Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, Ph.D. CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

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Services of a Dog Expert Witness: How They Can Help Attorneys

The need for the services of a dog bite expert witness is certainly warranted in some dog bite lawsuits. Nonetheless, some California attorneys – California animal behavior expertperhaps because of costs or because of uncertainty about how an animal behavior expert might help their case – remain uncertain of how the services of a dog bite expert witness might help their case.  In this post,  I will provide clarification about the beneficial role of retaining a behavioral expert in dog bite litigation.

Given that I am a California animal behavior expert, with over 300+ dog bite expert assignments successfully completed, I am in a competent position to opine about this. Therefore in this post, I will discuss the kinds of assignments the dog bite attorney might delegate to an animal behavior expert in California.  These assignments could apply to experts in other states as well, however.  I choose California in part because I reside in California and because California has strict liability laws with regard to dog bites.

The assignments mentioned below are geared to forming opinions with regard to strict liability, although to the assignments may apply opinions needed in states that still have “common law” theory for dog bites, such as Texas.

Assignments for the California animal behavior expert

  • Reconstruct how the incident  most likely happened for the purposes of rendering an opinion regarding the  issue of provocation;
  • Review photographic evidence and medical records and related circumstantial evidence to determine if the plaintiff was actually bitten by a dog;
  • Determine whether the dog was aggressive or dangerous by nature;
  • Determine whether the dog was provoked to engage in the misbehavior which resulted in the plaintiff’s injury;
  • Determine whether the owner or another person (e.g.landlord) should have been aware of the dog’s potential for misbehavior given- its breed or past behavioral history;
  • Assess why the incident happened for the purpose of stating whether the incident could have been prevented (e.g.negligence issues).

What kind of dog expert is best qualified for the job?

An important criterion to use in judging and expert’s worth is the academic qualifications of the expert. The science of animal behavior is an established scientific discipline, and as such, it would be foolhardy for the attorney to retain an expert who lacks academic training in animal behavior science.

Why is this so? the answer is straightforward: The attorney can be assured that it individual with this kind of training has the depth of knowledge needed to make a competent assessment of the motivational bases of dog behavior.  An expert with this background (specifically one with graduate training at the University level in animal behavior) has an understanding of the fundamental principles governing animal behavior, and how these principles can be applied to dog behavior in real-world situations. The principles established in the sides of animal behavior are not based on anthropomorphic reasoning. Rather, the academically trained animal behaviorist relies on scientific principles derived from learning theory, genetics, physiology, sensory-perceptual functioning, and ethology to form his opinions. Knowledge like this is essential to properly assess the complexity of variables influencing dog behavior.

Certification as what?

Dog bite attorneys should carefully note that there are some animal behavior experts in California who present themselves as being “certified”. However, on closer look, such a distinction is grossly misleading.  For example,  there is a for-profit organization in the United States that for many years has solicited membership from experts in many areas of specialization. This organization offers a certification which is generic in nature, and not anything to do with animal behavior as a relates to dogs.  Anyone alleging to have expertise in animal behavior can join this organization for a fee, pass a test on ethics and then promote themselves as being certified.  However, certification in what?  In particular, the certification from this organization has absolutely no relevance to the study of animal behavior.  Yet,  I know of experts in California who employ this strategy.

On the contrary,  appropriate certification in animal behavior or canine behavior can be obtained from a number of reputable organizations. These organizations deal specifically with dog behavior or animal behavior.  The International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants is probably the most reputable.

Also, it should be noted that some animal behavior experts in California claim status as a “certified animal evaluator”. This distinction is achieved as a result of having passed a one-day test offered by the Delta Society.  Anyone with an interest in working with dogs can take this test.  The Delta Society, a respected organization, is concerned with the human-animal bond and not animal behavior per se.  Achieving a passing grade on this one day test supposedly ensures that the applicant possesses rudimentary skills to assess that a companion dog can be used for therapy and be safely placed in nursing homes. The certification has nothing to do with one’s competence to assess animal behavior variables associated with dog bite attacks, however.

Despite the above,  Courts are inclined to qualify anyone who claims to have expertise in animal behavior.  The implicit assumption is that the marginal qualification of the expert will go towards the “weight” of the evidence.  However, this may backfire.  I know of a marginally qualified expert in California who may look good on paper to the naïve attorney, but this expert has absolutely no formal education or training in the science of animal behavior.  As a consequence, more often than not, absurd opinions about dog behavior are proffered. Opinions that are not only ridiculous but also lack a scientific basis.  Some jurors may be dog owners, some may be well-educated, and some probably knowledgeable about dog behavior.  Hence, some jurors are likely to quickly realize the absurdity.

A word of caution!

Attorneys need to scrutinize the expert’s qualifications to avoid being bamboozled.  I have seen very competent attorneys – but in my opinion somewhat naïve – duped into believing that they have hired a qualified animal behaviorist when in fact they have not.  Attorneys need carefully examine the kind of certification an expert has and from where it was obtained.  Attorneys need to carefully look at the expert’s educational background.  However, some attorneys may overlook these points in an effort to retain any California animal behavior expert who tells them what they want to hear.


Richard Polsky is a dog bite expert located in Los Angeles, California.  He welcomes expert assignments from attorneys throughout the USA.

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