What really happens with a dog bite in San Francisco?

It was another beautiful day in San Francisco. I put on my running shoes, grabbed my headphones and her leash. We headed out for our usual 3-mile run with a short break a Crissy Filed. It was one of those rare days where the sun beats down and the breeze was perfect; just enough to cool us down before the trek home. As I bent down to re-lace my shoe I heard a noise she’s never made before… I turned around and the vision of blood immediately ended the perfect day. I was in shock. I pulled back on her leash, and all I could do was scream. It was all I could do…

This may sound like a dramatic recount of a dog bite situation, but for those involved it is very real. In 2014, an estimated 300 human-dog bite injuries occurred in San Francisco alone. Numbers for dogs biting other dogs were even higher. We are fortunate to live in a city that permits the coexistence of many dog breeds but how many people are aware of the legal process regarding dog bites in San Francisco?


She bit someone… what do I do now?


The first thing you should do is regain control of your dog either by leash or physically removing them from the situation. Remove the dog from the victim and safely restrain them a fair distance from an injured party. DO NOT get in the middle of a dogfight without knowing how to properly separate them, as this can result in redirect biting and could possibly injure you further. To learn more about how to safely break up a dogfight click here.

If there is any possibility that your dog may have caused bodily harm to a human victim call 911 immediately as sometimes it is hard to tell the extent of an injury right away. Allow the victim to assess his or her injuries. If they allow, take a photo of the injury. If the victim refuses medical attention or any photos please respect their wishes. San Francisco law obligates you to provide the victim with your full name, personal phone number, and legal address, even if the dog is not yours. You should insist that they take your information down even if they believe the bite is not significant; you may later be reported if the injury is worse than originally observed.

If your dog is involved in a fight with another dog and no human has been injured call the local police; 911 can put you through to the local police as well. The police will handle the exchange of information and file a report, gathering each party’s account of the situation. If your dog is in need of immediate medical attention, do not wait for the police: Exchange contact information and call the police on your way to the vet. Try to take pictures of the owner and dog as your memory may blur while under distress. You should hand photos over to the police so they may investigate the situation. If the situation becomes hostile or the other owner becomes aggressive, call 911. If the other owner flees the scene, ask people around you to provide a description as well as their account of what happened to the police. The same applies should you happen to be bit by a dog where the owner runs off without stopping to help.


Ok… now what happens to my dog?


Take a deep breath… This is the first time this has happened. The good news is that your dog is not going to be put down. We are lucky to live in a city that does not adhere to a strict no-tolerance policy. Most likely you will get a call or a letter from the ACC (Animal Care Control) explaining that the received information stating your dog was involved in a bite causing bodily harm to a person or another dog. Depending on the severity of the injury, they will most likely order that the dog be in home quarantine for a period of 10 days. The purpose of home quarantine is to monitor the health of the dog as any illness could require extra medical care for the victim – especially if your dog is behind on his or her shots. Disinfecting of the wounds, antibiotics, and a Tetanus booster shot is standard medical treatment for a bite. Severe injuries could require stitches or surgical procedures.

You will be required to submit all current medical information and shot records from your vet. Before ANY of this happens, be sure your dog is up to date and never miss a rabies vaccine: This is the only vaccine required by law in San Francisco. Puppies require a series of booster shots however some people choose to titer their dogs blood rather than vaccinate. If this is something that you do with your dog, you may need to have your dog’s blood tested.

You may expect a home visit form the ACC. They may come to your home to ensure you have a safe enclosure and your dog cannot escape from the yard, etc. During the 10 days of quarantine, your dog will only be allowed to leave the property for short bathroom breaks on a leash, avoiding any possible contact with other people or dogs. On rare occasion where an owner is not found or does not comply, the ACC may seize your dog. Be sure to follow the instructions in the letter or any call you may receive.


OK… Home quarantine, I can handle that. What’s next for us?


San Francisco’s Viscous and Dangerous Dog Unit (VDU) is a division dedicated to the safety of the public as well as assisting owners and victims in a fair manner. Sergeant Sherry Hicks runs the department. Sergeant Hicks is your #1 resource for information regarding your case. You may contact the VDU Here for more information.

In the best interest of both owner and victim, almost every bite case in San Francisco is reported to the VDU. The victim has the right to request a trial at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. If this is the case, you are required to appear in court to explain your account of the incident. The victim has the right to do the same.


Viscous and Dangerous Dog Court!? OK, now I’m worried…


Try not to worry… The best way to get through this difficult situation is to remember that even the best of dogs can be in a situation where they feel they need to protect them selves or possibly you. You are NOT alone. Being prepared is important for your court date. Use the checklist below to provide all information prior to your court date. Make copies of all documents should they be requested in court.


Check List: Start from the beginning…


  1. Obtain a copy of the police report for yourself to have easy access to a case number and overall information of the incident. You can get a copy by asking the officer who questioned you after the bite, or by contacting the Viscous and Dangerous Dog Unit


  1. A detailed letter describing your account of the incident. This should be submitted to the police before your court date. You should have a copy of the original account for your court hearing. The letter should be as detailed as possible. Be sure to include exact dates of when and where the bite took place. Dates and times of any contact between you and the victim as well as the nature of the conversation.


