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Attorney Van O'Steen

Good Fences Tend to Make Dogs Much Better Neighbors

Van O'Steen

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I own a beagle named Keith.

Keith is not my first beagle; he is my fifth. With the first, I learned that hounds love to roam. Unrestrained, they will follow their noses forever.

Over the years, I have been forced to do a series of upgrades on my backyard fence to make it escape-proof. The result is Keith never has been out of our backyard or house except when he was on a leash.

There are obvious risks associated with dogs that run loose. So obvious that the Arizona Legislature and many county, city and town governments have enacted laws intended to prevent it.

Local laws, commonly referred to as "leash laws," typically make it a misdemeanor criminal offense to allow your dog to run loose. Violators generally are fined.

State statutes and common law (court-made law) also establish civil liability for the owner of a dog that causes injury or damage to property while running at large. Freedom may have its price.

In one Arizona case with which I am familiar, a motorcyclist swerved to avoid hitting a dog that ran into the road. He lost control of the motorcycle and was seriously injured. He received a large settlement for his injury claim against the dog's owner.

Prudent dog owners should protect themselves and others in two ways. First, take every reasonable precaution to ensure that your dog never runs loose. If, as in my case, fence improvements are necessary, make them.

Second, buy adequate insurance to cover you if, notwithstanding your best efforts, your dog gets loose and causes damage. Most homeowner's and renter's liability policies provide protection for such claims. Liability limits of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per occurrence should be considered minimum levels of coverage.

If you have questions about the nature or extent of your homeowner's or renter's insurance protection, direct them to your company or to a lawyer.

When we think of injuries caused by dogs, most of us consider only vicious animals that attack and bite others. I never have known a vicious beagle, but I do not want Keith to hurt himself or anyone else while on a frolic.