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


Kelly Frye and the California dog bite expert witness

The use of criteria set forth in Kelly Frye for the admissibility of evidence in dog bite cases by the California dog bite expert witness is sorely needed.  Trial judges overseeing dog bite  California dog bite expert witnesscivil cases have repeatedly failed to apply these criteria when ruling on what evidence should be placed before a jury by the California dog bite expert witness.  As a result, a lot of nonsense about dog behavior, dog aggression, and dog bites enters the courtroom, and this nonsense is almost always propagated by dog bite experts and dog trainers who lack training in the science of animal behavior. Knowledge about the fundamentals of animal behavior science is absolutely necessary for an expert’s competence in dog bite analysis.  Unfortunately, this is usually overlooked by even the most competent attorneys. California dog bite attorneys need to be more forceful in insisting that the dog bite experts they retain use a scientifically-based analysis which meet the standards set by Kelly-Frye.

Animal behavior opinion by a California dog bite expert witness can meet Kelly-Frye criteria provided that the following is understood:

1. Animal behavior is an established scientific discipline and properly qualified animal behaviorists exist to render expert opinion. Animal behavior is a multidiscipline, observational science taught at nearly every major university in the world. Animal behavior science has become increasingly technical in nature, and advanced degrees are offered in this field. Many academic, peer-reviewed journals dedicate themselves to original research in animal behavior, including research about canine behavior and dog aggression. Various certification programs are available to canine behavioral scientists. The qualifications of a dog bite expert lacking certification surely needs to be questioned.

2, The methods used in animal behavior are reliable and can be used to formulate opinion about legal issues such as liability and negligence. Specifically, the science is concerned with objective description in terms of what an animal does, and the multitude of variables that affect overt behavior, and not what the dog is thinking or how the dog is feeling. Data in the science is collected through a variety of means, which include interview techniques, surveys, behavioral rating scales, video and audio analysis, and blood, urine, neurological and genetic analysis. The methods used in the science are no different from the methods the applied animal behaviorist has at his disposal to analyze a dog involved in a dog bite incident.

3. Principles and findings developed in animal behavior can be applied to the actions of a dog in any given dog bite case. Moreover, these principles and findings, would be shared by the majority of animal behaviorists. Opinions understandably can differ amongst experts, however. Specifically, some broad sweeping generalizations from the science of animal behavior would indicate that: (a) Aggressive behavior in dogs can become habitual and is affected by contextual variables, learning experiences and reinforcement history; (b) Owner behavior has a marked influence on the behavior of companion dogs; (c) A dog’s temperament in part is affected by breed characteristics and past experiences, and is predictive of future behavior in a given set of circumstances; (d) Aggression in dogs is patterned and has predictable sequences when directed towards a human.

4. Information derived from the observations of witnesses, and owner descriptions about the behavioral and medical history of the dog and how the dog was maintained, provide sufficient information for the animal behavior expert to render credible and scientifically based opinions, provided that these observations are consistent with animal behavior theory.

In conclusion, animal behavior opinions about the behavior of a dog are reliable and can be proffered with a low error rate provided that the expert has collected a sufficient amount of discovery about the dog from reliable sources. In addition, in some dog bite cases, a dog’s temperament can be evaluated and tested using evaluation criteria derived from temperament tests recognized as valid and reliable by animal behavior scientists.