Attorneys handling dog bite cases may not know much about the discipline of animal behavior science and how findings from this discipline can be used by the testifying animal behavior expert witness. It is the behavior of the dog that causes injury to the plaintiff; hence the relevancy of animal behavior science.
An attorney in need of animal expert services should consider following before retaining the services of an expert witness in animal behavior.
#1. Does the individual possess an advanced degree in animal behavior? Animal behavior science is a discipline that is taught at most major universities. Advanced degrees are available in this discipline. For example, the University of Washington has an excellent program leading to the Ph.D. Academic training in the science of animal behavior is essential so that the retaining attorney is assured that the expert’s opinions are scientifically based rather than having opinions proffered solely based on the individual’s personal experiences working with dogs. Moreover, academic training in the science of animal behavior instills in the dog expert’s mind a scientific perspective and a unique way of thinking about the behavior of domestic dogs, something which most non-academically trained dog experts to lack. In this regard, the words of the late Carl Sagan are quite relevant: “Science is more than a body of knowledge, rather it is a way of thinking.” This way of thinking is needed to appreciate the complexities of dog behavior and to communicate these complexities in simple language, as Sagan so aptly did.
#2. How much hands-on experience does the individual have working with dogs? Attorneys should note that some experts wildly exaggerating the number of dogs they have worked with. These experts throw out a number believing that their claim will never be challenged. However, if the claims of the expert cannot be substantiated through a detailed examination of the expert’s past work history, then this claim could be used to discredit the expert.
#3. Has the expert demonstrated his/her competence through publications in peer-reviewed journals of animal behavior/dog behavior?
#4. Does the expert have certification from a professional organization of animal behavior? Certification from an appropriate animal behavior organization relevant to the dog behavior is essential. Note that some organizations carry more legitimacy than others with regard to certification in dog behavior or animal behavior. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Animal Behavior Society are the leading professional organizations that provide certification in dog behavior. Attorneys should also carefully note that there are generic expert witness associations which give paying members “diplomatic status” which in turn allows the expert to put letters after their name such as “DABFE”. It takes some figuring out what these letters mean, but an investigation will show that this title (Diplomat of the American Board of Forensic Examiners) comes from an organization that has nothing to do with the study of animal behavior. Moreover, an expert’s certification should also be based on the requirement of continuing education, similar to requirements needed for the relicensing of attorneys.
#5. How much experience does the individual have working with attorneys as an expert? Obviously, a properly qualified expert’s experience working with attorneys as a testifying dog expert is highly beneficial. The well-qualified dog behavior expert knows how the science of animal behavior interplays dog bite law. Knowledge of the interplay between these two disciplines, particularly when it comes to such issues as provocation and negligence, can effectively be used by the testifying dog expert to help an attorney win their case.
Scientific journals of animal behavior where findings on dog behavior are published
- Animal Behaviour
- Applied Animal Behavior Science
- Animal Behavior and Cognition
- Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research
- Journal of Comparative Psychology
- Journal of Ethology
- Hormones and Behavior
- Behavioral Processes
- Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition
- Learning and Motivation
- Learning & Behavior
- Physiology and Behavior
Richard Polsky, Ph.D. has served as a testifying dog expert witness for more than 25 years. He has been qualified in court on numerous occasions in both criminal and civil matters throughout the United States. Dr. Polsky’s contact information can be found here.