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.