  1. Gather all of your pet’s vaccination records proving your dog is up to date with her required shots. Make copies for yourself and a set to hand over in court if needed. If you find out that you missed a vaccination please inform the VDU as soon as possible. You can e-mail or call in the information Here


  1. Make copies of any photos that were taken. If you do not have any photos, be prepared as others taken by police or emergency responders may be shown to you in court. It is possible to see the photos before your court date if you contact Sergeant Hicks of the VDU. You will need to go to the station, as these photos are sensitive martial. These are important to see so you are prepared and know the damage your dog is capable of.


  1. If the bite took place on private property (in an apartment complex, for example), be sure to provide information to the property owner about the incident as well as your plans to keep your dog contained and safe during the time of the quarantine. It is much better to be honest and forthcoming with the management of your building, be it home, or office, than for them to find out after the fact. You want to avoid the assumption you may have been trying to hide the situation. You may be asked to provide proof that your dog and the victim were allowed to be on the property.


  1. You may submit character letters from your dog’s walker, dog day care, neighbors, or other establishments that know your dog well. These are not deciding factors in court however they show the court you are a responsible owner and others have handled or cared for your pet without issue. These are not mandatory, however they are reviewed, and taken into consideration.


  1. If you work with or previously worked with a trainer, it doesn’t hurt to have letters stating their evaluation of your pet. They may have some insight as to why this happened and their recommendation of how to avoid a repeat situation. This shows the court you are aware there is a problem and willing to do the work recommended. If your trainer or behaviorist refuses to write a letter of this nature, we would strongly suggest getting a second opinion from someone who is willing to work with your dog after a bite situation.


Prepare a folder with all of this information for the hearing. Being organized, responsible and honest goes a long way. Showing genuine empathy for the situation is important. Remember not everyone is a dog person, and some people are left with physical reminders of their encounters. Keep this in mind if you feel you were not at fault and while explaining your account of the situation.

Avoid arguing at all costs during your hearing. Let the accounts of both parties speak for themselves. The judge is there to help both parties come to an agreement on the safety of the dog and the public only. You will be asked to give your account as will the victim. The judge will refer back to police reports for any discrepancies. This is why it is important to write down your recollection of the incident as soon as possible. Remember, there may be others who witnessed the incident and may have submitted a whiteness account. If someone was with you during the incident, they should also submit their account as well as join you for your hearing if possible.


It’s the day of my Viscous and Dangerous Dog Hearing…


Remember to bring all of your documents, show up to he hall of justice early, there is a security check so only come in with what you need for court. Cell phones must be turned off while in court. Do NOT bring your kids unless they were involved and are of an age where you are comfortable with them speaking to an officer. Parking can be difficult so plan ahead.

Dress reasonably casually; suits are not necessary although no one will toss you out because of it. Leave your ripped jeans and faded t-shirt at home; you are representing your own character as a responsible dog owner.

As we mentioned before, both parties will be asked to give their account. Questions will be asked, photos may be shown, and documents may be asked for. The judge will give the opportunity for anyone else to speak who is concerned about the “defendant’s” dog. Everything is recorded. The judge has the right to make a ruling on the future of your dog the same day. Sometimes the judge may want to review the accounts for up to 14 days before a ruling.


Ruling a dog “Vicious and Dangerous” dose not mean your dog will be taken away or put down. What it does mean is that there are a variety of possible rules you may have to legally abide by within San Francisco County. If you are reported not following the court-mandated requirements, you may be subject to paying a hefty fine as well as surrendering your dog to the city. PLEASE, we ask you to take this seriously. We are lucky to have the viscous and dangerous court system in San Francisco.

It is important to note that personal injury lawsuits are completely separate from your vicious and dangerous dog hearing. The purpose of this court is to decide the course of action to take with dogs: The judge can only recommend that you offer to pay for vet bills.


If your dog is deemed “Vicious and Dangerous,” please abide by the safety regulations the court has put in place. This may include; keeping your dog on a leash at all times while outside the home; fixing fencing where the dog is contained; depending on the severity of the injuries to the victim, requirement to work with a trainer/behaviorist to ensure safe control of your dog in public; in severe cases you may be required to muzzle your dog in public at all times. You may be granted off leash privileges in dog friendly areas so long as your dog is muzzled.

Working with a behaviorist prior to the trial may prevent a possible muzzle ruling provided they can explain to the court why your dog is not a danger and recommend a training program. There are cases where privileges such as having your dog off leash are no longer reasonable. Public safety is the number one concern. They may ask you to address the question, “Are you sure you want to own a dog who is capable of this amount of damage?” This is indeed a question you need to ask yourself. Owning a reactive or aggressive dog can be life changing, however it is not impossible with the right help.


Even the most well behaved dogs still own a set of teeth. Bites are always a distinct possibility. By bringing your dog out in public, you also carry the burden and responsibility if a bite should happen. This doesn’t mean you should live in fear of allowing your dog to enjoy all that this city has to offer our K-9 friends. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid any situation of doubt. Having your dog evaluated by a reputable behaviorist can help you as an owner. Dogs can develop aggressive tendencies later in life; and we have to adapt to help our pets. For years, Refined K-9 Dog Training and Psychological Rehabilitation has worked with owners to help understand changes in their dog’s behavior. Awareness of early warning signs is important: Ask questions; get multiple opinions. When you are seeking help ALWAYS ask to talk to the trainer or behaviorist personally. Not all dog trainers have the experience of working with these cases. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that there is only one way… You have options, and of course we are here to help.


For more information on dog bite reports in the city of San Francisco click here.


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