Shooting in defense of pets

Here is a terrible story: a man at an shelter dog rescue event stabbed a pit bull to death. There are so many tidbits of this story that we could discuss today, from the way the man’s language about pit bulls 100% reflects the deranged language of the anti-gun crowd about rifles (‘f***ing pit bull, why are you even allowed to have these dogs – direct quote from the man), we could comment about how some people are just wrong in the head, but instead I want to talk about acting in defense of a pet.


The first thing to bear in mind is the question of “is it legal to use force to defend a pet?” Pets are, in the eyes of the law, property. They’re not people, they don’t enjoy the same rights as humans, regardless of how much a part of your family they become. In South Dakota, it’s generally legal to use appropriate force to defend your property, and deadly force is good to go so long as you’re in a situation where deadly force would be legally justified. I know that’s a bit of a tautology, but that’s how the law reads.

However, a better question is this, and something’s that stuck with me for a long time. When I was taking classes from the excellent InSights Training Center in Washington, they would regularly talk about having the ability to articulate that you were in fear for your life when you used deadly force. There are situations where fear for your life is obvious and easily articulated: “He had a gun, he was threaten to kill me if I didn’t do what he said” and some where it’s a little more difficult.

Back then to the pit bull story. Let’s change it up a little bit. Instead of being in public at an adoption event, let’s say you’re out walking your dog. Someone shouts “if you bring that pit bull near me I’m going to stab it.” You, being a smart person, move in the opposite direction of the shouter. Then you come round a corner, and there he is. He attacks your dog with a knife, stabbing it. Here is the question I’d like to see answered in comments: Could you in that situation reasonably articulate that you were in fear for your life? Let me know yes/no and why you feel that way.


    1. After reading the article, however, it seems that the person doing the stabbing was the owner of a small dog that the pit bull was attacking. If another dog were to attack one of my dogs, and I couldn’t otherwise stop the attack, I might resort to deadly force against the attacking dog.

      1. But also, it sounds like the stabber was a little unhinged to begin with. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to say without being there and witnessing it.

      2. The “pit bull” was not actually attacking the West Highland White Terrier. The small dog received no injuries. It is normal dog behavior for dogs to use their mouths in play, and the description of the larger dog’s actions were “tugging on the ear” of the smaller dog. The Westie’s owner, due to his prejudice against “pit bulls”(a catch-phrase often denoting all short-haired muscular dogs between 20 and 200 pounds), interpreted that behavior as an attack, and chances are, he would have determined ANY observable behavior on the part of the larger dog as threatening, to either his dog or himself. It’s the same way with people who hate/fear snakes; they can see a snake sunning itself on a log and automatically assume that it’s preparing to attack someone.

  1. We’ll if the animal is in close proximity AND under direct physical control (I.e. Leashed on a sub 6 foot tether)… Then yea the obvious answer is draw, verbal warning, back pedal if possible and if need be engage. My reasoning being IF the other guy is nuts enough to engage your dog AND you are tied to your dog then when he gets done with the dog:
    1. He’ll probably come after me next!
    2. He’s armed and shown he’s willing to use said weapon!
    3. I’m going to be dragging either a pissed off dog or about a 40 pound anchor of incapacitated dog as I try to run away (can you say easy target)!

    Better question being if the dog is running without direct physical control (I.e. Dog parks, yards or hunting) and some nut sack attacks him what do I do? That one is a bit stickier to me.

    1. The dog part question is more complicated. I think that if you live in a state where it’s legal to use force to defend property, this would be a good option for pepper spray. You see someone about to attack your dog, you mace that dude and if they keep coming it’s time to go hot.

      1. That’s actually a really good response to the situation. My thinking is pretty much spot-on with Isaac’s, but you do add a great point toward the pepper spray. That being said, if I’m across the park, by Louisiana law, it probably wouldn’t be a good shoot, but it probably would be one I’d take.

