The need for the services of an animal behavior expert is certainly warranted in some dog bite lawsuits. This is particularly true when the gain from monetary damages are substantial.
California attorneys may remain uncertain about the potential value of retaining the legal services of an expert in animal behavior. Below, I explain the beneficial role an animal behavior expert might play in dog bite litigation. First, I discuss potential assignments for the expert. Second, I discuss and expert’s qualifications and certifications.
Assignments for the animal behavior expert
- When necessary, conduct a behavioral examination of the dog to determine if the dog was dangerous by nature, or had the potential to engage in behavior that led to injury
of the victim;
- Review depositions and other discovery to determine if the plaintiff provoked the dog, or if there were steps the defendant could have taken to prevent the incident from happening;
- Assist the attorney by pointing to facts of the case that support or reject arguments about liability;
- Develop questions for the attorney for use in deposition or trial;
- Draft reports or declarations stating opinions; provide testimony at deposition or trial.
Ten important areas of opinion for the expert in animal behavior
The animal behavior expert is qualified to opine about the following issues which frequently arise in dog bite litigation
- Breed identification and behavioral proclivities of different breeds of dog;
- Proffering opinions about the dangerous or vicious nature of the dog;
- Determining what the behavioral capabilities of the dog were at the time the incident happened;
- Determining whether provocation was a factor in causing the dog to bite;
- Proffering opinions about the care and maintenance of a dog and how these factors influenced its behavior;
- Determining if the incident foreseeable to the dog owner, or a landlord?
- Determining the side effects of drugs and how they impact a dog aggression;
- Identify the dog which did the biting when multiple dogs are involved in an
- Determining if the gross misconduct (i.e. punitive damages) of an owner impacted the dog’s behavior;
- Reconstruction of the incident which caused injury to the plaintiff.
Academic qualifications are an important criterion in judging an expert’s worth. For example, the science of animal behavior is an established scientific discipline. As such, the attorney is best served if he/she retained an expert with academic training in the science of animal behavior. There are several reasons for this:
- The attorney should assume that an expert who possesses formal academic training in animal behavior has the depth of knowledge needed to make a competent assessment of the motivational bases of dog behavior. An expert with this background 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 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.the opinions and testimony from the animal behavior expert must be based on scientific principles and not anthropomorphic reasoning.
Certification in what?
- Attorneys should carefully note that some animal behavior experts 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 generic certification which has nothing to do with animal behavior.
- Bona fide 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 the most reputable.
- Some dog experts 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. The certification has nothing to do with one’s competence to assess animal behavior variables associated with dog bite attacks, however.
A word of caution!
Courts will likely qualify anyone who claims to have expertise in dog behavior. Rather than disqualification, the court will likely rule that the marginal qualifications of the self-titled dog expert goes towards the weight of the evidence. However, herein lies the danger: Self-titled canine experts often proffer absurd opinions about dog behavior. Some jurors may be dog owners and some may be well-educated. Hence, jurors are likely to realize the absurdity of the expert’s opinions.
In sum, attorneys need to scrutinize the expert’s qualifications to avoid being bamboozled. I have seen competent attorneys, particularly in California (the state with the highest instances of dog bites), duped into believing that they have hired a qualified expert when they have not. Attorneys need to carefully look at the expert’s educational background and earned academic degrees. However, all too often attorneys need to get things done quickly. Hence, they may overlook the above in an efforts to retain any animal behavior/canine expert who tells them what they want to hear!