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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Qualifications of dog trainers vs. animal behaviorists

Attorneys need to realize that an animal behaviorist differs from the dog trainer in terms of the qualifications and knowledge serving as an animal bite expert. The differences betweenAnimal bite expert the two professions are often not appreciated by attorneys seeking an animal bite expert for expert opinion in their lawsuit. In this article, I briefly outline these differences.

Difference between dog trainers and animal behaviorists in terms of qualifications

The basic difference between these two type of individuals stems from in fact that the animal behaviorist possesses a Ph.D. degree as a result of usually 4 yrs. of graduate study in the science of animal behavior. This is a qualification which almost all dog trainers lack.

The study of animal behavior is an established scientific discipline taught at most major universities. Advanced degrees have been offered in this discipline for quite some time, but it has only been in the last few decades that animal behaviorists with advanced degrees have left the confines of academia and have attempted to apply this science to real-world situations, such as in the courtroom.

A dog trainer does have an area of expertise, however. Namely, how to teach a dog to perform a certain task, such as engaging in an obedience procedure, teaching the dog to fetch, roll over, etc. Dog trainers possess expertise in the “how” type questions: how to make a dog sit, lie-down, come-when-called, etc. Such expertise is of value but it is of limited use in dog bite cases.

In contrast, the expertise of the animal behaviorist lies in understanding why a dog displays a certain kind of behavior in a given situation. In other words, “why” type questions. These are questions about a dog’s motivation or tendency to engage in a particular kind of behavior. In most dog bite cases, the “how” questions are irrelevant and only the “why” questions are important. For example, why was the victim attacked by the dog? Was it because the dog was provoked or was the attack foreseeable given the nature of the dog and the context in which the attack happened?

Animal behavior analysis takes into account an animal’s capacity for learning, it’s physiology, its genetic background, and the environment in which the dog lives in order to understand the motivational bases of the dog’s behavior. The behavior of the domestic dog, including its aggressive responding, is governed by the same principles that govern the behavior of other vertebrate species.

Anyone can call themselves an animal bite expert, presumably because they have received training in the science of animal behavior. Nonetheless, because of lax standards for the qualification of experts, and because expert status is usually based on the amount of relevant experience the individual claims to have (which often is difficult to verify), dog trainers are usually qualified by the Court as animal bite experts. And their testimony goes towards to the “weight of the evidence”.

Advice to attorneys in retaining an animal bite expert

Attorneys handling dog bite cases need to understand the above differences because in some cases it   May prove to be of value in their thinking when retaining the services of an animal bite expert. If the attorney elects to retain a dog trainer for their case, then this might prove disadvantageous because it opens the door for opposing counsel to raise doubts about their qualifications, or the court may rule to have a dog trainer’s testimony limited to only certain issues in the case. This is particularly true if the Court uses the scientific standards set forth in the Daubert and Kelly-Fry decisions.  Moreover,  as noted above, the properly qualified animal behaviorist has received formal academic training in the science of animal behavior which provides a greater depth of understanding of dog behavior and the application of findings in the scientific literature to issues raised in dog bite lawsuits.

Another word of caution: some dog trainers find ways to present themselves as being qualified as an animal bite expert. For example, some use the letters “DABFE” after their name which means the individual has “diplomatic” status with American Board of Forensic Examiners. This organization has nothing to do with the study of animal behavior, however.

One caveat: a dog trainer might prove to be an effective animal bite expert, but only if the person is experienced in giving expert testimony, and if the dog trainers’ style of presentation make him/her appear well-qualified.


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