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If your dog bites someone, man's best friend instantly becomes a physical and financial enemy and you had better take decisive steps to prevent future incidents or your liabilities could soar.

Canine experts say once a dog has bitten someone, the animal poses an increased risk and to compensate for that risk, 70 percent of insurers won't renew a homeowner's policy -- even after one bite claim -- according to Insurance Information Network of California (IINC).

Ignoring the increased risk was among the reasons jurors last week quickly handed down a rare murder conviction in the case of a fatal dog mangling in San Francisco.

"We decided that there was not simply one action which was the intent in implied malice, [but] that it was a series of actions, a series of failures to heed warnings, a series of careless taking of the dogs out and allowing them to lunge at people, that they had fallen into a pattern of actions which were inevitably leading to this result," said jury foreman Don Newton, 64, during a press conference following the verdicts.

In the Los Angeles trial, a location chosen because of heavy media coverage in San Francisco, jurors agreed with prosecutors that Marjorie Knoller and her husband Robert Noel had failed to address more than 30 warnings about their dogs' behavior, including reports of incidents in which the animals lunged at people or bared their teeth. Their dogs, Presa canarios "Bane" and "Hera," were euthanized after fatally mangling neighbor Diane Whipple in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building.

"(Knoller) was not really heeding any of the warnings that had been given," Newton said. "It could have happened at any time, and that was malice. This was a dangerous situation that was set up by her and her husband's actions, and it led to the death of Diane Whipple."

Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder. Both were convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Both were also convicted of owning a mischievous animal who kills, which is now a felony in California, thanks to immediate legislative reaction to the Whipple attack.

Washington, D.C. based Centers for Disease Control says the breeds of dogs most prone to attack are Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Doberman Pinschers, Chows, Great Danes, St. Bernards and Akitas.

Dogs bite more than 4.7 million humans a year, more than half of them are kids and the most frequent target is their face, according to DogBiteLaw.com, the Web site of Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Phillips, profiled by Time magazine as "California's leading dog-bite lawyer".

Dog bites force nearly a million victims to seek medical attention and they account for one-third of all liability claims on home owner's insurance policies to the tune of about $1 billion a year paid in claims, according to IINC.

Home owners are financially liable for dog attacks and most home owners and renters policies provide for $100,000 to $300,000 in coverage for liability claims, IINC says. Any amount over the coverage limit is the home owner's responsibility and a court suit could quickly surpass coverage limits.

Most states have laws that make dog owners liable if their dog causes injury -- not just bites. The laws are "strict liability" statutes that impose liability without proving fault -- an injured person does not have to prove that the dog owner did anything wrong, according to Berkeley attorney Mary Randolph, author of "Dog Law" (Nolo.com $21.95).

That's because it's an animal. It has teeth. It can bite.

"The theory behind these laws is that anyone who has a dog should be responsible for any damage or injury it causes. Period. It doesn't matter that the owner was careful with the dog, or didn't know it would hut anyone, or conscientiously tired to keep it from injuring anyone," says Randolph.

Preventing dog problems

To prevent dog bites, experts advise:

  • Select a proper breed. Select a dog breed based on environment and temperament. Consult a veterinarian for advice.
  • Conduct proper introductions. Introduce new dogs slowly to new "social" situations. Never put a dog in a position where it feels threatened. Properly socialize and train any dog entering the household.
  • Strictly obey licensing, leash and warning-sign laws. Don't be lax about identification tags, microchips and vaccination records (your dog must have rabies shots) which are vital if your dog bites someone or gets lost. Leash your dog at all times in public, especially when the law mandates it. In some locales, retractable leashes are illegal and they are often impractical for controlling some dogs. A muzzle in public may be necessary if your vet says your dog is dangerous. A muzzle could have saved Whipple's life. If you (or your kids) aren't strong enough to control your dog on a leash in public, consider having someone else handle that task or adopt a dog you can control. You should be in control, not the dog. Posting warning sings on your property may be legally required for aggressive dogs, sentry dogs and guard dogs. Check you local statutes.
  • Make sure your dog is spayed or neutered. Most dog bites come from unneutered male dogs. They are more territorial and dominant, more prone to growl, snap or bite and more easily distracted than neutered dogs. An unneutered male might break his leash to pursue a female in heat and run into the path of an oncoming car or fight with another dog or bite someone who gets in the way of his carnal instincts.
  • Know, teach your dog. Learn what over excites your dog or puts it on guard. Know his personal language of barks, growls and whimpers. Learn to read his tail, eyes, ears and body posture. Take your dog to a thorough obedience class to help it behave and help you understand its behavior.
  • React immediately to bites and snaps. If your dog bites or even snaps at someone, call your veterinarian and a professional trainer immediately to determine what you must do to prevent further such behavior.
  • Don't engage in dangerous behavior with a dog. Never, ever leave infants or young kids alone with any dog. Teach kids how to behave around dogs. Don't run past a dog or disturb it while it is eating, sleeping or caring for puppies. Play non-aggressive games with dogs such as "fetch." Aggressive games, like wrestling, tugs-of-war and chasing can encourage aggressive behavior. Never approach a dog you don't know, and avoid teasing or eye contact with a dog that appears threatening.
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