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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Dog bite expert testimony | Dog expert

Dog bite expert testimony
Dog expert testimony can resolve issues of liability, particularly when the version of the events between the defendant and plaintiff differ.

Dog bite expert testimony can be helpful to attorneys litigating dog bite cases.  However, attorneys may be uncertain about the value of hiring a dog bite expert for expert testimony.  Costs are often a factor in decision-making, particularly when the value of the case is not that great. However, when there is significant personal injury to justify  costs, the testimony from a dog bite expert can make the difference between winning and losing.

In this post, I shed light on the value of an attorney retaining a dog bite expert by addressing some commonly asked questions.

Q. How can dog expert testimony help dog bite attorneys?

  • Determine if the attack by the dog was provoked;
  • Determine if the dog was aggressive by nature;
  • Determine if the owner or another significant person (e.g.) landlord should have been aware of the potential for the dog to attack a person given the breed of the dog or past history of the dog.  in other words, was the dog attack foreseeable?
  • Assess all animal behavioral factors associated with incident for the purpose of clarifying negligence on part of the pet owner;
  • Reconstruct how the dog attack incident happened in order to render an opinion on the credibility of the defendant’s vs. plaintiff’s version of the incident

Q. How can an attorney use the dog bite expert witness?

  • Undertake a behavioral inspection of the dog or location where the incident happened.
  • Formulate questions for the attorney to use in deposition or trial;
  • Prepare declarations or written reports;
  • Provide testimony to support or reject an attorney’s arguments about the behavior of the dog that site into questions about liability and negligence.

Q. How do the qualifications differ between dog attack experts?

In addition to one’s practical experience in working with dogs, there are other important criteria that set the qualified dog behavioral expert apart from other self-professed experts.

  • Anyone can market themselves as an animal behavior expert, and this is frequently done. Many of these individuals – who may possess excellent qualifications as dog trainers, or perhaps may have been involved in rescue work – possess no formal educational background in the science of animal behavior, or how the science can be meaningfully applied to the behavior of dogs. This could become important in cases where Daubert criteria are applied, and if this happens those lacking an academic background in animal behavior would be compromised.
  • Individuals lacking an academic background are also compromised in their ability to competently understand the limitations and drawbacks from findings in the scientific literature.
  • Dog trainers often join forensic professional societies, take weekend courses or one-day courses on dog behavior or dog bite forensics, possibly for the purpose of projecting to the legal profession that they are qualified dog bite experts. And in the state of California, the standards for dog bite expert witness qualification are slack, and almost anyone can qualify as long as what they put on their curriculum vitae seems appropriate. Dog bite attorneys, with heavy caseloads, may be inclined to retain the first expert who tells them what they want to hear.

In general, the attorney will be best served if he/she finds a dog bite expert witness with the following criteria:

    1. Has certification through a well-recognized and established professional society dealing with canine behavior. Avoid generic societies that grant “Certification” to experts in many different fields.
    2. The expert should be required to pass a written exam in dog behavior and then maintain certification through required continuing education;
    3. Publication record in peer-reviewed journals of veterinary medicine or animal behavior;
    4. Advanced degree in animal behavior from a recognized institution of higher learning;
    5. At least 10 years of direct hands-on experience working with dogs in a field situation

Q. What kind testimony by an animal behavior expert is need to support legal arguments?

  • Some States, like California, have statutory strict liability for dog bites. Legally, if the incident happened in a state where dog bite law applies, then the burden lies with the defense to demonstrate the comparative fault of the plaintiff. Forensic evidence to support the occurrence of a bite may come in the form of medical records, photos of the injury, or results from behavioral testing to determine if the dog had the kind of temperament to bite or cause injury to a human.
  • Other circumstantial evidence, such as the context in which the incident happened, is often very useful. Note that in the absence of direct evidence – such as the ability to inspect the dog – circumstantial evidence is a valid and accepted means on which the animal behaviorist can based opinions.
  • In States where recovery is based solely on common law theory, evidence must be presented to demonstrate that the dog was dangerous by nature and that the owner or keeper had full awareness of this behavioral tendency. Again, evidence bearing on this issue can be presented in the form of behavioral testing, animal control reports, and what other people (e.g. neighbors, veterinarian,etc.) say about the dog. The expert witness in animal behavior uses this information to formulate behavioral opinions about how (i.e. behavioral reconstruction) the incident happened.
  • An evidence based approach from findings in the scientific literature on dog behavior can be very convincing to the trier of fact.  Scientific papers  on dog behavior often have direct relevance to issues arising in dog bite cases. This is the kind of information both experts an attorney need to rely upon.  The academically trained dog behavior expert is in a unique position to to sort scientific fact from fiction.
  • The journals listed below contain research findings on canine behavior.  It needs no mentioning that gog bite expert testimony becomes more credible (particularly to the fact when findings in the scientific literature are cited.

Other useful links about dog behavior and dog bite litigation