The Maryland General Assembly’s Task Force appointed to address Tracey v. Solesky are working on a bill, and the General Assembly may have the opportunity to vote on the bill during an upcoming special session this month. The bill is expected to impose liability on all dog owners, regardless of breed, but revert to the common law for landlords, imposing liability only if the landlord knows of the dog’s vicious propensities.
UPDATE (8/6/12): The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates just issued Resolution 100, promoting breed neutral legislation and proposing the elimination of breed bans and breed specific legislation.
Tune in tonight at 8:00 PM on Pit Bulletin Legal News Radio for an in-depth discussion of the Solesky decision, and what impact it is having on rescues and insurance companies. If you can’t make it tonight, the show will be archived so you can listen to it later.
Bright line rules have their place. Society often benefits from clear, objective and unambiguous rules, when those rules produce even-handed and predictable results and have very little risk of creating harsh or unjust results. Take speed limits, voting ages, and Miranda warnings as examples.
But sometimes life is not black and white. Bright line rules are inappropriate and dangerous tools any time the issues turn on a variety circumstances and there is a risk of sweeping up innocent activity or individuals. Then a balancing test, or case-by-case analysis, is much more appropriate.
Today, the Court of Appeals of Maryland opted for a bright line rule in exactly the kind of case where a bright line rule is inappropriate. In Tracey v. Solesky, the Court ruled:
Upon a plaintiff’s sufficient proof that a dog involved in an attack is a pit bull or a pit bull cross, and that the owner, or other person(s) who has the right to control the pit bull’s presence on the subject premises (including a landlord who has a right to prohibit such dogs on leased premises) knows, or has reason to know, that the dog is a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull, that person is liable for the damages caused to a plaintiff who is attacked by the dog on or from the owner’s or lessor’s premises. In that case a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of negligence. When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.
Such a bright line rule – pit bulls are per se dangerous – is misguided. Don’t get me wrong. I in no way condone what happened in this case. The dog was left in a small pen, escaped, and attacked and seriously injured a child. The owner put the dog back in the same pen, and the dog escaped yet again, and mauled another child, causing life threatening injuries.
The dog’s breed is not the main issue in this case. The much larger issue is the fact that the owner was completely irresponsible.
There was no reason for the Court to make new law in this case. The defendant could have tried to invoke the “one free bite” rule. But, at best, the “one free bite” rule would only help him escape civil liability for money damages as to the first child. He was certainly on notice of the dog’s propensity when the second child was attacked. Additionally, the “one free bite” rule would not impede a dangerous dog proceeding, and a well-crafted dangerous dog statute can provide restitution to victims without the hassle of a civil law suit.
Part 1 discussed the importance of creating an entity for your business and properly insuring the business.
Part 2 talks about contracts and waivers, with extra tips for those of you who work with aggressive dogs.
Watch for Part 3, which will discuss ways to protect yourself and your business from liability.
Never underestimate the importance of treating training as a business, and doing all you can to protect that business. If you’d like to know more about the basics of protecting your business, check out these top ten tips!
Hearty thanks to Operation Socialization for offering me a great guest blogger opportunity! Operation Socialization is a network of professional dog trainers and businesses. Operation Socialization’s vision is to raise awareness about the importance of puppy socialization and to provide the humans on the other end of the leash with education and resources to give puppies the best possible start in life.
Regina Collins wanted a place where she could take Chance, her bouncy 12-week old “doodle” puppy for boarding and training. So she dropped Chance off with Garrett Ridley at Ridley K9 Academy in Placerville, California.
Ridley’s website claims that he has been mentored by two different trainers with different philosophies, and says that he “has had extensive experience training with positive/reward based dog training methods and old school compulsion dog training methods. He quickly recognized the benefit of both methods and the fact that one without the other usually ended with an unbalanced dog.”
According to reports, when Collins went to pick up Chance, Chance wouldn’t come to her. When Collins asked Ridley what he had done to her dog, Ridley reportedly told her not to touch Chance because he was “in trouble.”
Alarmed, Collins took Chance to the vet. Her vet found Chance covered in urine, dehydrated and with eyes that were hemorrhaging. A video of Chance can be found on Station KCRA’s website. In the video, Chance’s eyes look eerily like injuries from “shaken baby” cases I have seen in my public defender days. Chance’s vet said that the injuries are consistent with having been restrained by the neck with high pressure.
Collins filed an official complaint, and El Dorado County Animal Services is currently investigating Ridley for crimes against animals. The investigation has also lead to a finding that Ridley did not have a proper license for a commercial animal establishment.
The debate over positive reinforcement versus force-based training has been raging for quite a while. To me – a mere dog lover with no training background other than trying to keep up with Sophie, my skittish Shepherd mix – the answer is quite easy. Positive reinforcement builds the bond between you and your dog. Force and compulsion rips the bond apart – if a true bond had even formed in the first place.
But I am lucky. Before I ever knew about the debate, my local shelter steered me to a wonderful trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods. Had I not had that guidance, I can’t say I would have found the right trainer and training methods. Nor could I possibly say that Sophie is “unbalanced” because I failed to use force based methods to “counteract” her positive reinforcement training.
Within the animal behavior and dog training profession, there is a ton of information and science to support the use of positive reinforcement. But that information does not always trickle down to the average person, who has to wade through flashy TV programs, books and advertisements that may promise “tried and true methods” and quick results. The risk is particularly great in Collins’ and Chance’s situation, with a board and train program.
Outside of the profession, there is currently very little regulation over dog trainers. But this is going to change. In fact, it has already started. Just last year, Iowa began requiring kennel licenses for dog trainers and groomers. Don’t get me wrong – regulation isn’t always a bad thing. But this economic climate could cause states and localities to regulate for the wrong reasons – most notably, sheer need of revenue. And officials may not bring in the most knowledgeable professionals to provide guidance.
Here’s a case in point. When Wisconsin finally passed a puppy mill bill, it stated that breeders would need to adhere to standards that were “to be determined.” In her blog post Could Breeders and Rescues Work Together?, Dr. Patricia McConnell expressed concern that trainers and behaviorists were not brought into the committee to decide those standards. It is amazing to me that Dr. McConnell, one of the few certified applied animal behaviorists and a top-notch expert in animal behavior and dog training, is sitting right there in Wisconsin, and no one asked her opinion on such crucial legislation.
If you want to find the right kind of trainer, what are you to do? The doctrine of caveat emptor means it is your obligation to educate yourself and research the trainers you are considering.
Comb the trainers’ website and promotional materials to see how they explain their training methods and philosophy. Talk to them personally to get that explanation directly from the horse’s mouth. Read up on the types of accreditation and certifications trainers can have, and check the trainer’s certifications and education. Also look at which associations and organizations the trainer belongs to. Ask for recommendations from previous clients, and follow up with the clients to see what they have to say. Find out what kind of equipment the trainer recommends, and if the owner resorts to things like shock collars, choke or prong collars and invisible fences. And check up on their business credentials. Are they insured? Do they have a business license? This last simple question alone could have steered Collins away from Ridley. [If you have a pet related business or you are a client considering one, here’s a quick checklist for you to start with.]
There is a lingering question of whether the dog training industry needs standardization and regulation. If this is to happen, I would like to see humane standards built in, and have those standards come from within the animal behavior and dog training profession itself. And I hope to see those standards reaching the public in a way that helps to guide the average person to the right kind of trainer and methods.