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 expert opinion about a dog’s “state-of-mind”?

As an animal behavior expert I objectively look at the causation and motivation of dog behavior in relation to environmental factors and

dog cagecircumstantial evidence.  Given this perspective, I have always believed that the concept of a dog’s “mind” was too subjective a concept to consider in the animal behavioral analysis of dog bite cases. My thinking has changed with regard to this concept.

The impetus for me to rethink what it means when referred to “mind” comes from my reflection on a question I was asked during cross-examination at trial.  Namely I was asked if “I could read a dog’s mind.”  And with very little thought, I answered  “No”!   However, from the  perspective of animal behavior science, I do not believe that was not the most accurate answer.

My reflection about this stems from my work as an animal behavior expert in a dog bite lawsuit in California.  A person was bitten trying to stop the fight  between two dogs. The dogs involved where a field trained Labrador retriever and a Cane corso.

The testimony of the dog owners differed regarding which dog started the fight. According to the owner of the Cane corso, the lab ran up a fairly steep incline towards his dog in an aggressive manner.   The owner of the Cane corso was standing in the parking lot with the dog on a leash. And, according to the owner, when the lab came within striking distance his dog attacked the lab for “protective” reasons.  In marketed contrast, the lab owner testified that the Cane corso ran towards his lab and attacked his dog in an unprovoked manner. This field-trained  lab was following his owner to a river jetty to engage in training exercises with a bumper.

Given the conflicting positions of the respective sides in this lawsuit, the animal behavior question that needed answering was one of determining which dog initiated the aggressive encounter.  Did the lab run up the incline and attack the Cane corso, or did the Cane corso run down the incline and attack the lab?  Which version was more credible?

My opinion was that the version of events given by the lab’s owner was the more credible of the two.  And in order to bring this point across to the jury, I testified that the “mindset” of the lab was focused solely getting to the jetty for his training exercises.  I came to this conclusion based on what the dog was doing at the time of the incident, his motivational and temperamental features, and the behavioral history of the dog.

I felt that the “state of mind” or the “mindset” of the lab was such that he was anticipating (or had the expectation of) fetching a bumper. This opinion was based on the fact that this particular dog had been taken to this location for this specific purpose on many occasions.  I also knew that the dog had always performed well with the bumper.  Moreover, a behavioral history indicated that the lab was mild-mannered and compliant to commands from his owner.  There was no evidence to suggest that this lab had ever displayed aggression to people or other dogs.  In contrast, evidence indicated that the Cane corso had issues with aggression towards people, and that at the time of the incident this dog was with another Cane corso who probably also participated in the attack (hence, social facilitation of  aggression).

I used the term “mindset” to describe the likely cognitive processes operating in the lab when he was following his owner to the river jetty.  Mindset was used to characterize this dog’s state of attention which in this instance was one of having the dog’s entire focus on the expectation of bumper fetching. Generally, a dog’s cognitive expectation of events that predictably follow serves as a basis to explain many different kinds of behavioral patterns.

In retrospect when I was asked “can you read a dog’s mind” my answer should have been “yes” depending on the circumstances.  Mindset is a descriptor.  It is a valid animal behavior term which can be used in dog bite cases to characterize the motivational, cognitive and attentive state of a dog in a given set of circumstances. aablackdoghead