So, you have a dog. Perhaps it’s a big dog, and one of a breed that people tend to mistrust. You’re wondering, “Do I need a beware of dog sign in my yard? Is doing so going to indemnify me against legal liability if my dog bites someone, or is it actually a very bad idea?”
The fact is, it depends on where you live. In some states, a “Beware of Dog” sign might be considered an indication that a person should not venture onto your property, and if they do, they’ll have to suffer the consequences. In other states, it might mean “Okay, you knew that you had a bad dog; you said so! And now, you’re liable for whatever your dog does.”
In this post, we’ll talk about the law in general as it applies to harm inflicted by dogs in general, and also how the law is applied in each state. Keep reading, and then you can decide if you should put up dog warning signs. The law can vary considerably from state to state. Of course you also need to exercise common sense when it comes to dog warning signs, since the law can be, as Shakespeare so famously put it, an ass.
Choose Your Words
What do I mean by exercising common sense? First of all, take your dog warning signs seriously. I’m sure you’ve seen those cute signs that you can buy on eBay – the ones that say “This property protected by an attack Shih Tzu,” or “Beware of Chihuahua – He thinks he’s a Rottweiler!” Maybe your Shih Tzu or Chihuahua is the sweetest dog in the world, but if he ever does bite someone, hey, the sign suggested he might!
You should probably also avoid signs that say things like “I don’t call 911” – and display a silhouette of a Doberman or a Rottweiler. And “My Pit Bull can make it to the fence in 2.5 seconds – can you?”
I’ve talked about this before, in The Law Regarding Dog Bites and Other Injuries. In that post, I pointed out that you might think it’s funny, or cute, to put up signs that say “Rottweiler – I Don’t Call 911,” or “Guard Shih Tzu on Duty.” “Cute” is a very bad idea. It won’t indemnify you if your dog bites someone.
On the other hand, if you want a “cute” dog sign, there’s nothing wrong with “A spoiled Cocker Spaniel lives here,” or “It’s an English Mastiff – not a carnivorous horse!” With signs like these, there’s nothing to suggest that the dog is dangerous. A dog can be spoiled, or large, without being a threat to anyone.
More To It Than That
Of course there’s more to it than just avoiding “cute” signs that imply you have a dangerous dog. Wording really is everything. For instance, if you post a sign saying “ Beware of Dog,” under the laws of your state, you could be assumed to know that your dog is vicious and likely to bite. Depending on the state you live in, you might be much better off with “Dog on Premises,” or simply “No Trespassing.” In other words, if you come onto a property where there’s a dog and you haven’t been invited, then you’ve been informed of the presence of a dog, and you’re taking your chances. No one is saying that the dog is vicious, just that there is a dog and you have been informed of that fact.
Beware of Dog Sign and Liability
In most jurisdictions, whether you have a “Beware of Dog” sign posted or not, you will be liable for any damage to humans or property that your dog causes. In the material that follows, I’ll be talking mainly about dog bites.
Why is that?
Well, because generally speaking, dogs don’t slash tires, or threaten people with guns, or go aboard them with baseball bats. They bite. It’s a dog thing! And if your dog bites someone, even if it’s on your property, chances are that you’re going to be held liable.
3 Basic Laws
There are three types of laws that cover your legal liability when it comes to dog bites.
1. Dog Bite Statute
This is pretty self-explanatory. A dog bite statute, as you might expect, makes you legally responsible for any harm done by your dog. Many states have statutes that make you automatically responsible, regardless of whether you could reasonably expect that your dog was likely to bite.
In Minnesota, for instance, you could have “Beware of Dog” signs plastered all over your property, and still be found legally liable if your dog bit someone who had an implied right to be on your property – a letter carrier, for instance, who chose to go to the mailbox outside your door to deliver your mail, instead of acting sensibly and just leaving it outside your gate. The mindset of the person who was bitten does not enter into it – if he or she had a “right” to be there and was acting peaceably, then his or her right to protection was violated, and you are liable.
2. The One Bite Rule
You have probably heard the maxim “Every dog is entitled to one bite.” Don’t count on it.
In most states, all this means is that the dog can get away with biting one time and not end up being put down, provided that the dog was not known to be ill-natured. The one bite rule still might not get you out from under legal liability, though. You can still be held legally responsible if the victim can show that you knew that the dog was dangerous.
