Who is liable when a dog bites a dog walker?

line of dogs (mostly Dachshunds) on leashes, held by dog walker
Professional dog walkers can sue for a dog bite in California if the dog's owner knew the animal was or might be dangerous.

A profession dog walker (such as a walker for the company Wag) may have difficulty prevailing in a dog bite lawsuit in California. 

California's “dog bite” law imposes “strict liability” when a dog bites someone.1 This is the case even if the animal has never bitten before and the owner did nothing wrong.

But there is an exception when the person was working with the animal professionally. This exception is known as the "Veterinarian's Rule" in California.2

Under the Veterinarian's rule, people who work with canines professionally assume the risk that the animal might bite them.

To help you better understand when a dog walker can sue for a dog bite, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

young man restraining large growling dog on leash
California dog owners must tell walkers if their animal is aggressive.

1. What is the Veterinarian's Rule in California?

The “Veterinarian's Rule” is a special form of “assumption of the risk” under California law. It states that someone who works with dogs professionally assumes the risk of a bite unless:

  1. The dog's owner or handler knew (or should have known) that the animal was, or might be dangerous, and 
  2. The owner or handler failed to so notify the worker. 3

The idea is that someone – no matter how experienced with canines – cannot assume a risk of which he or she is not aware. 4

Doesn't California impose strict liability for dog bites?

Normally, yes. Under California law, a dog's owner or handler is “strictly liable” if the animal bites someone. 5

This contrasts with the "one bite rule" in effect in states such as Nevada. In states with a “one bite rule,” the owner is liable only if the dog has bitten someone before or has displayed dangerous tendencies.

California does not have a "one-bite rule" for dog bites. But the Veterinarian's Rule is an exception to California's strict liability law for dog bites.

In this way, it functions in much the same way as a “one-bite” law. It makes the owner/handler of a canine liable only if he or she is on notice that the animal is or might be dangerous.

But it applies only in situations where someone works with such animals professionally.

2. Does the Veterinarian's Rule apply to dog walkers?

The “Veterinarian's Rule” applies to anyone who works with canines professionally. In addition to veterinarians, people the rule applies to include:

  • Vet techs,
  • Groomers,
  • Professional walkers,
  • Kennel workers, and
  • Animal control workers.6

What if I am walking someone else's dog as a favor?

Technically, the Veterinarian's Rule applies only to people who work with dogs professionally. By working with animals, such people “assume the risk” of a bite or other injury.

To date, the rule has not been applied to people who walk a friend's or neighbor's dog.

It is unlikely – but conceivable -- that a court might apply the rule to a non-professional who was deemed to have a superior knowledge of canines.

For instance, would the Veterinarian's Rule apply if the person had owned many canines throughout his/her life? The answer is probably not, but an experienced California dog bite lawyer might try to argue it.

3. When can a dog walker sue for a dog bite in California?

To sue for a dog bite in California, a non-professional walker would need to prove that:

  1. The defendant owned the dog that bit the walker,
  2. At the time of the bite, the walker was lawfully on the defendant's property or the animal was in public (with or without the walker or its owner),
  3. The walker was bitten or otherwise harmed by the animal, and
  4. As a result, the walker suffered damages.7

If the plaintiff is a professional dog walker, he or she would also need to prove that:

  1. The animal had attacked someone in the past (or had dangerous tendencies),
  2. The owner knew or was on notice of such history or tendencies, and
  3. The owner did not disclose such information to the walker (or significantly downplayed the severity). 8
Example: Daisy is a full-grown Rottweiler. Her owner, Mattie, hires Sasha to walk Daisy. Mattie tells Sasha that Daisy is friendly. But one day Daisy bites Sasha and severs the tendon in her wrist. Sasha has to have surgery followed by many months of painful therapy. Mattie denies liability, citing the Veterinarian's Rule. But Sasha's California dog bite lawyer discovers that Daisy previously bit and seriously injured a kennel worker. Because Mattie knew this but did not disclose it, she is liable for Sasha's injuries.

Note that in the above example Mattie would not be liable if Sasha had teased or mistreated Daisy or otherwise provoked the attack. 9

Rottweiler baring its teeth
Dog walkers assume the risk if they agree to walk an animal knowing it has a history of aggression.

4. What damages can I recover for a dog bite?

Dog walkers bitten by dogs in California can recover compensatory damages and, in appropriate cases, punitive damages.

Damages for a dog bite can include economic (monetary) losses such as:

They can also include so-called “non-economic” damages such as:

  • Pain and suffering;
  • Scarring or disfigurement;
  • Loss of the use of a limb or organ;
  • Inconvenience; and
  • Loss of life enjoyment. 10

And finally, when someone is killed or seriously injured by a dog, his/her family may be able to recover damages in a California wrongful death lawsuit, a "survival" action, or a lawsuit for loss of consortium of a spouse or partner.

5. Who can a dog walker sue for damages?

In addition to the animal's owner, a walker bitten by a dog may be able to recover damages from:

  • The owner's homeowner liability insurer,
  • The owner's employer (if the animal was a working dog), or
  • The walker's employer (if the walker's services were booked through a dog-walking business, employment agency, or possibly even an app such as Wag!).

For more information, you may wish to read our article on respondeat superior (vicarious employer liability in California).

Bitten while walking someone else's dog in California? Call us for help…

female receptionist

If you were injured while working with a dog in California, we invite you to call our California dog bite attorneys for a free consultation.

Call us at 855-LawFirm or fill out the form on this page to speak with a lawyer in confidence about your case.

We have local offices throughout California to serve your needs.

We also have offices in Las Vegas and Reno if you were bitten by a dog in Nevada.

Legal references:

  1. California Civil Code 3342(a): "The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness..."
  2. Nelson v. Hall (1985) 165 Cal.App.3d 709.
  3. Same.
  4. Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112.
  5. Civil Code 3342(a) CC, endnote 1.
  6. Priebe v. Nelson, endnote 4.
  7. See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 463. Dog Bite Statute (Civ. Code, § 3342)—Essential Factual Elements.
  8. CACI 462. Strict Liability for Injury Caused by Domestic Animal With Dangerous Propensities—Essential Factual Elements.
  9. Smythe v. Schacht (1949) 93 Cal.App.2d 315.
  10. CACI 3905A. Physical Pain, Mental Suffering, and Emotional Distress (Noneconomic Damage).

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