  2. Honest opinion – if a man attacked a pitbull with a knife, and the man still has all his fingers, the pit bull probably wasn’t actually a threat to the man.

    Similarly, if the Westie was released with minor injuries, the pit bull wasn’t a threat to the Westie, either. Which means the man was just crazy and violent.

    But seriously… someone attacks my dog, I have a right to protect the dog with nonlethal means. If someone’s attacking my dog with a knife, what does the law *want* me to do – I’m not going to attack him unarmed!

    I worry about the dog issue all the time. My dog tends to sleep downstairs. If there’s a break in, the dog is going to be the first one to meet the attacker. Which means that the smart thing for me to do is wake up, arm, get the family behind cover and wait… while I listen to my dog fight for our lives and possibly die… alone…

  3. If somebody pulls a knife and starts stabbing anything, even if it is something as inanimate as a cardboard box, then I have enough fear for my life, I could justify (at least to myself,) the need to act in self defense. Rational people don’t pull knives and stab things.

  4. Good option to have and a nice lesser use of force.

    Also it would probably be a good thing to know dog use of force (I.e. I know that in Minnesota a dog who bites after being “provocated” is not consider “a vicious animal”). It helps when the dude who breaks into your home gets bitten and you hand the cops a copy of the laws… Trust me!

  5. I have always had dogs, and almost all German Shepherds. This topic, in one way or another has been brought up multiple times with my friends and colleagues.

    My dog is NEVER outside of my home without a quality AND properly fitted collar and a proper leash. He is always under my control. With that being said…

    Here’s my thought process…

    If someone attacks my dog, they’re clearly an imminent threat to myself and anyone that is with me.

    Frankly, anyone that attacks a dog, of any size, without damn good reason, should be euthanized.

    At the same time, if a dog were to get loose and attack me, my dog, my family, etc, and as much as a dog lover as I am, I will properly defend myself. Shooting the animal would, hopefully, be a last resort.

  6. Not a problem in Texas. We are allowed to defend out property with deadly force. Keep in mind however, that even in Texas, you will go through all the trouble and expense for your actions.

  7. Setting aside the fact that a leashed dog (Your dog is *always* in compliance with local leash laws when off your property, thus retaining the legal principle of “Innocence” for your SD claim, right?) is only 3 feet away from you and thus a deadly force attack on it, in the eyes of the “reasonable man” standard, is almost certainly justification for defense of self, or even of property, using “Proportional” force (“detached reflection in the face of an upraised knife” and all)…

    All 50 states have Felony Cruelty to Animal statutes. In Alaska it is a Class C felony.

    So, admittedly not having looked at the case law, you might in some states be able to bootstrap a “Use of Force to prevent a Felony or “effect a citizen’s arrest” justification in using proportional force in defense of the animal.

    Alaska Statute Sec. 11.61.140 Cruelty to animals.

    (a) A person commits cruelty to animals if the person

    (1) knowingly inflicts severe and prolonged physical pain or suffering on an animal;

    (5) knowingly kills or injures an animal, other than as provided in (1) or (3) of this subsection, with the intent to intimidate, threaten, or terrorize another person;

    In any event, you should always comport yourself in dress and manner as to bolster the chance you can sell the press and court of public opinion on you being the victim should the need ever arise.

    1. Good post. Use of force to prevent or stop a forcible felony tends to be pretty clear-cut.

      1. You’d need to check the definitions and your state case law if attacks on animals count as “forcible” or “violent” felonies. The courts may have only applied that to violence against humans.

        Plain language of statute is what it is, but case law controls.

    2. Matthew, I wonder if you could claim shooting someone stabbing your dog as a DLP shooting. You certainly could if it was a bear or wolf attacking your dog.

      1. JFM, I *think* DLP is a defense, necessity exception or justification, to the charge of “Illegally Taking Game.” I don’t think it would apply as a stand-alone to defense against attack by a person. Again, you’d want to read the statute and case law.

