Thursday, August 11, 2011

Overview of Dog Laws

By Sara Chisnell-Voigt

Animal law as a whole has expanded by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, and as with any growth in a particular field of law comes more creation of laws. While legislatures across the nation have been busy introducing a wide array of new laws affecting dog ownership, plenty of basic dog laws already exist that all dog owners should be aware of. Although the majority of Americans consider their dogs to be family members, under the letter of the law they are considered property, and similar to other property, dog ownership can be regulated by the government. This article discusses some of the most common basic dog laws that apply to most dog owners.

At the most basic level of dog law, and found just about everywhere, are licensing requirements. Dogs must be licensed (typically by county), or owners may face fines. This gives the county a record of dogs under their jurisdiction. Typically, in order to obtain a dog license, the owner must provide proof of a rabies vaccination. Most states require that dogs be vaccinated for rabies. Some places charge a higher license fee for dogs that have not been spayed or neutered. Others offer kennel licenses for people who have over a certain number of dogs. Dog owners benefit from licensing their dogs because it provides another form of identification should they ever need to claim their dog at the animal shelter.

Now why would your dog be at the shelter? Most likely for running at large. Most states have leash and dog-at-large laws. Dogs must be on lead and under control of the owner when off the owner’s private property. Usually these laws authorize animal control to seize dogs running at large. Leash laws are in place to protect citizens from dogs running loose and to protect the dogs themselves. Some cities even have laws that require you to clean up after your dog if they defecate on public property, or you face fines.

There are exceptions to leash laws, such as dog competitions, dog parks, and hunting. States will have specific laws regarding hunting with dogs that outline where dogs may be loose for hunting, what time(s) of year, and what kind of prey they may be used for. Some states even have right to retrieve laws, where hunters have the right to go onto private property to collect a dog that has followed game across property lines.

Breed specific laws also affect many owners. Breed specific laws regulate or even ban ownership of certain breeds/types of dogs. Many breeds have been targeted, but ‘pit bull’ type dogs are most commonly affected. These laws are very controversial, and can be problematic for many reasons. One of the biggest problems with breed specific laws is identification of dogs that fall under the law.

Often, mixed-bred dogs are included, and if parentage is unknown, there is no objective, legally-accepted scientific method to positively identify the breeds that comprise a mixed-bred dog. Owners of mixed bred dogs have no way of knowing for sure whether their dog falls under the law. Most of the breed specific laws are created to designate certain breeds as dangerous and ostensibly to decrease dog bites and attacks. However, research has shown these laws have little to no effect on decreasing dog bites. Some states also ban or regulate ownership of wolf or wolf-hybrid dogs.

More recently, some locales have enacted mandatory spay/neuter laws. These laws require that all dogs be surgically spayed or neutered by a certain age, typically 4 months. Under these laws, dog owners no longer have a say in the matter of when or if their dog is to be spayed or neutered. Usually these laws have exceptions for breeders, show dogs, working dogs, performance dogs, and service dogs. Gaining an exception can be difficult, sometimes costly, and usually requires a separate, special license. Exceptions are also provided for dogs whose health may be endangered by the procedure. Mandatory spay/neuter is another controversial type of law, and it’s made even worse when combined with breed specific laws—where only certain breeds of dogs must be spayed or neutered.

Finally, most states or communities have some kind of dangerous dog laws. These laws usually describe what is to be done in cases of dog attacks/bites, whether it be with regards to other dogs, livestock, or humans. Many provide for criminal charges and/or fines and disposition of the dog in question, from seizure to quarantine to euthanasia. As dogs are considered property under the law, some type of due process (meaning a hearing of some sort) must be conducted before the property (the dog) may be taken or destroyed.

Oftentimes, breed specific legislation is contained in dangerous dog laws. Dangerous dog laws vary widely, some providing different degrees of danger levels assigned to dogs, and some are just very basic. Criminal charges may be the least of a dog owner’s concern when their dog bites, as civil liability could be an issue as well.

It is a dog owner’s responsibility to ensure they are meeting all requirements and regulations, and not breaking the law. Dog owners should familiarize themselves with state and local dog laws and keep up with any changes. For more on laws in your state, go to:

Photo: “Ozzy wants to play,” by Sara Chisnell-Voigt


  1. That is very interesting about all the dog laws. I knew about most of them but it is good to have reminders about them. Some people that live in the country need to reminded of the laws.

  2. I think there are lots who need to revisit laws and see just how it should be done. We have prblems here too.Hugs GJ xx

  3. Thank you Sara for such an informative article.


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