In other words, the burden of proof shifts – you don’t have to prove that the dog wasn’t dangerous; the victim has to show clear evidence that you knew the dog was likely to bite. As an example, let’s say that your dog is a “jumper,” and during the course of jumping on people he inflicts scratches. If you’re taken to court over this, and the victim shows evidence of scratches caused by your dog jumping on him, and he can bring to court other people who say “Yes, the dog jumped on me and scratched me as well,” then the one bite rule (which also applies to other kinds of damage) is not applicable. It happened before, and according to the evidence submitted, it happened this time as well. You’ll end up being liable.
3. Negligence Law
Negligence laws work to override the one bite rule. Let’s go back to the example of the letter carrier, and pretend that this time, there were no “Beware of Dog” signs. Legally, this doesn’t matter if there was negligence, or if the dog was not known to be likely to bite.
So, the letter carrier comes up to your door, and you’ve left the door open. Your dog runs out and bites the letter carrier. You didn’t have any reason to think that your dog was likely to bite, but here’s the kicker – you left the door open. You were negligent. And if you hadn’t been negligent, the letter carrier wouldn’t have been bitten. You are liable.
So you’re asking “Do I need a “Beware of Dog” sign in a situation like this?”
No. There’s nothing to beware of. The dog is not ill-natured. And besides, a “Beware of Dog” sign won’t indemnify you if you’re negligent.
So, now you’re thinking, “Wow, those laws can be pretty strict!” And yes, they can be. In fact, they’re called “strict liability laws,” because they’re imposed, generally speaking, without the injured person ever having to prove that you did anything wrong. Even the “one bite” rule has its caveats, in that if you had reason to think the dog might be likely to bite, you could still end up held liable. Except in Hawaii, though, the only state in which if your dog bites someone they have to prove that it was due to your carelessness.
Going back to Minnesota, for instance, the victim only has to prove that he or she was injured, that the dog wasn’t provoked, and that the victim was acting peaceably in an area where he or she had a reasonable expectation that they had a right to occupy. And it doesn’t even have to be a bite – if your dog scares someone, and they run from the dog and trip over their own feet in the process, you’re responsible for their scratches and bruises following from the fall!
There are exemptions, although not usually for people like you and me. A police K9 dog, for instance, is given a pass in most states on any injuries inflicted in the course of bringing down a suspected criminal. Military dogs enjoy a similar exemption.
You hear about cases like this all the time – someone who has to have a perfectly good dog put to sleep because it bit someone that was teasing it, and finally lost it and bit. Often, people can’t afford to fight court cases, and simply surrender the dog.
Okay, that’s not something I would ever do. But situations like this happens, and when they do, does a person ever have a chance of saving their dog?
In some states, yes. Provocation can be a defense.
In Arizona, for instance, if you can bring forth evidence that your dog was provoked to the point where biting seemed, to the dog, to be a reasonable course of action, you will not be held liable for injuries to the alleged victim.
There’s a flip side to this, though – if the victim claims that the dog was acting playfully as opposed to aggressively, and the injuries still occurred, you can be held liable. So it’s like “A good dog bit me?”
It Gets Complicated
All states have liability laws. Not all have dog-specific laws. What this means is that in some states, the laws as they relate to dog bites don’t have much to do with the other liability laws. You could go to court under a dog bite statute, or under another liability statute. Depending on what statute you proceed under, you might have to deal with the issue of whether your dog was vicious, or not.
As an example, it’s back to Minnesota again, where a driver was distracted by a dog and, due to that distraction, caused a motor vehicle accident that killed a boy. The boy’s family tried to sue under the dog bite statue, but the case was ruled invalid because the dog hadn’t actually attacked the boy. The family ended up having to sue under the negligence statute, on the basis that the dog’s owners hadn’t properly controlled it.
I know this sounds pretty crazy, but hey, it’s the law.
One Bite Confusion
Now, let’s go back to the “one bite rule” for a bit. We have two types of law – common law and statutory law. Statutory laws are those that are enacted by government. Common law is a whole different thing – it’s case precedence. In other words, if a judge made a finding years ago, it sets a precedent for what the law will be today.
Under common law, if you have a dog, you’re responsible for any injuries that dog causes, provided that you knew your dog was likely to cause that sort of injury. So, if your dog ever even once tried to bite someone, you’re on notice – from that point forward, you are assumed to know that your dog could be dangerous, and you can be held liable regardless of any “Beware of Dog” signs you might post – the law says so.
That sounds pretty straightforward, right? But how is the law applied?
Well, in the case of statutory law, the judge has no choice. The law is the law. The statute says A, B and C, so the result is D. No wiggle room at all.
