“Nice Doggie”—Defending Yourself Against Dog Attacks in Virginia

You are out taking a walk in your neighborhood and suddenly an apparently vicious dog comes running toward you growling and showing its teeth.

All you have for protection is your legally-carried handgun. Is the dog really dangerous and will it actually attack? You have a decision to make in a split second. What are your options? Should you stand your ground and let the dog attack/bite you, attempt to avoid the attack by running knowing that you cannot outrun it, or should you draw your handgun and use deadly force by shooting the dog?

Does the self-defense law apply to dog attacks and will it protect you? Do you have to be bitten first before you respond with deadly force?This is almost a daily situation faced by joggers and people out walking, and there is little time to react.

There are a lot of things to consider in a short period of time.

  • Was the risk of serious bodily injury or even death by this dog imminent?
  • Was this a “dangerous dog” by definition?
  • What signs did you observe that led you to believe it was an aggressive, vicious dog that was about to hurt or kill you?
  • What is the potential extent of your injuries and medical bills?
  • Is discharging a gun in the city limits a crime?
  • Is it animal cruelty if I shoot?

While there is no specific law relating to the legal justification for shooting an attacking dog as can be found in some other states, there are some Virginia laws that must be taken into consideration.

Code of Virginia § 3.2-6585 – Dogs and cats deemed personal property; rights relating thereto

§ 3.2-6585. Dogs and cats deemed personal property; rights relating thereto.

All dogs and cats shall be deemed personal property and may be the subject of larceny and malicious or unlawful trespass. Owners, as defined in 3.2-6500, may maintain any action for the killing of any such animals, or injury thereto, or unlawful detention or use thereof as in the case of other personal property. The owner of any dog or cat which is injured or killed contrary to the provisions of this chapter by any person shall be entitled to recover the value thereof or the damage done thereto in an appropriate action at law from such person. (emphasis added)

§ 18.2-144. Maiming, killing or poisoning animals, fowl, etc.

Except as otherwise provided for by law, if any person maliciously shoot, stab, wound or otherwise cause bodily injury to, or administer poison to or expose poison with intent that it be taken by, any horse, mule, pony, cattle, swine or other livestock of another, with intent to maim, disfigure, disable or kill the same, or if he do any of the foregoing acts to any animal of his own with intent to defraud any insurer thereof, he shall be guilty of a Class 5 felony. If any person do any of the foregoing acts to any fowl or to any ‘companion animal’ with any of the aforesaid intents, he shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, except that any second or subsequent offense shall be a Class 6 felony if the current offense or any previous offense resulted in the death of an animal or the euthanasia of an animal based on the recommendation of a licensed veterinarian upon determination that such euthanasia was necessary due to the condition of the animal, and such condition was a direct result of a violation of this section. (emphasis added)

Adding to the equation, is the fact the Virginia has statutes that define dangerous and vicious dogs.

§ 3.2–6540. Control of dangerous dogs; penalties

A. As used in this section:

“Dangerous dog” means a canine or canine crossbreed that has bitten, attacked, or inflicted injury on a person or companion animal that is a dog or cat, or killed a companion animal that is a dog or cat.”

§ 3.2-6540.1. Vicious dogs; penalties

A. As used in this section:

“Vicious dog” means a canine or canine crossbreed that has (i) killed a person, (ii) inflicted serious injury to a person, or (iii) continued to exhibit the behavior that resulted in a previous finding by a court or, on or before July 1, 2006, by an animal control officer as authorized by ordinance that it is a dangerous dog, provided that its owner has been given notice of that finding.

The Commonwealth recognizes that it is possible for a dog to inflict serious bodily injury and even death in an attack, so it would seem reasonable that a person would be allowed to use the justification of self-defense in thwarting an attack.

In certain circumstances, killing a dog is legally justified, and a person who does it isn’t financially liable to the dog’s owner. For example, if someone kills a dog because it is threatening to injure a person or livestock, the action could be considered justified by law if the circumstances prove to support the reasonableness of self-defense.

Use of Deadly Force Against a Dangerous Dog

So what if you shoot a dog attacking you? Will you be punished by the courts for shooting a dog which is considered to be personal property? Be aware that some courts have allowed the recovery of punitive damages in cases where the person causing harm to the companion animal engaged in conduct that was malicious, willful or in reckless disregard of the rights of the animal and the pet owner.

Dogs Attacking People

Generally, it’s justified to do anything necessary to stop a dog caught in the act of attacking a person. And if the killing is found to be justified, a dog’s owner is typically not legally entitled to any money from someone who injures or kills the dog while protecting a person. Nor is the person guilty of a criminal offense; many animal cruelty laws specifically exempt the act of injuring or killing a dog in these circumstances. Many of the local cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Virginia have their own animal cruelty laws, it is not a clear cut answer as to what a local prosecutor may do in those circumstances.

CAUTION! The facts of each situation and existing laws will be very instrumental.

It would seem the factors for justification of using deadly force against a bad guy would be the same factors to consider for using deadly force against a dangerous dog. Were you in immediate danger and was your life threatened, imminent death or great bodily harm? Did you try to avoid the trouble and did you exercise other appropriate options? What about the use of non-deadly force like OC pepper spray? What would a reasonable person do in the particular scenario? Recognize that you might be in violation of “discharging a firearm within city limits” or “negligent discharge of a firearm” depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction.

Can anyone quickly determine if their life is in imminent jeopardy or if they will suffer great bodily injury, when a big muscular dangerous dog with fangs showing is aggressively running at them?

What are your thoughts and how would you respond?

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