Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

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Animal Behavior Science & Dog Expert Witness Testimony

Attorneys handling dog-related injury cases may not know much about the scientific discipline of animal expert witness testimony dogsbehavior. Hence, below I will introduce this discipline to the dog bite attorney and offer suggestions about selecting a well-qualified dog bite expert.

 What is animal behavior science?

Very fundamentally, the science of animal behavior is based on observation. that is, what an animal does and how it acts in relation to both external and internal factors pertinent to the animal. questions about development, motivation, proximate causation are some of the many lines of inquiry from classical ethology. Nobel prizes in medicine have been awarded to individuals in this discipline. In the last 20 years, the science is changed tremendously from one of observation to that of modeling and using mathematics to predict behavior. And in recent years there has been great interest by academic researchers in the emotions and cognition in dogs.

Having said this, one may ask, how is this discipline relevant to issues raised in dog bite litigation?  First and foremost, it is the behavior of the dog that causes injury to the plaintiff; hence, there is the obvious need for analysis of the dog’s behavior using the actual observations of witnesses, and not what a witness may believe about how the dog may have behaved.  Generally, when applied to dog bite litigation, an animal behavior perspective focuses on observable behavior and how such behavior caused injury to the plaintiff and whether the behavior of the dog was foreseeable.

An analysis is made in terms of behavioral tendencies unique to a breed, the experiences the dog has encountered, the behavioral capabilities of the dog and the dog’s behavioral reactivity to environmental and contextual events. The evidence is gathered from a possible direct examination of a dog (assuming the dog is still alive) and the descriptions and accounts of the dog’s behavior by the plaintiff, defendant, and witnesses, animal control reports, medical records, etc. Findings from evidence-based animal behavior science also must be considered. Opinions of the expert are then formulated and used to support or reject common arguments in dog bite litigation, such as provocation, negligence, and foreseeability.

 Tips on selecting the best-qualified dog expert

Unfortunately, attorneys need to realize that almost anyone can tout themselves as having expertise in animal behavior.  For the most part, this is an industry that is totally unregulated. There are no licenses given in this field.  I have seen many smart attorneys bamboozled by dog trainers masquerading as animal behaviorists.  Dog trainers set up websites that make themselves look well-qualified.  Hence, for reasons mentioned below, caution is needed on the part of the attorney seeking an expert in animal behavior.

Attorneys should consider the following:

#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 competence through publications in peer-reviewed journals of animal behavior/dog behavior?   

This criterion should be self-explanatory. Note however the animal behavior expert may have gained their initial exposure to the science of animal behavior through their research with species other than dogs. Nevertheless, the principles of animal behavior science apply across all species and can be used to explain the causation and motivation of behavior regardless if the animal under consideration is a monkey, giraffe, rat, hamster parrot or a human.

#4.  Does the expert have certification from a professional organization of animal behavior?

Although there are no licensing requirements at the governmental level in animal behavior, certifications in animal behavior can be obtained from several professional organizations. Nonetheless,  some organizations that provide certification carry more legitimacy than others.  The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Animal Behavior Society are the leading professional organizations in this field.

Attorneys should 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 inquiry will show that this title (Diplomat of the American Board of Forensic Examiners) comes from an organization that has absolutely nothing to do with the study of animal behavior. Some experts will go to great lengths to get letters after their name to the point where it becomes ridiculous.

Last, an expert’s certification should also be based on the requirement of continuing education, similar to requirements needed for the relicensing of attorneys and human psychologists.

#5. Beware of experts who have too many certificates.

Marginally qualified experts are clever at finding ways to make themselves look qualified.  I know of several dog trainers in California who use certificates to portray that they are a properly qualified dog bite expert. Any dog trainer (or for that matter almost anyone – no prerequisites required) with the desire to do expert work can easily find a paid course/lecture that offers certificates on such topics as “Dog Bite Investigation”, “Veterinary Forensics”, “Bite Marks and Odontology” and “Animal Cruelty and Fighting Investigations, “Certified animal evaluator.”  Having a certificate does not mean the individual is certified, however!

 #6.  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


Dog expert witness testimonyRichard 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.


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