are some key indicators I look for to assess a dog’s general level of care. If I feel that a guardian may not be providing an adequate level of care in one or more of these areas, it is my responsibility as an advocate for the dog to educate the guardian. Frequently that is all it takes; most people want the best for their dogs.

  1. Is the dog getting regular heartworm preventive? This easily preventable and common disease causes long-term suffering and ultimately death to dogs if not treated. Heartworm, once diagnosed, requires a long and expensive treatment program. This is probably my biggest warning flag that the guardian is not particularly committed to his or her dog.
  2. Are the dog’s nails properly clipped? Long nails and nails that curl under can be painful and uncomfortable for the dog. It can also indicate that a dog is rarely, if ever, walked.
  3. Is the coat dirty and uncared for? It’s not a good sign when I see a dog with a chronically dirty and bad smelling coat. It can also indicate that a dog is spending a lot of time outside – time away from the guardian’s family.
  4. Do the guardians walk their dog? Pet dogs need the mental and physical exercise of frequent long walks. Most people claim they walk their dogs; however, the devil is in the details. My follow-up questions usually tell me the reality, “How far/long do you walk the dog?, Who walks the dog?, How often do you walk the dog?”
  5. Does their dog know any basic cues such as sit or stay? I’m not concerned if a dog knows 58 cues – my dogs certainly don’t. But, there are some basic cues such as “sit”, “stay” and “come” that every dog needs to know.
  6. What veterinary practice do they use and when did their dog last see a vet? I don’t care if they don’t know their vet’s specific name; most vet practices don’t assign vets to specific dogs anyway. What concerns me is when they don’t know the vet’s business name or when their dog last saw a vet.
  7. Is the family engaged with the dog? Dogs are social animals and need to have their lives interwoven with ours. There needs to be at least one person in the family who is intimately involved with the dog.
  8. What is the family’s approach to training? Too many positive references by the client to Cesar Millan can be a red flag. Lots of references to things such as alpha, pack and dominance are also concerning sometimes. Punishing a dog as a way of training can poison the dog’s relationship with the family.

Dog lovers know that dogs aren’t “things”, but are complex living animals that require a multi-faceted approach to their care. For the time and resources that we put into our dogs, they give us back many times our investment.