Dog attacks: owners' liability explained

Whether you have a tiny Chihuahua, a gentle Great Dane, or a lovable Bull Dog, pet owners are responsible for making sure their dog doesn’t harm other people. 

In practical terms, this means it’s your responsibility to keep your dog securely confined on your premises. This may involve appropriate fencing or keeping your dog indoors. You must also be able to control your dog when out walking or playing in a public space.

When a dog attacks

A Victorian woman is suing the owners of a dog who charged at her and knocked her off her bike as she was cycling past their home. The 53-year-old sustained serious injuries including a fractured femur. She also required a hip replacement and has launched legal action for the ongoing injury, loss and damage she suffers as a consequence of the attack.

The cyclist is suing for negligence or, more specifically, the owners’ failure to:

  • adequately restrain the dog
  • maintain proper and effective control of the dog
  • construct or maintain adequate fencing to the premises
  • restrain the dog with an adequate lead, collar or muzzle
  • exercise appropriate care in the circumstances where the dog was present in a public place
  • have any, or adequate, regard for the safety of others.

Liability and insurance

In Victoria the pet owner is legally responsible for the attack, regardless of whether they themselves did anything wrong. Each jurisdiction has different laws so, if your dog has been involved in an attack, contact a lawyer in your state or territory and they’ll advise you accordingly.

The pet owner is often covered under their home and contents insurance for incidents involving their dog. This includes incidents that happen off the owner’s premises. Ask your insurer for your policy’s terms and conditions.

Possible outcomes

Serious penalties can be imposed on owners of dogs that cause injury (or death). You may be ordered by a court to pay out a large sum in compensation. This sum can include compensation for expenses the victim has incurred as a result of their injury (such as medical/hospital bills) as well as an amount for pain and suffering and economic loss, if any.

Some state laws, including Victoria’s, grant local councils the power to declare particular dogs as being ‘menacing’ or ‘dangerous’. Owning a dog that has been declared menacing or dangerous carries many more responsibilities regarding its confinement and management.

It’s also possible that a court or local council may order the destruction of your dog if you, the owner, are found guilty following an incident caused by your dog.

Restricted dog breeds

In Australia, certain breeds of dogs are prohibited and therefore not eligible for import:

  • Japanese Tosa
  • Fila Brasileiro
  • Dogo Argentino
  • Perro de Presa Canario or Presa Canario
  • Pit Bull Terrier or American Pit Bull Terrier.

Restrictions on dog ownership differs from state to state. In some states, under certain circumstances, it's illegal to own a prohibited breed dog. In other states, it’s legal but ownership comes with extra restrictions and responsibilities.

For example, these prohibited breeds are not banned in South Australia, but if you own a dog on this list, it must be desexed and, when not confined to your premises, it must be secured by a leash not more than two metres in length and a muzzle.

Contact your local council if you have any questions about restricted breeds.

Advice to dog owners

As always, prevention is better than cure. In order to prevent dog attacks, you should maintain effective control of your dog at all times. What this means in practical terms depends on the breed, nature and size of your dog.

The basic requirements for maintaining control when your pet is at home are:

  • high-enough fences, so that your dog can’t jump over them
  • secured gates, so that your dog can’t slip out.

If your property doesn’t have adequate fencing or gates, you’ll need to keep your dog indoors.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that visitors can reach your front door without coming into contact with your dog. This way, your dog won’t attack or escape when visitors come knocking.

When out in public, you need to be able to restrain your dog if and when necessary. A leash is always a good idea; in some cases, depending on the dog, a muzzle may also be required. If you choose to let your dog off its leash, make sure that it’s sufficiently trained and will obey your commands.

Dogs bring much joy to their owners. However, with ownership comes responsibilities that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Proper confinement and management will help ensure your pet stays out of trouble, and no one gets hurt.

Dimi Ioannou is a principal in Maurice Blackburn's Melbourne office.

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Dimi Ioannou

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Dimi Ioannou is a Principal Lawyer and Practice Group Leader at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in charge of the firm’s Public and Product Liability team in Melbourne. Dimi is an accredited specialist in personal injury law. Dimi works in the area of public liability and ...

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