Who Is Liable: Owners and Keepers

Usually, a dog's owner is legally responsible for damage or injury the dog causes. But someone else may also be liable, if any of the following is true:

  • Someone besides the owner was taking care of and had control over the dog.
  • The dog's owner is less than 18 years old.
  • The owner's landlord knew the dog was dangerous but didn't do anything about it.
  • The dog was on someone else's property, and that person was negligent in not removing the dog.

Under the common law (discussed above), someone who harbors or keeps a dog is just as liable as the legal owner of a dog if the dog causes injury. Many state dog-bite laws also make the "owner or keeper" of a dog liable for damage or injury the dog causes.

Keepers and Harborers

A "keeper" is someone with care, custody, and control of a dog.46 A Minnesota court put it this way:

Harboring or keeping a dog means something more than a meal of mercy to a stray dog or the casual presence of a dog on someone's premises. Harboring means to afford lodging, to shelter or to give refuge to a dog. Keeping a dog … implies more than the mere harboring of the dog for a limited purpose or time. One becomes the keeper of a dog only when he either with or without the owner's permission undertakes to manage, control or care for it as dog owners in general are accustomed to do.47

Some courts, however, consider someone who has custody only for a very limited time to be a keeper.

Here are some examples of how courts have ruled on the question of keeping or harboring a dog:

  • An employee of a dog kennel is bitten while at work. Ruled: She is a "keeper" under Wisconsin law.48
  • A man lets a woman and her dog stay in his house while he's on vacation. The dog bites someone. Ruled: He is an "owner" under Minnesota law.49
  • A dog escapes from an Illinois animal shelter and runs onto a highway, causing a motorcyclist to have an accident. Ruled: Under state law, the shelter is the "owner" for purposes of liability.50
  • As a favor to her employer, a woman takes his two dogs for a walk. They pull her; she falls. Ruled: Because she had "care and custody" of the dogs, she was their owner under Illinois law, and can't sue.51
  • While a woman is visiting her son, his dog injures someone. Ruled: The fact that while she was there, she gave the dog commands and let it in and out doesn't make her a keeper under New York law.52
  • A Minnesota landlord lets a tenant have a dog in his apartment. The dog bites another tenant in her apartment. Ruled: The landlord isn't an owner.53 (Landlord liability is discussed in detail in Landlords and Dogs.)
  • The owners of a restaurant rent out part of the building to a woman who works in the restaurant and has three bulldogs. The dogs occasionally wander into the restaurant for handouts from customers, and the restaurant owners pet the dogs and sometimes take them for rides in their car. One day the dogs bite a woman coming out of the restaurant. Ruled: Because they do not give the dogs shelter, protection, or food, or exercise control over them, the restaurant owners are not keepers.54

Some state dog-bite statutes limit liability to the owner of the dog. Under Washington law, for example, "mere keepers or possessors of a dog" aren't liable under the state statute, which limits liability to owners.55 But be careful not to take these statutes at face value. Sometimes another section of the statute, or a court interpreting it, defines "owner" as anyone who cares for or harbors the dog. For example, the Illinois statute says that if a dog injures a person, "the owner of such dog" is liable for the full amount of the injury. But another Illinois statute defines "owner" as anyone who keeps or harbors a dog.56

Local ordinances may define "owner" more broadly than state laws. Under the Oklahoma statute, for example, "owner" is given a limited meaning. A Tulsa ordinance, however, defines owner as anyone "having the care or custody of or harboring, keeping or maintaining" a dog. Tulsa residents are subject to the broader local meaning, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled.57

A dog may have more than one owner, and so more than one person may be liable if the dog injures someone. For example, if you leave your dog with a friend for six months, and the dog bites someone, the friend may be liable as a "keeper." But you're still the owner, so you may be liable, too, either because of a dog-bite statute or, if you knew the dog was dangerous, the common law rule.


If the dog is owned or cared for by someone less than 18 years old, that minor's parents are probably legally liable in place of the minor. The dogbite laws of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine say that explicitly.

Some other states have laws that make parents responsible, to a limited extent, for damage their minor children cause. In other states, courts are likely to rule that the child's parents, who allow the dog on the premises and give it food and shelter, are liable because they are "keepers" of the dog.

Family Members

In most circumstances, parents can't be sued by children who are injured as a result of parental negligence. The reason is the "parental immunity" doctrine, which is based on the theory that family harmony would be disrupted if children could sue parents for failing to supervise and protect them adequately. But this immunity is not absolute. In at least one instance, a court allowed a lawsuit brought on behalf of a toddler after the family dog bit her severely. An Arizona court ruled that because the parents had a duty, as dog owners, to keep their dog from injuring anyone - including their own child - they were not immune from a lawsuit filed on behalf of their daughter.58

It's a complicated area. Some states have allowed children to sue if the lawsuit isn't based on negligence, but instead on a dog bite statute that imposes strict liability on dog owners.59 Others have not.60 Anyone who lets a dog stay on his property may be liable for injury the dog causes if it's unreasonably careless to let the dog stay. For example, a New Jersey store was sued after a dog, tied outside the store by a shopper, bit a girl on her way inside. The court said that if a jury decided the store should have foreseen that the dog might bite someone, it would be liable for the injury.61

The Alabama Supreme Court, however, ruled that a woman whose son lived in a mobile home on her property was not liable when the son's dog attacked a gas delivery man. The Alabama statute says "owners" are liable; if the legislature had meant "owners or keepers," it should have said so, the court reasoned.62

Property Owners

In some circumstances, landlords may be held financially responsible for injury or damage caused by a tenant's dog (The special situation of landlords whose tenants have dogs is discussed in Landlords and Dogs).


If you're hurt at work by a dog, your legal options may be limited. A Massachusetts woman, bitten by her employer's dog, was not allowed to sue her employer; her only recourse was to file a worker's compensation claim.63

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