Leash the hounds: Liability for your dog

What you need to know about your responsibilities

SullivanLaw lawyer Emily Murray on dog liability

by Emily Murray, Litigation Associate

As part of SullivanLaw’s love of family pets, including our support of SafePet Ottawa, we have written another article about animals and the law. The first was about pet ownership in family law. Learn about your liability as a dog owners.

Ontario’s Dog Owner’s Liability Act (the “Act” or “DOLA”) protects people and domestic animals. The Act creates a summary conviction offence for dog owners and also defines an owner’s civil liability for a plaintiff to pursue damages.

Who is a dog owner?

Under the Act, if you possess or harbour a dog and are over the age of eighteen, congratulations, you are a dog owner. This is different from the analysis of pet ownership in family law.

As a dog owner, what are you liable for?

  • Your dog biting or attacking a person or domestic animal;
  • Your dog behaving in a manner that poses a menace to the safety of persons or domestic animals; and
  • Not taking reasonable precautions to prevent your dog from any of the above behaviours.

If there is more than one owner, the owners will be jointly and severally liable. This means you can be found liable together with the other owner or on your own.

What about pit bulls in Ontario?

In Ontario, the ownership of a “Pit bull” is prohibited. The Act considers the following breeds “pit bulls”: pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terrier, American pit bull terrier and any dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to these breeds.

What are the penalties?

If you are found guilty of an offence under the Act, you could be ordered to:

  • Pay a fine of up to $10,000, face imprisonment for up to 6 months, or both;
  • Make restitution;
  • Not own a dog for a specified period of time;
  • Neuter or spay your dog;
  • Restrain your dog with a leash or muzzle;
  • Post warning signs;
  • Confine your dog to your property; and
  • Surrender your dog to be re-homed or destroyed.

How does the court decide what penalty to impose?

The court may consider:

  • The dog’s temperament and behaviour;
  • The seriousness of the injuries caused during the attack;
  • Whether the circumstances might justify the dog’s action;
  • The likelihood of another attack;
  • The dog’s physical potential to inflict harm;
  • Precautions taken to prevent future, similar attacks; and
  • Any other circumstances that the court considers relevant.

For pit bulls, unfortunately the penalty is always destruction.

How has the DOLA been applied?

In the 2018 decision Halton Hills (Regional Municipality) v. Sciberras, 2018 ONCJ 555, the Ontario Court of Justice ordered that a dog be removed from its owners.

In June of 2016, Charlie, an intact (ie. not neutered) male Rottweiler, bit another dog. On October 31, 2016, Charlie also bit a child, causing serious injuries. Charlie’s owners were charged under the Act for both of these attacks.

There was evidence that Charlie could be controlled and public safety assured, so Charlie’s destruction wouldn’t be appropriate. The Court was not satisfied that the owners on the civil “balance of probabilities” standard would comply with control orders, so it ordered Charlie to be turned over to the local Humane Society to be adopted out. The owners were also prohibited from owning another dog for three years.

What about civil liability?

You could also be sued civilly for damages outside of the Act. These damages may be covered by home owner’s insurance.

How do you avoid liability?

Short of not owning or harbouring a dog, you cannot avoid liability in the event of an attack. However, when it comes to your dog, you can reduce the likelihood of an attack through training and by exercising caution and restraint. The court will decide if a defendant is liable under the Act and for damages on the “balance of probabilities”. This means it will assess both the defendant’s and the plaintiff’s version of the facts and decide whose version is more probably true.

Liability does not depend on knowledge of the dog, fault, or negligence. That said, damages might be less if the plaintiff was negligent.

If your dog injures someone who is committing or intending to commit a crime, you might not be liable.

If you or someone you know has been attacked by a dog or is being sued because of a personal injury from a dog, contact SullivanLaw.