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With over 78 million dogs owned in the country, it’s no surprise that events like those in Mansfield, Massachusetts, this past week stir strong emotions.

According to numerous press reports, last week the Mansfield Board of Selectmen voted that the dog, Milo, a pointer hound mix, be euthanized after it bit a six-year-old boy, resulting in severe injuries to the boy’s face and requiring 400 stitches. The dog’s owner, a sixteen-year-old girl, was babysitting the boy, who lived next door, when the boy was bitten. The girl’s parents were in the process of appealing the Selectmen’s decision, when last weekend the dog bit the sixteen year old girl, herself, around her lips and on her ankle. The girl also required stitches at the hospital. The girl’s family reported the second attack to the town’s animal control officer, who secured the dog and had him euthanized.

Massachusetts law protects people, especially children, who are bitten under these circumstances.

In some states, the owner must be on notice that his dog is aggressive, under a legal doctrine sometimes called the “one free bite rule.” Massachusetts, like most states, has a statute that does not require the dog’s owner or keeper to be on notice of the dog’s aggressive propensities. This is often called "strict liability."

In Massachusetts, the owner of a dog (or the parents, if the owner is a minor) is responsible if the dog bites someone, unless the injured person was trespassing or was teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog. If the dog bites a child under the age of seven, the law presumes that the child was not trespassing or teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog (but the owner or keeper can offer evidence to the contrary).

Massachusetts law also allows a person to file a written complaint to a hearing authority in the town or city that a dog is presumed dangerous. The hearing authority must investigate and hold a hearing, and can order a variety of actions if it finds the dog to be a nuisance or dangerous. The owner can appeal the authority’s decision in court. This is apparently what happened in Mansfield: the six-year-old boy’s mother filed a complaint and the Board of Selectman, upon investigation by the animal control officer and after a hearing, found the dog to be a dangerous dog, and ordered it euthanized. Within the ten day appeal period, the dog bit the sixteen-year-old girl.

Dog bite injuries can be serious, and dog owners should take their responsibilities seriously. Because of their size and their propensity to make noise and move unexpectedly, children can startle a dog, and they are especially vulnerable to dog bites. In view of Massachusetts’ strict liability statute, dog owners are usually held responsible for monetary compensation. A homeowner’s insurance policy will usually provide insurance coverage.

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