With the common law, though, the judge can look at previous cases and say, “Well, this is what happened in Cases A and B, but not in C and D, so based on what I see here, I am making decision E.”
The common law allows for the dog’s owner to tell the court that the dog was no threat to anyone. However, it also imposes an obligation on the part of the owner to foresee the possibility of injury, and to prevent it if possible, and also to be prepared to pay damages if injury does occur.
It doesn’t matter how the injury occurred; the test is the same. Did the dog’s owner know that the dog could be dangerous? If he did, he’s liable.
The dog’s owner doesn’t even need to know if the dog was likely to bite – if the dog was known to jump on people, for instance, and it’s a big dog, then the owner should know that it’s likely the person jumped on could be knocked down and hurt. So if a judge, under the common law, can say, “Well, there were X number of cases where people were hurt by jumping dogs, and this dog jumped, a reasonable person should assume that their dog, if jumping, might cause injury, so the common law applies and this person is going to be held liable.”
So, the “one bite” rule is not statutory – it’s common law. And it’s not applicable in all states.
States that have the “one bite rule” are:
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
Sometimes, the dog’s owner will deny responsibility. Then, the case comes to court, and the judge and/or jury is responsible for deciding whether the owner is liable.
If you end up in court, your “Beware of Dog” sign might not help you when the laws come into play.
If the Worst Happens
If the worst happens, and your “Beware of Dog” sign doesn’t stop a person from coming onto your property, and you end up in court, the judge and/or jury will consider the following things:
1. Did your dog bite before?
This is pretty much a no-brainer. If your dog has already bitten someone, then the assumption will be that you should have known it might happen again. Exceptions have been made for puppies, since puppies are known to nip, but not for adult dogs.
2. Does your dog bark at people?
If your dog barks when the doorbell rings, but doesn’t go all apeshit when people come up to your gate, that’s one thing. A dog that reacts to a doorbell is not likely to be considered to be ill-natured. If he’s jumping at people who come into the yard, though, that’s a different thing. Unless, of course, you’re one of those dipshits who thinks it’s okay to leave a dog chained, in which case his behavior is indisputably your fault. And get off my site; I don’t want you here because you’re not a dog lover – you’re a jailer and your dog is a prisoner.
3. Does your dog threaten people?
I don’t necessarily mean “threatening” in the case of snapping and snarling. People can feel threatened by dogs that aren’t trying to be mean. For instance, if you have a 260 pound English Mastiff that thinks the best way of greeting people is to put his paws on their shoulders, that can feel pretty threatening to someone who isn’t at least the same weight as the dog.
4. Does your dog REALLY threaten people?
This is a whole other level. If your dog growls and snaps, without provocation, you have a real problem, and it doesn’t matter if you have a “Beware of Dog” sign, the law, if you ever come up against it, is going to assume that you have a vicious animal. Probably with good reason. You need to work on training.
5. Does your dog fight with other dogs?
This might actually get you a pass. A dog fighting with other dogs is not necessarily a dog that is a danger to humans. After all, dogs do tend to be territorial, and might have dominance issues with other dogs. If your dog is good with people generally, a single bite to a human, even in the context of aggression to other dogs, might not be enough to have your dog tagged as aggressive.
6. Are you an asshole?
I know, this question surprises you. And I seriously hope that you’re not in this category. But if you’ve trained your dog to fight other dogs, then one thing is for sure – the court will conclude that your dog is dangerous, and will most likely order that it be destroyed. I’m not talking here about breeds that are commonly used for fighting – Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and so on – I’m talking about owners who are using dogs for horrible purposes. The court will decide that your dog is dangerous.
I hope that the court will also conclude that YOU are dangerous, and punish you accordingly. And as I said to the people who chain their dogs in the yard, get the hell out of here. I don’ want you on my site.
7. Has someone complained?
If someone complains about your dog, in many states, you’ll be on notice. Of course, you can also be on notice municipally as well. One would hope that you’re a good dog owner and not subject to complaints about noise or aggression.
8. Is your dog of a certain breed?
Okay, I know that this isn’t fair. And I’d like to think that most of the time, the court is not going to condemn you simply because you have a certain breed of dog. The sad truth, though, is that judges are just like the rest of us – subject to certain prejudices. If you end up in court, you could end up with a judge who has a prejudice against Rottweilers, or Pittes, or German Shepherds or whatever. Judges are supposed to consider the facts of the case and nothing else.
