When a Dog is Not your Best Friend – Dog Attacks in Ontario

Dogs are one of the most popular pets in Canada. A recent survey estimates that there are 5.9 million dogs in Canada and 35% of Canadian households have a dog. If you have a look around your neighbourhood and actually take a dog count, you will probably be surprised by the number of families who have a dog. Take a look at the back window of vehicles and you will see those stick figure caricatures of the family household, many of which include the parents, children, and the family dog. Needless to say, dogs are a member of the family or part of the pack, as they see it). However, despite their widespread place in Canadian households, there are special laws and rules that apply to dogs and their owners – especially when it comes to dog attacks.

Dog attacks including bites) in Ontario are dealt with by the Dog Owners’ Liability Act. This law makes owners strictly responsible for any injuries and damages resulting from their dog’s attack or bite on a person or a person’s pet. A victim of a dog attack need only show that he or she was injured by that dog as well as prove who the attacking dog’s owner is. The attacking dog’s owner’s responsibility is not reduced in light of any knowledge, precaution or preventative measures that that owner took, although those same things will be analyzed by the court in assessing the amount of damages money) to be awarded to the victim. Otherwise, when assessing a victim’s damages, the court will look at the extent to which the dog’s attack injured the person and affected their life, such as whether the injured person will need future surgeries, will have permanent injuries, suffered economic losses such as losing time from work) and/or whether the victim was out of pocket any money.

It is important to note that where and how the dog attack occurs is very important in determining what consequences follow. Damages will be reduced in circumstances where the injured person did something him or herself to cause or contribute to the dog attack. For example, if the injured person tried to chase the dog with a stick and the dog reacted by biting the person in the hand, then that may be a circumstance where the court would reduce the dog owner’s responsibility. Again, this does not mean that the dog owner is not held responsible, but instead that the court will consider and possibly reduce the damages to the victim because the victim shared some of the responsibility. Moreover, where a person entered onto another’s property to commit a criminal act, the law has separate rules. In that circumstance, the owner will not be liable for their dog’s attack unless their reasons for keeping the dog on the property were unreasonable. This rule is in keeping with a longstanding principle of law that criminals should not benefit from their own wrongdoing. Each dog attack scenario will have unique facts that will affect how the law applies.

Dog attacks are usually covered by homeowners’ insurance policies. However, for those of you who are not homeowners and rent homes or apartments, you are advised to cover yourself by getting a renters’ insurance policy that covers your dog’s actions, as in cases where your dog is responsible for an attack, you the renter/dog owner) will be responsible. In addition to financial responsibility, there are other consequences for attacking dogs and their owners that may be ordered by the court. The court does have authority to make orders it feels are necessary for the protection of the public, which include:

  • Destroying the dog;
  • Ordering the dog owner take specific control measures such as confinement of the dog to owner’s property, restraint of the dog by leash and/or muzzle and/or posting of warning signs);
  • Preventing the dog owner from further dog ownership for a specific period of time;
  • Owner fines;
  • And in some circumstances mandatory sterilization.

Depending on where you live there may also be bylaws in effect that govern a dog owner’s responsibilities. In London there are bylaws governing many aspects of life relating to dogs. Some of these bylaws relate to pit-bulls, dogs off leash areas, public pounds and licensing, and noise bylaws that prohibit the excessive noise of animals. It is important to become familiar with your local bylaws to know your rights and responsibilities.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a dog attack, it is important to seek immediate medical attention. The victim should find out the name of the dog owner and should make a report to the proper authorities, which typically would include the police and the local health unit. A personal injury lawyer should also be consulted to advise you of your legal rights and provide you with the steps you need to take. Most dogs are great family pets and bring much pleasure to the lives of those who know them. However, in those rare circumstances where a dog has stepped out of line and injured someone, then that owner should be held accountable.

Nigel Gilby is a Partner at Lerners LLP. He has been recognized by LEXPERT and the Law Society of Upper Canada as a specialist in Civil Litigation. Nigel has appeared in every edition of the “Best Lawyers in Canada” publication since its inception. Nigel can be contacted at 519-672-4510 or by e-mail at ngilby@lerners.ca.

Christopher Dawson is an Associate lawyer at Lerners LLP. Christopher can be contacted at 519-672-4510 or by email at cdawson@lerners.ca.

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