A recent article in the Carroll County Times, based in Westchester, Maryland, discussed some potential risks and consequences that can occur at “off-leash” dog parks. The majority of dog parks have signage that clearly prohibits aggressive dogs from entering. Unfortunately, some dog owners are unaware of canine behavior, body language, and may not be aware how their dog interacts among other dogs. Much like a school playground, some dogs act as bullies and become aggressive toward one another. A few parks have a separate enclosed area which is designated for smaller dogs.
Another common complaint is dog owners who are inattentive as their dogs play, and fail to stop confrontations before they get violent. IIana Freisner and Stefanie Schwartz, who specialize in veterinary behavior, explained that dog parks can be highly stressful for anxious dogs because of the close exposure to other dogs and potential for fights. The parks also can be a source of potential liability and conflicts between owners if injuries occur.
Patterson Dog Park in Baltimore
At Patterson, the rules require that a dog is leashed and removed when they demonstrate aggressive behavior. Dogs with a prior record of aggression are maintained by Baltimore's “Dangerous Dog Hearing Board” and may not be permitted in off-leash environments. Although the park is considered “at your own risk”, owners and handlers have a legal responsibility for injuries their dog may cause. If a human is bitten, the incident must be reported to the Department of Health & Animal Control based on laws involving communicable disease.
Paw Point at Lake Roland
Paw Point is a membership-only park in Baltimore that permits unleashed dogs, and features over an acre of area for play and swimming. A membership entitles the owner to bring in two licensed and vaccinated dogs. If a dog intentionally wounds another dog or person, the membership may be immediately terminated. The park has members sign an indemnity agreement stating that the park, county, council, committees, sponsors and volunteers are considered harmless from any claims for damages. Further, members are assuming the risks involved with dog fights and other incidents.
Dog owners may be liable for injuries, death, or property losses caused by their dog when unleashed unless one of the following circumstances exists:
- The injured party is attempting or committing an act of trespassing or a criminal act on the owner's property
- The party is attempting or committing a criminal offense against a person
- The party is provoking, abusing or tormenting the dog
The Federal Recreation Landowner Immunity & Liability Act is the primary basis for state laws that seek to encourage landowners to make their property available for free public recreational use. In this instance, the owner does not have a duty to protect or warn those participating in such activities of potentially dangerous conditions. These laws are also referred to as Recreation Use Statutes (RUS). The immunity does not extend to shield owners from intentional or wanton acts that result in injuries.