I remember getting a text from a friend of mine, back when Nokia phones were still a novelty and each button gave you an option of three letters, depending on the times you press it. A simple "hello" would take 10 clicks. "I got to play with this puppy," the message read. "The cutest girl I've ever seen. A pit bull." "Hm." I texted back. "Aren't they dangerous?"
Without giving it any thought, I was simply regurgitating the conventional wisdom, the bias and prejudice against certain breeds, the need for clarity, simplicity and speed of decision-making inherent in our human DNA. Several states have bans on pit bulls, believing them to be dangerous. Recognizing that any danger often stems from poor training or owner behavior rather than the breed, California does not have any breed-specific laws for any dog, including pit bulls.
Instead, our state relies on laws regulating public safety and dogs in general, while some local governments choose to pass breed-specific ordinances specifically related to pit bulls.
Strict liability is a legal construct which in general terms states that that the tort-feasor, the person who was ultimately in control of the injury-producing event, is responsible for the damages that arise, regardless of whether they knew or should have known that the specific object or action is dangerous. California imposes strict liability on the dog owners for the bites caused by their pets. This means the owner is liable regardless of whether they knew the dog was prone to biting, and irrespective of what they have or have not done to prevent the bite.
California law does include some exceptions to strict liability:
- Any police or military dog that bites someone in the course of their duty
- Any dog that bites a trespasser
- If the person who is bitten provoked the dog
In 2020, the California legislature passed a law requiring shelters and rescues to disclose if a dog has bitten anyone. This written disclosure must include the circumstances surrounding the bite. The person assuming responsibility for the dog must sign an acknowledgment that they're aware of the dog's history.
Potentially Dangerous Dogs
Although California does not have breed-specific regulations, the state does have a law about “potentially dangerous” dogs. A dog may fall under this category in the following situations:
- If, when outside their property, a dog attacks a person in a manner that requires the person to take defensive action.
- If a dog bites someone and causes injury less severe than “muscle tears or disfiguring lacerations” and does not require stitches or surgery.
- If, when off the dog's usual property, the dog has bitten, attacked, injured, or kicked a domestic animal.
- When attacking a person or animal outside of their property, the dog must have been unprovoked. In addition, the dog must have attacked or injured a person or domestic animal twice in the previous 36 months to be considered “potentially dangerous.”
A single unprovoked attack that causes severe injury could result in a dog being considered vicious.
A “vicious dog” is an animal that has:
- When unprovoked, attacked a person causing severe injury or death
- Been declared potentially dangerous and continues to engage in unprovoked attacks and other behavior listed in the above section
What Happens to a Dog Declared Potentially Dangerous or Vicious?
A potentially dangerous dog has the opportunity to improve its behavior. The dog must be vaccinated and properly licensed, including keeping records in its registration files about its designation. Cities may also impose a “potentially dangerous dog” fee because of the need for additional records.
The dog considered potentially dangerous must be limited in its movements. When on its property, the dog must be kept indoors, in a fenced area from which it cannot escape, or in a kennel. Children should not be able to enter these areas.
When off the owner's property, a dog must be leased at all times and under the control of a responsible adult.
If a potentially dangerous dog changes owners or residences, local animal control authorities must be informed in writing within two working days.
A dog will no longer be considered potentially dangerous if there are no additional incidents within 36 months or before that time if the owner can demonstrate to animal control authorities that the dog is no longer a risk to public safety. The state does not require that local authorities offer the second option. Removing the dog from the “potentially dangerous list” before 36 months is at the discretion of local authorities.
Regarding vicious dogs, animal control may choose to destroy an animal when it is believed to be a threat to public safety. If the dog is not destroyed, local authorities can put restrictions on both the owner and the dog to ensure the dog does not become a threat to public safety.
Counties, cities, or other local governments may have their own ordinances that are specific to pit bulls. Both Riverside County and San Bernardino County have mandatory sterilization ordinances for pit bulls with some exemptions. The Riverside law is less about the breed's reputation for being dangerous and instead based on the high number of pit bulls that end up in shelters or are euthanized.
In short, although California has no breed-specific restrictions on pit bulls, city and county governments may impose restrictions. In addition, the state does have breed-neutral laws for public safety reasons.