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 risk in restaurants

Dog bite restaurant

Many restaurants allow dogs on the premises to dine with their owners, and in some instances advertise themselves as “dog friendly restaurants”.  One would therefore assume a dining environment with dogs would present no danger to restaurant patrons. However, this might not be true in all cases. For example, depending on the totality of the circumstances and the nature of the dog, having dogs in restaurants could undermine public safety.  Below, I provide a brief description of a lawsuit in which the plaintiff was attacked by a dog in a dog friendly restaurant in Nevada.

Nevada does not have strict liability for dog bites; therefore to prevail on liability against the dog owner, the plaintiff needed to establish negligence by the dog owner or that the dog owner had prior knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities.  In this dog bite lawsuit described below, the plaintiff argued negligence on the part of the owner because he brought his Boerboel to dine with him.

Unlike other relatively large dogs, such as golden retrievers or Irish wolfhounds, Boelboels are huge and powerful. The breed was developed for territorial defense and hunting in South Africa in the mid-1800s.  In recent years, this breed has become a popular in the United States.  And it is likely that many owners obtain Boerboels for protection of the home, a trait consistent with their heritage.

The incident in question happened when the plaintiff, a waitress and a person unfamiliar with the dog, passed through a set of swinging doors which separated the dining area from the kitchen.  The dog was seated very close to the swinging doors.  He was held on a tight leash by the owner. The owner was sitting at a table with the dog next to him.  He and his friends had just finished their meal and were waiting for their check. Although the versions differ between the plaintiff and the defendant, there is no dispute that after the waitress approached the table with the check, she came within “striking distance” of the dog,  and at this point the dog lunged forward an upward and inflicted a single bite to her face.

The defense argued that the plaintiff provoked a dog.  Plaintiff argued that the dog should have never been brought into the restaurant because it possessed inherently aggressive tendencies.  There was evidence to support the plaintiff’s belief.  For example, this particular dog had viciously attacked another person shortly after this incident. Further, based on the owner’s deposition testimony it appeared that the dog was not properly socialized.  Plaintiff’s counsel also argued that the actions of his client towards the dogs were not provocative, and that the dog attacked because of its inherent aggressive tendencies. Plaintiff’s counsel argued that his client asked for permission to pet the dog as she was approaching and before coming within the dog striking distance.

I will not go into details about the merits of plaintiff versus defense arguments. Rather, I will provide commentary from my perspective in animal behavior about the possible risks involved in bringing a dog like a Boerboel into a public restaurant.

My greatest concern is that circumstances  in a restaurant environment could suddenly arise which might cause a dog like a Boerboel to become fearful and bite a human.  Fear based aggression is the impetus behind the majority of dog bite attacks on people.  It is a trait that could suddenly manifest itself in many dogs.

For example, in an indoor restaurant setting, unfamiliar noises and odors are magnified and conceivably these stimuli could be irritating an frightening to some dogs.  Moreover, movement by an unfamiliar person into the personal space of an aggressively prone dog, or perhaps a stimulus not perceivable to a human (for example, a wi-fi signal) might frighten some dogs.  On the other hand, some dogs might act protectively in the presence of their owner, a trait not uncommon in dogs with protective tendencies such as Boerboels.  Moreover, in a crowded restaurant, a large dog could injure a person by knocking the person down or jumping on a person.  In other instances, bringing and aggressively prone  dog into a restaurant environment might invite injury because one could reasonably anticipate that unfamiliar people might approach and force themselves onto the dog and and many dogs unaccustomed to this, or dogs with personality defects, might not like this.

Dog friendly restaurants may make business sense for restaurant owners.  Nonetheless, a dog friendly policy becomes questionable because in some instances it could compromise public safety. The degree of risk depends on the circumstances present in the restaurant and the temperament of the dog. Similar risks probably exist when dogs are allowed to sit next to their owner in outdoor cafes which often abut public sidewalks, or dogs in pet stores, or for that matter any indoor public environment where a dog could conceivably have a close encounter with an unfamiliar person or be exposed to frightening stimuli.  black dog

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