In the eyes of the law, dogs, like all animals except for humans, are considered property. Legislatively speaking, when you bring an animal into your home, you own it like you do a chair or a blender. If this animal harms someone, you are legally liable. Because humans couldn't possibly function without a judicial system, and holding an animal morally and/or legally responsible for damages is obviously ridiculous, considering an animal property is a happy medium reached to include animals in our society.
While laws aren't up for debate, moral responsibility is. I'm of the personal opinion that the answer is still the dog owner. I would be lying if I denied that a couple of situations have gotten out of hand on my watch, and I take full responsibility for the outcome of these events. Luckily nobody was ever hurt, just startled, but I still accept that if I had acted 100% responsibly, these situations could've been avoided. All that to say that I'm not typing from atop my high horse, I've made mistakes.
Not all bites are the same, though. Obviously the gravity of the bite makes a difference, you can go from a level one bite, where no contact is made, to a level six bite, causing serious harm or death. Whether the bite was to the face or another part of the body, and whether the bite was to a child or adult. That last one warrants an article unto itself about the responsibility of parents to keep their children safe, which I believe is just as important, but not the point of this post.
Another factor considered when determining liability is how the bite actually happened. If someone breaks into your home and your dog bites them, you are not as liable (at least in North America) as you would be if that same dog bites someone while roaming loose off of his property.
Last week, I sustained two level three and one level four bites* to my hand and wrist by a friend's 75lb dog. It's not the first time I've been bitten, and likely won't be the last, but what I find baffling and insulting, was how the owners in question reacted in this situation. As succinct as I want to be, this story warrants a little backstory: this German Shepherd mix was adopted by the family three years ago as a very well-trained dog of working lines. I had known this dog quite well before he was adopted out to this family, and I was not at all in agreement with novice handlers adopting this active working dog, but my experienced opinion fell on deaf ears.
Fast-forward a few months, and a total lack of training and limited exercise, mixed with treats and table scraps being thrown at him almost ad nauseam, turned this animal into a pushy, willful barking machine. And again, I warned that continuing in this direction would lead to someone getting bitten. He was allowed to rush people barking, was let to run free, and would periodically roam the rural neighbourhood where he lived. He developed the habit of tearing objects/toys from hands, and with young children in the home, this lead to tiny hands getting pinched on more the one occasion.
Once I let them know that if someone complained, animal control wouldn't hesitate to take their dog away, and that they could possibly be slapped with a lawsuit, the rushing people was put to an end. As for his in-home behaviours, those continued to degenerate, until one day, the inevitable happened: the dog bit one of his owners on the hand (level three bite) when he went to grab the dog's collar to pull him away from a trashcan. This friend was under strict orders to lie about the wound, but in vino veritas, as they say, and the truth eventually came out. For what felt like the hundredth time, I heard myself repeating the warning that it won't matter how much you love your dog when he bites someone for stepping on his tail or getting too close when he has a resource. You will be responsible for your dog's behaviour, and rightly so.
As a side note, I've always been of the idea that parents who don't let themselves be assuaged into being their child's friend, but instead discipline their children and play the 'bad guy' when necessary are the ones who truly love their children. Being a friend is taking an easy exit. I find this to be true in dog ownership, too: I love my dogs and want them to be happy, confident animals, who don't stress over resources or feel the need to take every situation into their own paws, so to speak, so I work with them, and am not afraid to implement rules and deny resources that haven't been earned... But I digress...
When the dog in question bit me, I was clipping his nails, as I've been doing for three years. I casually grabbed his collar to steady his fidgeting because my dogs were playing, and he was losing his patience being the only one not running around. He'd grown increasingly hostile during restraint with the passing of time, but I figured he'd let me know if I was making him uncomfortable. When he let out a low grumble, I let go. As I retracted my hand, he bit and held on three separate times.
What followed is the reason for this post: nobody in the family apologized, nobody asked if I was okay. Jokes were made about how "my dog attacked her!" when guests came over a little while later. This is a dog with a bite history, a dog that is to be considered dangerous in certain situations. This family should thank their lucky stars that I didn't decide to go to the hospital for my wounds, and that I didn't pursue any sort of legal action, but instead I am met with derisive comments and the most cavalier reaction to a dog bite I have ever witnessed.
To be fair, I was asked to give some tips for how to get this dog onto a simple training program to better these issues, but from what I've seen since, I'm pretty confident in surmising that they aren't being followed. Dog trainers just know.
I'd like to end this post by pleading with anyone with a dog to invest in their dog's training, because if something happens, no amount of love, treats or ignorance are going to decrease your culpability -- legal or otherwise.
*I use Dr. Ian Dunbar's Bite Assessment scale, where a level three bite is defined as "One to four punctures from a single bite with no puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. Maybe lacerations in a single direction, caused by victim pulling hand away, owner pulling dog away, or gravity (little dog jumps, bites and drops to floor)." A level four bite refers to "One to four punctures from a single bite with at least one puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. May also have deep bruising around the wound (dog held on for N seconds and bore down) or lacerations in both directions (dog held on and shook its head from side to side)"