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Runner vs. dog: What the laws say

Updated: May 2, 2020

Unleashed dogs present a danger to runners in cities, suburbs, parks, and rural areas. With many of us exploring new areas for running during these weeks of social distancing, it is worth considering the laws that apply when runners are bit or otherwise injured by dogs.

The laws vary by state and municipality, but in general they require dog owners to keep control of their dogs. The laws are heavily slanted toward compensating runners and others who are injured by unleashed dogs.

Injuries include but might not be limited to dog bites. Getting injured while running from an unrestrained dog might count.

Some laws compensate dog-attack victims under the legal concept of strict liability, which imposes legal liability without regard to fault or whether someone intended to cause harm. In states with strict-liability statutes, dog owners are required to keep their pets controlled at all times. The argument that “my dog has never bitten anyone before” or “she’s so loving at home” does not work.

Nor does an explanation that an "invisible fence," which delivers a mild electric shock to a dog when the pet strays too far, did not work. When it comes to strict-liability laws, "I tried" is not a valid excuse.

But there is a catch. Generally, the laws do not apply if the victim provoked the dog or was trespassing.

Is the act of running “provocation”? The law is not clear, but some courts have determined the answer is no. The law is clearer when it comes to trespassing. Runners who are on private property without permission risk being faulted for their own injuries if they are attacked by dogs.

Therefore, as you explore new routes during these days of social distancing, watch out for private property. Not knowing property was private might not be a valid excuse.

Further, not all states have strict-liability statutes. [ maintains a helpful summary of all states' dog-attack laws.] But all states have the law of negligence, which requires dog owners to act reasonably by following leash laws. Not acting reasonably can trigger legal liability.

One example of unreasonable behavior is breaking a leash law by letting a pet run free. Such evidence can be very persuasive in dog-bite cases, which sometimes become matters for the criminal law.

That was the situation more than 30 years ago in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where a 20-year-old runner was killed by an unleashed dog. The case wound itself through the state's courts system, landing in the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1994. As the court explained in State v. Powell:

The evidence presented at trial tended to show that on 20 October 1989, Hoke Lane Prevette, a five-foot, one and one-half inch, ninety-four pound jogger, was attacked by defendant's dogs and died as a result of multiple dog bites. The dogs were away from defendant's property and had been loose earlier that day.

Powell, the dog owner, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, a felony offense punishable by several years in prison. The legal basis for the conviction was the owner violated a Winston-Salem ordinance, which provided:

No dog shall be left unattended outdoors unless it is restrained and restricted to the owner's property by a tether, rope, chain, fence or other device. Fencing, as required herein, shall be adequate in height, construction and placement to keep resident dogs on the lot, and keep other dogs and children from accessing the lot. One (1) or more secured gates to the lot shall be provided.

Prison sentences do nothing to compensate families in these situations. Civil lawsuits are the legal tools for that. Still, no runner wants to be in that position.

Not getting in that position in the first place is a runner’s best defense. Experts advise not staring at the dog. Use an even-pitched voice to avoid triggering the animal’s fight response. “Be boring,” an article in Runner’s World suggests. “If the dog approaches you, stop and stand very still. The more boring you are, the less you’ll interest the dog.”

If an attack is imminent, the law’s limitations on using force against a human attacker do not apply as long as the runner is not trespassing. Because the dog’s owner has failed to protect us from the dangerous property, and because we are in a place where we have a right to be, we likely are within our rights to protect ourselves with pepper spray, a weapon, or otherwise.

But no right to self-defense is absolute. And as any dog owner knows, they often are treated as members of the family. The more steps runners take to protect themselves when faced with potentially dangerous dogs, the less chance the runner will be accused of provoking the animal or doing something else that shift blame from the dog’s owner to the runner.

Amazon: The Law of Running: A Runner's Guide to Legal Rights

Podcast: Episode 5: Runner vs. Dog: What the Laws Say

(Photo: Steve Aggergaard)

The Law of Running is not legal advice. The laws are different in every state and municipality, so if you need legal help reach out to a lawyer in your area who knows the applicable laws and is in the best position to help you in your particular situation.

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