When it comes to dog bites, Wisconsin has what’s referred to as a ‘strict liability law.’ This means that if your dog injures someone or damages their property, you’d be liable for the costs regardless of whether you knew your dog was dangerous. Here’s the exact text from Wisconsin State Statute:

“The owner of a dog is liable for the full amount of damages caused by the dog injuring or causing injury to a person, domestic animal or property.”

Given that passage, you might think any instance in which a dog injures someone or something is an open and shut case. But in reality, Wisconsin’s dog bite laws aren’t so clear cut. With that said, does a ‘beware of dog’ sign offer dog owners any legal protection?

Does a Beware of Dog Sign Legally Protect You?

The short answer: maybe. The longer answer isn’t so straightforward. The trouble with ‘beware of dog’ signs is that their meaning isn’t absolutely clear. It could be a serious warning, a tongue-in-cheek joke about the five-pound Maltese that lives within, or something simply intended to alert visitors or delivery people that there’s a dog. Despite your intended meaning, a ‘beware of dog’ sign could be interpreted many more ways in court. 

For example, if you have a ‘beware of dog’ sign, it could be argued that you were aware of the danger your dog poses, and therefore failed to take the appropriate actions to restrain your dog. On the other hand, if there was a ‘beware of dog’ sign and an individual moves past it, it could be argued that their actions acknowledged the sign and either accepted that potential risk or ignored it.

Dog bite incidents are legally complex and each case is different. If you’ve been injured in a dog-bite incident, contact a Wisconsin personal injury attorney experienced with dog-bite matters as quickly as you can.

So, what can you do to legally protect yourself as a dog owner, and how can you protect yourself from potentially dangerous dogs?

What Should Dog Owners Use Instead of ‘Beware of Dog’ Signs?

Due to the ambiguity of ‘beware of dog’ signs, different signage can serve your needs better. Some alternatives include signs that read:

  • ‘Dog on premises:’ These signs alert visitors and passersby that there’s a dog present. However, their language is much more neutral, which can both prevent a visitor from getting anxious and potentially protect the owner from being accused of knowing about their dog’s danger.
  • ‘No trespassing:’ Trespassing is illegal in Wisconsin. If someone is trespassing on your property, it stands to reason that their illegal presence would provoke your dog. If your dog bites someone in this instance, you would probably face less legal liability.

Additionally, make sure that you are in fact taking steps to protect people from your dog. If you have a big dog, it could easily clear a low fence. In this case, simply having your yard fenced isn’t enough to protect yourself against liability; to do that, you’d need to ensure that your fence is indeed high enough to contain your dog.

Finally, understand that while your dog may be well-behaved around you, it might act unpredictably around others. Therefore, never make assumptions, and always keep a close eye on your dog while it’s with new people.

How To Protect Yourself Against Vicious Dogs

It shouldn’t be your responsibility to watch out for violent, unpredictable dogs. However, the truth is that you can’t always trust dog owners to take the appropriate precautions. To protect yourself, consider the following tips when you encounter a dog you’re unfamiliar with:

  • Always be cautious: Even if you’re told that they’re ‘friendly,’ always be careful with dogs you’ve never met. Even the most well-behaved dogs could snap for reasons that aren’t easy to understand.
  • Ask the owner before touching the dog: While an owner can’t know with certainty how a dog will react to strangers, it’s always a good idea to ask before you pet or touch a dog.
  • Watch the dog’s body language: If the dog is turning away from you or otherwise seems agitated, it might be nervous. Never force an interaction with a dog—instead, give the dog some space and let their owner intervene.
  • Allow the dog to make the first move: If the dog is interested in you, they’ll approach you. As the dog approaches you, allow them to smell your hand.

Keep your hands in view: Finally, when the dog is comfortable enough to let you touch it, start by slowly petting its chest or shoulder. Avoid going straight for scratching the top of its head, as this can alarm them.

What Should I Do Around a Loose, Stray, or ‘At Large’ Dog?

If you encounter a dog and can’t tell whether it’s accounted for, you’ll want to use even more caution. Be on the lookout for signs of aggravation, and be familiar with the ‘be a tree’ strategy in case the dog starts getting aggressive. To ‘be a tree,’ take the following steps:

  1. Stop moving
  2. Fold your hands and hold them at a comfortable height near the waistband of your pants
  3. Turn your eyes toward the ground to avoid eye contact with the dog
  4. Count your breaths to help remain calm

By being a ‘tree,’ you disengage a dog’s natural instinct to chase. This may seem counterintuitive, as when you’re nervous around a dog, you’ll want to get away. However, moving can actually encourage the dog to chase you, and backing away can mimic actions the dog associates with ‘come’ commands. As a ‘tree,’ you become boring to the dog.

I Was Bit By a Dog—What Should I Do Now?

Being bit by a dog can be a traumatizing experience, and it can make interactions even with your friends’ well-known pets anxiety-inducing. Injuries from dog bites often occur to the hands, face, and arms, which can leave permanent nerve damage, potentially impacting your livelihood.

However, that doesn’t mean you’re out of options. A skilled personal injury attorney can help build a case demonstrating the dog owner’s negligence regardless of whether they have ‘beware of dog’ signs posted on their property. If you’ve been injured by a dog, don’t wait. Contact Frank Pasternak and Jeff Zirgibel today!