Dangerous dogs are a very real problem. It is estimated that over 4.7 million dog bites occur each year. Of these, nearly 800,000 are serious enough to require medical attention. In a handful of well-publicized cases each year, someone is actually killed by a dog.

Clearly, there is a need for some type of regulation and control of dogs. However, experts disagree on the form that regulation and control should take. Most jurisdictions now have laws to control individual dogs that have been identified as dangerous or vicious. The definitions of dangerous and vicious vary widely, but in general, a dangerous dog is one whose behaviors may cause an elevated risk of harm to humans. The more serious “vicious” label is generally applied to those dogs that have shown a tendency toward intentional harm of human beings.

Individual dogs that have been identified as dangerous or vicious may be subject to increased controls. For example, a judge may order the owners to muzzle the dog whenever it is not on the owner’s property. In extreme cases, a habitually dangerous or vicious dog may be euthanized. Violations of these restrictions may result in fines or even jail time for the dog’s owner.

Some jurisdictions have taken a more proactive approach in labeling entire breeds of dogs as dangerous. Allegedly dangerous breeds may be banned altogether or subjected to extreme control. The practice of banning allegedly dangerous breeds is based largely on research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s which showed that some breeds of dog are inherently more dangerous to humans. However, a firestorm of controversy led to additional research. Newer research shows that the actions of the dog owner, rather than the innate nature of the dog breed, are primarily responsible for the danger posed by the dog.

Commonly Restricted Breeds

The pit bull is perhaps the breed most commonly associated with dangerous breed laws. The American Pit Bull Terrier breed was the result of human intervention in breeding dogs for dog fights. It is this basic fighting nature that is behind the desire to ban or restrict pit bulls. However, the dogs were bred to fight other dogs, not humans. Most of the fighting dogs also served as family pets, and aggression toward humans was not tolerated. However, pit bulls are often retained as attack dogs today, specifically trained to attack humans. Due to this training, many pit bulls have become dangerous dogs.

Other commonly banned or restricted breeds include German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans, American Bulldogs, Mastiffs and many others. What these dogs tend to have in common is large size, strength and power. It is claimed that these factors make them inherently more dangerous than smaller dogs that are more easily controlled. The dogs’ size and power also makes them common choices for attack dogs, specifically trained to attack humans.

Breed-Specific Laws

Some jurisdictions simply ban certain breeds altogether. If a breed is restricted rather than banned, numerous controls may be placed on the animals. The restrictions vary dramatically between jurisdictions but may include, among others:

1. Public Muzzling.
Owners of dangerous dog breeds may be required to muzzle the animals whenever they are off the owner’s property.

2. Fencing.
The dog’s owner may be required to maintain a fence of minimum height (often six feet) around his property. Signage that warns of the dog’s presence may also be required.

3. Liability Insurance.
Some homeowners or renters policies may cover damages inflicted by a dog. However, insurance companies are increasingly refusing to cover injuries by dangerous dog breeds. A jurisdiction may require a certain level of liability insurance to cover the dog, which may or may not be fulfilled by the owner’s homeowners insurance.

The Bottom Line

Dangerous breed laws have been enacted at the state, county and local levels. Whether these laws are appropriate remains a matter of debate. However, dog owners are well advised to become aware of any laws that may pertain to their animals. The penalties for violation of dangerous dog laws are often severe, ranging from fines to jail time to the destruction of the animal.