A Quick Guide to Virginia’s Dangerous Dog Laws

Virginia follows the “one bite” rule when it comes to dangerous dogs, meaning that the dog’s owner is only liable if the dog was already proven aggressive.

If another person’s dog bites you, who is at fault? In most states, the answer is pretty cut and dry: the owner of the dog is responsible. In Virginia, however, that question becomes more complicated due to the state’s unusual dangerous dog laws.

For this article, we’ll go over the ins and outs of Virginia’s dangerous dog laws. Our main focus will be on defining the term “dangerous dog.” However, we will also talk about what happens when a dangerous dog bites someone. We’ll close with a discussion of how you can keep your community safe by reporting dog attacks and incidents.

What is a Dangerous Dog?

Chihuahua puppy biting hand.

Defining the term “dangerous dog” is actually a bit harder than you’d think. In Virginia for instance, dogs are only considered “dangerous” once they’ve directly displayed physically aggressive behavior. This rule is sometimes called the “one bite” law, as every dog essentially gets “one bite” before the owner is liable for any damages.

In practical terms, this means that a dog is only considered dangerous after they’ve already attacked someone at least once before. These attacks aren’t limited to bites alone, as any aggressive action which injures a person or animal can trigger this rule. For example, a dog that jumps on someone and injures them might trigger this rule, even if they never actually bite their target.

At the same time, not all forms of aggressive behavior imply that a dog is dangerous. For example, if someone goads or attacks a dog and gets bitten, a judge might rule that the dog was simply protecting itself. In this case, the dog wouldn’t meet Virginia’s “dangerous” requirements.

Virginia’s “Dangerous Dog” Requirements

To expand on this idea, the Virginia code specifically lists the following requirements and exceptions to the “one bite” rule:

  • The bite must have resulted in more than a “scratch, abrasion, or other minor injury.”
  • The bite must not have occurred at a lawful hunting or dog handling event.
  • If the attack involved another animal, the dog is not considered dangerous if both animals are owned by the same person.
  • Finally, the victim must not have been trespassing or committing a crime on the dog owner’s property.
    • Similarly, as stated above, the victim must not have been abusing or otherwise provoking the dog.

Ultimately, labeling a dog as “dangerous” is up to the discretion of your local judge. Normally, these cases are decided based on the specifics of the situation. Finally, you should note that Virginia law explicitly prohibits the government from finding any “canine or canine crossbreed” dangerous due to its breed alone.

How Can I Report a Dangerous Dog?

If you or someone you know has been attacked by a dog, you should contact your municipal animal control department. For example, the city of Richmond notes that you can report animal bites to either Richmond Animal Care and Control or the City of Richmond Health Department.

If at all possible, you’ll want to provide your local animal control agency with as much of the following information as possible to help them with their investigation:

  • A physical description of the dog.
  • The name and address of the dog’s owner.
  • The location where the dog attacked you.
  • Photographs of the wounds you suffered.

What Happens When the Court Declares a Dog Dangerous?

After an investigation from animal control, the final decision on whether or not the dog is dangerous falls to your local court. If the court finds that your dog is dangerous, you have 30 days to register with the Virginia dangerous dog registry. You may do so through your local animal control officer. In doing so, you agree that:

  • Your dog has been spayed, neutered, chipped, and vaccinated for rabies.
  • You plan on keeping the dog in an enclosure at all times, or on a leash in a fenced-in yard.
  • You have posted signs around your property warning that there are dangerous dogs on the property.
  • Your liability insurance covers dog bites to a value of $100,000 or more.
  • You will purchase a tag identifying the dog as dangerous. This tag must remain affixed to the dog’s collar at all times.
  • You will inform an animal control officer if your dog gets loose, if you sell it, or if it dies.

Failing to comply with these regulations is a Class 1 misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment is a fine of $2,500 and up to one year in jail.

Further, if, as a result of failing to comply with these regulations your dog attacks a person or another animal, there are other penalties. We’ll outline these penalties below.

What Happens If a Dangerous Dog Attacks Someone?

A giant St. Bernard dog plays in a grass yard with a tennis ball as a toy.

If a dangerous dog attacks a person, its owner can be held criminally liable. The exact charges depend on the circumstances of the attack, as outlined below:

  • If the dog attacks and injures or kills another pet, it is a Class 2 misdemeanor. The maximum sentence is six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
  • If the dog attacks and injures a person, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor. The maximum sentence is a jail sentence of up to one year, and a fine of up to $2,500.

Additionally, the court may decide that the owner of the dog displayed “a reckless disregard for life” in failing to prevent the attack. In that case, the court may find them guilty of a Class 6 felony. The maximum penalties for this charge include a prison sentence of up to five years, as well as a fine of up to $2,500.

Finally, the owner might also be responsible for civil damages, such as medical costs and similar expenses. However, winning civil dog bite cases is often an uphill battle. This is due to the one bite law described above, as well as Virginia’s rules on contributory negligence.

Contributory Negligence

Virginia is a state with an extreme approach to contributory negligence. This means that, in a personal injury case, the plaintiff cannot be responsible for their own injury to any degree.

Even if the injury is mostly the fault of the defendant, a contributory negligence claim can derail your entire case. For this reason, you should come to court prepared to deal with this type of claim. For example, a defendant might argue that you were trespassing on their land, or that you provoked the dog in some manner. If this is the case, you’ll want to talk things over with your lawyer before stepping into the courtroom.

Disclosure of Animal Bite History

As one final note, Virginia added one new dangerous dog law in March which affects the release of dangerous dogs to the public. This law states:

Any custodian of a releasing agency, animal control officer, law-enforcement officer, or human investigator, upon release of a dog or cat…shall disclose, if known, that the dog or cat has bitten a person or other animal, and the circumstances and date of such a bite.

The intent of this law was to prevent shelters from adopting out dangerous dogs without giving a full history of the animal’s behavior. A violation of this code section will result in a Class 3 misdemeanor.

Conclusion

German shepherd puppy playing with a toy

Virginia has some of the most complicated, unique, and unusual dangerous dog laws in the country. However, these laws rely on Virginia citizens to remain effective.

You should always report dog attacks to your local animal control department. Doing so will both improve your chances of a successful personal injury lawsuit, and help keep your neighborhood safe in the future. In the same way, taking proactive steps to protect your dog should they bite someone is also a great way to protect your furry friend.

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