Animal behaviourists agree with landmark court ruling: 'Owners are liable for harm caused by dogs'

A Supreme Court of Appeal landmark ruling last week confirmed that owners are responsible if their dogs attack an innocent passerby. File picture: Pixabay

A Supreme Court of Appeal landmark ruling last week confirmed that owners are responsible if their dogs attack an innocent passerby. File picture: Pixabay

Published Sep 20, 2020


Durban - Animal behaviourists believe schooling and not its growl distinguishes a “good dog”, who knows how to socialise and when to flash its fangs.

Dog owners and behaviourists were grappling over dog mannerisms, following a Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) landmark ruling last week.

The court matter related to a pedestrian who lost an arm after being mauled by three dogs, and his successful R2.4 million damages claim previously at the Eastern Cape High Court.

Not satisfied with the outcome, the owner of the dogs appealed the decision.

The SCA heard how three cross-breeds, with significant pit bull terrier features, “savaged” an itinerant gardener and refuse collector as he wheeled his trolley through a street in Rowallan Park, Port Elizabeth, having just completed a job.

The owner of the dogs claimed an unknown intruder attempted to gain access to his property and, in the process, damaged padlocks on his gates, which enabled his pets to escape.

While the court was not sold on how the dogs broke out, they accepted that the pedestrian as an “innocent passerby” and, in keeping with an old legal principle, “actio de pauperie”, agreed that the owner must be held liable for the harm caused by his dogs.

Justice Malcolm Wallis, who wrote the judgment, said: “People are entitled to walk our streets without having to fear being attacked by dogs. Where such attacks occur, they should in most circumstances be able to look to the owner of the dog for recompense.”

Under this principle, regardless of the circumstances of the attack, the responsibility for the attack lies entirely with the owner.

However, only if the owner is able to prove that the victim provoked the attack, was found in a place he shouldn't have been, or ownership of the dogs was passed onto a third party, then, the owner would not be liable for the consequences of an attack.

Mari Borain, a seasoned Durban-based animal behaviourist, agreed with the court's judgement.

“Any member of society who owns a dog must ensure their dogs are sufficiently schooled, and any good training school should sufficiently cover all the relevant aspects of good conduct.”

Borain explained if someone jumped into your yard, the animal will defend its territory, but once a gate was left open, anything can happen.

She lamented the numerous attacks of dogs in Durban alone, mostly because they escaped from yards and critically injured people.

Borain believes that such incidents were preventable if all the relevant role-players and the media worked together to educate people about the best practices for keeping pets.

“The moment one obtains a dog, your life is now committed for the lifespan of the animal. Six sessions of puppy school doesn't cut it. A dog needs training through the various phases of its life,” suggested Borain.

Julie Bezuidenhout, a Joburg-based animal behaviourist, welcomed the SCA ruling and said, in recent years, there has been an increase in similar attacks.

Bezuidenhout said there was much debate on various social media platforms about the ruling, but she is a firm believer that owners must be held accountable.

All dogs, regardless of their breed, should undergo some form of training, be vaccinated and sterilised. “Dogs should not be suspicious of anyone on the street and attack.”

Bezuidenhout said animals kept in small enclosures without any form of stimulation, become frustrated. “This could be one of the reasons for an attack.”

She also believes dogs kept for protection purposes, with no training, is “antiquated thinking”.

“Dogs need to be socialised, schooled and trained on how to behave, to prevent unnecessary aggression,” said Bezuidenhout.

Dr Quixi Sonntag, a respected Cape Town-based behaviourist, said animals kept as pets are regarded as the owner’s property in South Africa.

“If your property causes damages, you are responsible,” said Sonntag who had expert witness stints in court.

She has testified in matters where dogs caused motor vehicle accidents and the owners were held liable.

Sonntag recommended that dogs receive training from about 4 months old and owners too should be trained on to how handle their animals.

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