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Dog Attacks and The Responsibility of an Association to Act

Josephine Lee Wolf, Esq. | Clemons Richter & Reiss, P.C. 

In a perfect world, pet dogs are meant to provide companionship and joy to their owners and the community at large.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  It is not uncommon for owners and residents of community and condominium associations to experience dog attacks and bite incidents, reports of incessant barking, dogs breaking free from restraints and running at large, and similar nuisances.  These incidents cause many community association professionals to question the nature and extent to which they are responsible to take action (if any).  For communities in Pennsylvania, the answer to this question may be found in statutory law, applicable municipal ordinances and the Association’s governing documents.   

In Pennsylvania, enforcement of the “Dog Law”, as it relates to regulation of dangerous dogs and kennel operations, is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture, which has established the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement and has assigned state dog wardens to every county of the state.1  Dogs in Pennsylvania are required to be properly licensed with the county in which the dog resides (the county treasurer is responsible for the receipt and processing of license applications) (3 P.S. Section 459-200, 459-201).  Licenses available are either on a yearly or lifetime basis.   

With respect to dog attack/bite incidents, for a dog to be declared “dangerous”, the state dog warden, a police officer or an animal control officer must file a non-traffic citation, charging the owner with harboring a dangerous dog.  Conviction of such an offense requires proof that the dog has done any one of the following:   

  (1) ‘inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation on public or private property’; (2) ‘killed or inflicted severe injury on a domestic animal, dog or cat without provocation while off the owner’s property’; (3) ‘attacked a human being without provocation’; and/or (4) ‘been used in the commission of a crime’.   

Furthermore, the dog must have either (1) a history of attacking human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation, or (2) “a propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation. A propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident of the conduct described…” above.  (See 3 P.S. Section 459-502-A).   

If a dog is ultimately determined (by the court) to be a “dangerous dog”, the owner is required to register the animal with the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement and to re-register on a yearly basis.  In addition to a registration fee, conditions of harboring a dangerous dog include 1) confining the dog in a proper enclosure, 2) keeping the dog muzzled and physically restrained when it is out of its enclosure, and 3) posting the premises, etc.  The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, the State Dog Warden and the local police department must also be notified within 24 hours if a dangerous dog is on the loose, is unconfined, has attacked another animal, has attacked a human being, has died, or has been sold or donated.  Notably, however, fewer than thirty (30) dogs are currently registered as “dangerous dogs” in the City of Philadelphia, for example.  Once registered, if the dog is involved in another bite incident, it must be confined for a minimum of ten (10) days to ensure there are no signs of rabies at a location approved by the responding dog warden or officer, which may include the owner’s property.  (See 3 P.S. Section 459-503-A and 459-504-A). 

Following a court’s “dangerous dog” designation, a failure to register can result in a misdemeanor of the third degree criminal charge in Pennsylvania.  A subsequent attack may result in a misdemeanor of the second or first degree criminal charge (depending upon the severity of the injuries).  Removal of the dangerous dog and subsequent destruction of the dog by humane means is only permissible after a subsequent (third) violation.  Only after conviction of a subsequent incident and absent the filing of an appeal, can the dog warden, police officer or animal control officer take possession of the dog and destroy the dog (humanely in an expeditious matter).   (See P.S. Section 459-505-A).   

Accordingly, court intervention following multiple convictions of the dangerous dog law is required in order to cause an animal to be removed from an owner’s possession.   

The decision as to whether to issue a citation for violation of the “dangerous dog” statute rests within the sole discretion of the responding law enforcement officer/agency.  Private communities are not authorized to enforce the Pennsylvania Dog Law; this power rests solely with authorized law enforcement or the District Attorney assigned to the jurisdiction.2   

In terms of a community or condominium association’s requirement to act, review of the association’s governing documents must be made to determine if the association has adopted a prohibition against dog attack/bite incidents, or conduct that results in same (i.e., allowing a dog to run at large, unattended and off leash).  Moreover, demanding removal of the animal likewise is dependent upon whether the authority to do so is imparted by adopted Association restrictions.  Unless said authority/responsibility already exists, adopting rules and regulations (or an amendment to the declaration/bylaws) could create potential liability in the event the restriction is not specifically enforced (i.e., if there is a dangerous dog that is not subject to removal and/or enforcement provisions, and said dog causes further injury, suit could be filed against the Association).   

As every dog attack/bite incident scenario is unique; a report of any incident(s) should be made with local animal control officers, law enforcement and/or the state dog warden.  Ultimately, private communities are not as well-equipped and experienced as law enforcement in handling these types of incidents, especially since same involve the enforcement of Pennsylvania law (the violation of which could result in a non-traffic citation/criminal charge).  Thus, prior to an association taking enforcement action of animal control restrictions, further analysis and consultation with the association’s legal counsel and/or insurance carrier should be made.

About the Author

Josephine A. Lee Wolf is an associate of the firm Clemons Richter & Reiss, P.C., a Keystone CAI 2021 Diamond Partner. Josephine is a summa cum laude graduate of West Chester University, where she received a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Criminal Justice in 2010. Thereafter, she attended Widener University School of Law, graduating magna cum laude in 2013. She was admitted to the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and State of New Jersey in 2013. 

Josephine is a former chair of Keystone CAI’s Communications & Content Committee and currently serves as a member of the Professionals United to Lead, Serve & Engage (PULSE) Committee. She can be contacted via email at: jlee@clemonslaw.com

About Clemons Richter & Reisss, P.C.

The Doylestown law firm of Clemons Richter & Reiss, P.C. serves as legal counsel, advisor, and advocate to a broad spectrum of clients ranging from condominium and homeowners associations to public and private corporations to governments, non-profit organizations, private entrepreneurs and domestic and foreign individuals and families. Learn more by visiting www.clemonslaw.com