But… Well, as I said, everyone is prone to prejudice. I’ve heard of judges who, in cases related to dog attacks, have said things like “Well, I’d expect that of a Rottweiler,” or “Why do people want to own these breeds,” or “They’re bred to attack.” Whether it’s ignorance or fear, I don’t know, but judges are as prone to prejudice as anyone else, and sometimes, because of that, good dogs are put down.
If you have a certain breed of dog, you might have to fight for him. Even if the judge doesn’t consider your breed of dog to be inherently dangerous, you might still have to fight – because the other party to the case may want to see your dog killed.Remember that in the event a dispute goes to court, the result will depend on the facts of the case and the judge or jury’s attitude. Large dogs of breeds popularly believed to be dangerous, such as Dobermans, German shepherds, and Pit Bulls may be judged more severely than dogs of cuddlier breeds.
9. So What About a Beware of Dog Sign? Is it Legal?
The sign itself, assuming that there are no municipal bylaws against putting up signs, is legal. Does it matter, though? Is it binding? Will it protect you if your dog harms someone?
Don’t worry that putting up a “Beware of Dog” sign is tantamount to admitting that your dog is a menace, landing you in bigger trouble if the dog does ever hurt someone. First of all, the sign will help avoid bites – which is far preferable than winning a legal battle over a bite later. Second, if you think your dog might hurt someone, there’s almost certainly already more evidence of the dog’s dangerousness than the fact that you put up a warning sign.
Can We Talk More About Negligence?
Sure. Much of this relates to what I talked about in the introduction to this post – common sense.
- If your dog is in your yard, which is fenced in, and the dog can’t get to the sidewalk, and you have a “Beware of Dog” sign, the law pretty much suggests that you’re covered. You’ve done all you can. If someone jumps over the fence and gets bitten it’s not your fault.
- If your dog is in your house, and you have a guest in the house, and that guest gets scared when your dog brushes up against her when she’s looking for the bathroom, and she falls, you’re not at fault – she knew the dog was there.
- If you let your dog our in your yard, and he runs out into the street, and a guy on a motorbike hits him and gets hurt trying to avoid him, you’re not liable as long as the dog wasn’t known to have been allowed to chase vehicles.
In other words, exercise normal care and control over your dog, and you have nothing to worry about.
“Beware of Dog” signs can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re warning people. On the other, you could be seen as having admitted that your dog is dangerous. How the signs are interpreted can vary from state to state.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at each state and how they view dog signs and the liability thereof. I’m going to deal with this in alphabetical order, so that you can easily find your state.
If you live in Alabama, you will have no protection whatsoever from “Beware of Dog” signs. If you put up a “No Trespassing” sign, though, the courts will probably assume that you did not intend to have anyone come onto your property, and you will have a stronger case if your dog bites someone.
Likewise, in Alaska, you will get little or no protection from signage. And if your dog is running at large, he can be shot, and you will have no legal recourse.
In Arizona, if you know that your dog is likely to bite, you are required by law to keep him confined, and also required to post a sign stating that you have a vicious dog.
In Arkansas, it’s zip, zero, zilch. You have no protection whatsoever. Even signs won’t protect you, so if you have a dog that’s likely to bite, you should get dog bite insurance.
In California, it doesn’t matter what kinds of signs you put up. If your dog bites someone, you are, quite simply, screwed. If your dog bit someone, you’re liable, regardless of what you did or did not know about the nature of the dog.
In Colorado, if you have a “Beware of Dog” sign on your premises and someone is Connecticut
But not in Connecticut – you don’t get a pass.
If you live in Delaware, and you have a dangerous dog, you have to post a sign that is visible from at least 100 feet of the travelled road.
Put up a sign saying “Bad Dog.” If you do that, then unless you’re negligent, you won’t be liable.
In Georgia, even if your dog is “potentially” dangerous, you have to let people know. You have to do this at every entrance to your property, and a “No Trespassing” sign will not get you a pass.
In Hawaii, if your dog is secured on your property, and someone who hasn’t been invited enters, you’re not liable. If you didn’t post signs, you could be in trouble.
I like Indiana, because in Indiana, all dogs are assumed to be harmless. That means that if someone comes onto your property and gets bitten, the aggrieved party has to prove that your dog was vicious; you don’t have to prove that he wasn’t. It would still be a good idea to put up signs, though.
In Iowa, unless you can prove that a person was trespassing on your property, you will be liable for injuries caused by your dog, unless you had a “No Trespassing” sign posted on your property.
Kansas is pretty laidback. A dog gets a “first bite pass” unless you had reason to think that he was vicious.