  8. In the situation in the article I think the guy was right to defend his dog but he may have jumped to profanity and stabbing a bit too soon. If you are a reasonably sized man a swift punch in the head/back of neck will usually cause a pitbull to let go (they are not stupid and can tell when they are being attacked). If the pitbull then returned to the fight I would say deadly force is necessary. I have been attacked by a pitbull before and he latched onto my left arm when I blocked, then I punched him in the head with my right hand and he released and ran away.

    However, in the situation described by the author…if anyone comes near me with a knife drawn they have already made the decision to use deadly force and I will meet that with equal force. I am not able to read minds, therefore, I am unable to tell if he is planning on stabbing me, the dog or both of us. For those of you interested in talking to the knife wielding lunatic, don’t forget about the danger zone for a sprinting man with a knife.

    Unfortunately, I live in New Jersey and abide by the law so I will have to lay down and let him stab/shoot both of us since I am not allowed to carry (constitution?…never heard of it.)

  9. Absolutely yes I would defend myself and my dogs. If you think about the dog as property then there is no difference if the bad guy started stabbing your backpack or grocery bag. Anyone that close comitting a violent act to anything I’m holding isn’t a lot different then doing it directly to me. Remember your training and perform appropriate actions. Here in Alaska we have to deal with a lot of pissed off moose and bears as well as bad dogs and people. We certainly have our share of moose and bear attacks each year. Pepper spray is a great tool and is an effective general deterrent to big critters. Concealing a shotgun or rifle isn’t practical and pepper spray won’t require a bunch of explaining if I have to use it. The handgun is for bad dog and bad people protection and we certainly have our share of both.

  10. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the details. Generically, it sounds like a need for both good situational awareness and a well trained dog. Not everyone telegraphs their mental condition, be it just crazy or poorly controlled agitation over a recent event, but one needs to stay alert. Dogs need to be controlled in public, and that means a leash and immediate response to several key commands. Stepping off to the side, reeling in the leash and a “heel” command to get dog and master off the X, while closely watching what has not yet have yet developed into a threat, but may, seems prudent action.

    Producing a weapon within striking distance would drive my hand to holster; I’d prefer starting with a good pepper spray, but if my weak hand is full of leash I’ll need my strong hand to manage a more potent self defense tool.

    Coming toward my heeled dog with a weapon is coming toward me with a weapon, and that would almost certainly result in execution of the draw stroke. What happens next depends on the other party’s response.

    In a dog park situation, where “off leash” is acceptable and expected, it’s a bit tougher, but situational awareness and immediate response to “Rover, come!” would seem even more important.

  11. Dogs are property unless it’s a Police dog… then it is somehow superior to all others and will a murder charge.

    1. +1 ^. If a dog can be Deputized (how stupid), then my dogs can be Citizens and thereby afforded the same legal protections. .

  12. I most certainly would form the opinion that if someone were to attack one of my animals, especially one that was attached to me on a leash, that the same person meant to attack me.
    Who would pause to ask? And why would someone take a knife-stabbing loon at his word even if he did say “Lady I don’t want you, I just plan on killing your furry baby on a string”? (My adult baby is #110 & pup #40)
    We are charged to care for these animals and I believe that means defending them as well. Of course, that is MY belief and not based on man’s law, perhaps biblical truth, but not man’s law.
    Either way I would use deadly force to keep my animals -and myself- safe. I depend on my dogs to keep me safe as well. They are my first line of defense in my home and business. They know long before I do when something isn’t right. Truthfully, it would be impossible to tell who was fighting who and who was defending who at my place. Sure hope it never ever needs tested.
    The law can call them property, most of us call them gifts. Afterall God made them before HE made man.
    May God bless and keep you all safe. Keep defending your animals and defending all the ones that no one else is looking after!!!

  13. A person who attacked a dog at my side with a knife would for all I know attack me. To be as close to my dog as a leash with a knife means he could come at me in a fraction of a second. Shoot him. A lot. If you go to prison, so be it. To do anything else would be less than right.

