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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Expert opinion on dog bite mauling by pit bull on donkey in Arizona

In Cape Verde, Arizona, a pit bull escaped from its yard, chewed a hole in the neighbor’s fence, and then brutally attacked and killed his pet miniature donkey. The dog bite mauling lasted for about 15 minutes. The attack could not be stopped by the owner of the donkey, or the neighbors who arrived on the scene. Police arrived, and they shot, and killed the dog.

This dog bite mauling incident caught my attention because it illustrates the motivational bases of dog bite attack. Specifically, did this pit bull’s attack on the donkey make it foreseeable he might bite a person at some later date?

Taken alone the answer is no. It is likely that the pit bull attacked the donkey as if it were another dog. The motive underlying the attack was what animal behaviorists refer to as “inter-male” aggression. Stated another way, dog-dog directed aggression. Solely because this pit bull possessed tendencies to attack other dogs (and here a donkey), does not necessarily mean it possessed these same tendencies to humans. The motivational basis for this kind of aggression differs from the motivational basis for other kinds of aggression, such as predatory and territorial. These latter motivations are the type usually found in dogs implicated in dog bite lawsuits.

However, for some cases, the tendency to attack other animals would indicate that the dog possessed tendencies to attack humans.  For example, in one dog bite lawsuit, two pit bulls entered the backyard of a private residence in Lancaster, California, and then brutally massacred a pair of goats. This incident happened prior to their attack on the plaintiff, an eight-year-old boy. In both instances, the pit bulls were acting as a pack, each facilitating one another’s aggression. In each instance, from a motivational standpoint, the dogs were acting either in a territorial or predatory fashion, which differs from the motivation underlying the attack by the pit bull on the donkey.

In another lawsuit, a Border collie with an established history of killing vermin, viciously attacked a three-year-old child. Just moments prior to the attack the dog the dog was seen stalking the child, by creeping forward along the ground, before pouncing on the child. In this instance, it is likely that the dog mistakenly identified the child as a prey object to attack. This dog’s established predatory response generalized to another prey like object, which here was a small child.

In other cases, particularly if the dogs are unsupervised and running together as a pack in a rural area, the motivational bases for an attack may be a combination of predatory and territorial tendencies. Peter Borchelt and his colleagues reached this conclusion in their investigation of severe attack by dog packs on humans. Dog pack mentality (usually only in an unsupervised  group of dogs at large) fosters predatory and territorial tendencies,  particularly if the dogs are hungry, and together these tendencies make it foreseeable that an attack on a human might occur at a later date.

These tendencies by a pack of dogs resulted in a fatal dog attack on a middle-aged lady, in June 2013 in Little Rock, California. The victim was mauled to death by a pack of seven pit bull dogs during a morning walk in a remote area. This pack of pit bull dogs had earlier attacked and killed a flock of emus. The motivational bases for the attack on the lady were probably similar to the motivations which caused these dogs to attack the emus. Namely, each incident was likely the result of the dogs’ territorial and predatory tendencies. Hence, the fatal dog attack on this lady was foreseeable.

Is evidence about the attacks on other animals sufficient to conclude about the foreseeability of dog bite attack on a human? It may, but it depends on the motivational state of the dog, whether the dogs were acting as a pack, and the context in which the attack happened. The fact patterns in a dog bite mauling lawsuit must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to ascertain whether previous attacks on animals make it foreseeable that a human might occur.