Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

Dr. Richard Polsky - The Dog Expert

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Dog trainers vs. animal behaviorists as dog bite experts

Attorneys need to understand how the dog trainer differs from another kind of behavioral expert that they might retain in a dog bite case; namely, an animal behaviorist. The differences between the two is often not appreciated by attorneys seeking a behavioral expert for their dog bite case.

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 disipline 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 court room.

A dog trainer does have an area of expertise, however. Namely, how to teach a dog perform a certain task, such as engaging in an obedience procedure, teaching the dog to fetch, rollover, 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 behaviorist”. There are no license requirements to use this title. 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, and their testimony goes towards to the “weight of the evidence”.

Attorneys handling dog bite cases need to understand the above differences because for some cases it will be of value to retain the services of a dog bite expert. If the attorney elects to retain a dog trainer for his case, then this might prove disadvantageous because it opens the door for opposing counsel to raise doubts about their expert’s opinions, or have their expert’s testimony limited, and it may provide opposing counsel an advantage in settlement negotiations. This is particularly true if the Court uses the scientific standards set forth in the Daubert and Kelly-Fry decisions.

Another word of caution: some dog trainers find ways to present themselves as being qualified dog bite experts. 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 dog bite expert, but only if the person is experienced in giving expert testimony, and if the person’s demeanour and style of presentation makes them look credible.