Legal Insights / Civil Litigation / Dog bites: can you receive monetary damages and from who?

Dog bites: can you receive monetary damages and from who?

Sep 2 2022

Who let the dogs out?*

If you are a member of any neighbourhood community group on social media, you know missing pet posts -and the location of all emergency response vehicles- tend to dominate. As of 2018, over half of Canadian households had at least one cat or one dog – and that is pre COVID-19. Owning a pet comes with its share of responsibilities, including a duty to keep other people safe around your pet. Despite being “man’s best friend”, this can be particularly challenging with dogs.

In BC, there are three different pathways someone who has been bitten (or otherwise injured) by a dog can take to establish legal liability against the dog owner for damages: scienter doctrine, negligence and/or the Occupiers Liability Act. Below is an overview of each of these legal principles.

Scienter Doctrine or “One-Free Bite”

The word “scienter” means “knowledge of wrongdoing”. The scienter doctrine has effectively allows dogs to have “one-free bite”. The law presumes that dogs are not naturally dangerous and that an owner should not be liable for the dog’s behaviour unless the owner was aware of the behaviour putting others at risk. Therefore, the main question is, did the owner have knowledge of their dog showing aggressive behaviour prior to the incident?

To establish if the dog owner can be held liable to the damage caused under the scienter doctrine, the following three elements must be proven:

  1. The identity of the dog owner;
  2. The dog had manifested a propensity to attack or bite mankind; and
  3. The dog owner knew of their dog’s propensity to be aggressive.

After proving a dog bit caused damage, it will be up to the dog owner to prove that they did not know or have the means of knowing that their dog was of a vicious or mischievous nature, or was accustomed to do acts causing injury.

The following factors and history are taken into consideration when assessing if the dog owner knew of their dog’s propensity:

  • “Beware of Dog” signs;
  • Chasing people;
  • Fighting with other dogs;
  • Previous complaints about the dog;
  • Previous bites; and
  • Barking at strangers.

Notably, the breed of the dog is not a factor. The key is that particular dog’s history. Once there has been a bite or aggressive incident, the dog owner will typically be considered “on notice” for future behaviour and conditions may be imposed upon the dog owners by Animal Control.

The court has clarified that the “one-free bite” doctrine is not limited to actual bites. If a dog presents a risk of injury to others, that is enough to trigger the doctrine and a propensity for aggressive behaviour. For example, in Gallant v Slootweg, 2014 BCSC 1579, a biker broke multiple ribs and his clavicle after being chased and knocked from his bicycle by a dog.


A dog owner can also be liable for damages through the law of negligence for failing to exercise reasonable care of their dog. A person who was injured can establish negligence if they can prove:

  1. The dog owner knew or ought to have known that the dog was likely to injure someone; and
  2. The dog owner failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the injury.

An example of an owner failing to exercise reasonable care is letting their dog off leash in a park where leashes are mandatory and that dog proceeds to injure someone. Typically, to prove the dog owner knew or ought to have know the dog was likely to injure means there needs to be some sort of history or known circumstances of events that ought to have raised a red flag for the dog owner.


The final way the law may hold people legally responsible for the acts of a dog is when the damage occurs on property controlled by you. According to the Occupiers Liability Act, property owners and occupiers in BC have an obligation to take reasonable care to ensure that people are reasonably safe while on their premises.

Similar to negligence, the injured party must establish that the dog owner or property owner knew of or ought to have known that the dog was likely to be a risk, and that the owner failed to take reasonable steps to prevent such risk.

For example, somebody decides to host a dinner party and invites their guests to bring their dogs. During the party, a dog fight arises, and a guest is seriously bitten. Even though it was not the property owner’s dog that bit the guest, because of the property owner’s duty to ensure people are reasonably safe in using the property, the property owner may be held liable for the injuries.


To find out more about the law on dog bites and attacks and the type of legal remedies available to you, you can reach our Civil Litigation Team by calling our office at 604-853-0774 to request a consult today.


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