Keep your dog out of Kentucky! Your dog has no legal protection there, whatsoever. If anyone – anyone at all – sees your dog bite a person, then they’re legally entitled to kill your dog, no questions asked.
In Louisiana, if you have a “dangerous” dog, then you have to post signs at every entrance point to your property, and those signs must be very visible and readable.
In Maine, if your dog bites a person, you can be liable for damages. The state won’t likely kill your dog, though.
In Maryland, anyone can lawfully kill a dog that wounds or attacks livestock or humans. And you will have no legal recourse if someone kills your dog for those reasons.
Post a “No Trespassing” sign. In Massachusetts, you will be liable for damage caused by your dog but not if you have warned people against trespassing.
In Minnesota, anyone who owns a “dangerous” dog has to post a sign.
In Mississippi, you’re a lot better off. If your dog bites a person, that person actually has to prove that the dog was known to be dangerous.
In Missouri, your dog might not necessarily be determined to be at fault if he bites someone. In fact, if you can prove that the “victim” contributed to the injury, you might get a pass.
In Montana, unless the other party was engaging in illegal activity, you will be liable if your dog bites someone.
In Nebraska, anyone who owns a “dangerous” dog has to post signs on his or her property and keep the dog away from other people.
Nevada is a bit easier. If you’re held liable for a dog bite in Nevada, the burden of proof shifts to the injured person; they have to prove that you were negligent; you don’t have to prove that you weren’t. A warning sign would be helpful but is not necessary.
In New Hampshire, you will be held liable for any injuries that your dog inflicts, unless the injured person was trespassing. You should post signs.
In New Jersey, a “Dangerous Dog” sign has to be posted from at least 50 feet in order to constitute a proper warning.
In New Mexico, you must also post warning signs that indicate that there is a dangerous dog on the premises, and they must be visible from at least 50 feet.
There are no signage regulations whatsoever in New York. That said, though, it couldn’t hurt to put up a sign in order to minimize your liability.
This is another state in which there are no “Beware of Dog” sign liability issues.
In Ohio, if you own a dog that falls under the “dangerous breed” classifications, you have to post a “Beware of Dog” sign so your liability is not in question.
In Oregon, if you post signs and someone gets hurt, they have to prove negligence. You might not be held liable.
In Pennsylvania, you are required to post signs if you have a dangerous dog. You also have to post signs using symbols that would indicate to children that there is a dangerous dog on the premises.
There are no written laws in South Carolina. Dangerous dog signage is advised but not required by law.
This is another state that does not mandate signage. If you live in South Carolina, and your dog bites someone, that person has to prove that your dog is vicious; you don’t have to prove that he isn’t.
In Tennessee, if you are being attacked and your dog protects you, the dog gets a pass. If your dog bites someone for no apparent reason, that person has to prove that you were negligent; you don’t have to prove that you didn’t do anything wrong.
The laws in Texas are plain and simple; if you have a dangerous dog, you have to keep him confined.
Utah kind of looks at dog issues as being 50/50, or 30/70, or something else entirely. In other words, it’s comparative fault. You might have a “warning “ sign up, but you might still be partly at fault. So, if a person wanders onto your property in defiance of “No trespassing” signs, they’re partly at fault. On the other hand, if you knew the nature of your dog, and you didn’t post a “Go away or my English Mastiff will chew you up and gnaw on your bones for years to come” sign, you might also be partially at fault. Tread carefully.
In Virginia, you are required by law to post signs that are visible to both kids and adults.
In Washington, if your dog has ever bitten anyone, then you are required by law to notify the public by means of stating, through signs, that there is a dangerous dog on the premises.
There are no written laws in West Virginia. Your liability is very high, though. If your dog hurts someone, you will be held liable, and the affected party does not have to prove that you were negligent.
This is another state in which signs will not give you any protection.
And yet another. You’ll get no protection from signage in the State of Wyoming. All that Wyoming requires in the way of proof of dangerous dog breeds is one person’s opinion that the breed is dangerous.
Is that screwed up? You bet it is. But it is what it is.
Okay, So I’m Not a Lawyer
I’m not a lawyer, and I’m the last person who can fight these totally screwed up laws in Wyoming and other places. All I can tell you is that you need to know the laws in your state. They might be pretty screwed up laws, but they’re still the laws and you still have to obey them.
The Final Word
So, you’re asking “Do I need a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign”?
My take on it is if you’ve got a dog, get a sign. It might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but at the very least, it might indemnify you if someone comes for your dog. I don’t think I can really offer you much more than that.
Get the sign, and make it real, not cute.