  14. I would be cautious about asking random commenters from the internet how they “feel” about what is certainly a legal question that will be decided by a judge/jury based on your jurisdiction’s statutes. Great question, and certainly something worth thinking about (especially as a dog owner who carries), but getting up in front of a judge after you just shot a guy and telling the judge that you “feel” the law is on your side is not a position you want to be in. Just my $0.02

    1. Lawstudent makes a good point in an actual case feelings aren’t a great way to go… However this would seem to be more of ‘a hypothetical yes/no and explain your justification so we can think things over’ type thought exercise. For the most part I’m comfortable with the fact we’ve stayed within the laws of our various jurisdictions… It is also nice to take a look at Alaska, Louisiana, New Jersey, Minnesota, Texas, North Dakota and South Dakota law just to be able to cross reference.

  15. Great post Caleb for the thought-provoking scenario. Anyone who carries a firearm had better know exactly when they can and cannot use the firearm for self-defense if they plan on staying out of prison. Trying to squeeze the law to fit your desire to save your dog is a good way to get 3 hots and a cot!

    As for the actual case – even if the guy was a pit hater and screamed profanities about pit bulls, the fact is the pit got loose and attacked his dog. He has the right to defend his dog, even with a knife. The officer was right, he’s justified.

    In your modified case – there is a little more elbow room, with explanation. The pit owner went the other way after the threat showing an intent to avoid conflict. The hater purposefully moved to intercept and then attacked dog. Using the knife from the original scenario the owner could draw his handgun to protect HIMSELF. Personally if I saw a guy approaching with a knife he’d be looking down the dark hole with a clear warning he would be shot if he continued to come close. But that use of my firearm is to protect ME, and not the dog. If he only produces the knife once reaching the dog I can draw to protect ME, but am not legally permitted to use deadly force on a human to protect an animal.

    Same actually goes for a police K-9. Unless the weapon/proximity of the attack on the police K-9 endangers the officers directly there is no legal justification to use deadly force on the assailant. The K-9 is a tool of law enforcement, though it is living. Here are 2 sources where officers clearly indicate this legal precedent about their K-9’s.

    The legal test of using deadly force on a human for self defense is if the attacker reasonably endangered the dog owner with serious physical injury or death. I strongly feel that the proximity of the dog to the owner is going to be the critical component, along with when and how the knife was produced. Even if the dog abuse is a felony it is NOT justifiable to use deadly force on a human to stop it. If you see someone stealing your car (felony) you can’t just shoot them, unless the theft places YOU in danger of serious physical injury or death.

    I hope your readers can separate the emotions of seeing a loved pet killed, from the improper use of deadly force.

      1. For what its worth RawDawg, I’m a current 18-year police veteran. Remember that the original scenario involved the stabber warning to keep the pit bull away, the pit bull getting loose, and the pit bull viciously attacking the stabber’s much smaller dog. In that case the stabber has the right to defend and protect his animal. However, if the pit bull disengages, the stabber does NOT have the right to pursue after the pit bull to finish the job. That would garner an animal abuse charge, but still not make lethal force on the stabber legal.

        In Caleb’s scenario I highlight some considerations for a deadly force response – but emphasize that the deadly force has to be used to defend the human, and not the animal.

        So, in the original scenario. If the pit bull owner ran over and tried to stop the stabbing, the stabber could not legally stab the pit bull owner. Same applies with Caleb’s scenario – unless the stabber’s actions threatens the dog owner.

        I love dogs too, but nobody should go to prison because they had a heart-felt moment and used inappropriate deadly force. Society as a whole is going to value human life over the dog’s life – even when the human life being protected is scum.

  16. after reading the article i believe the man should be charged. he had every right to defend his dog, but not while screaming f-ing pitbulls.. he was obviously biased against them in the first place, and his hostility is probably what cause the pitbull to react in the first place. I am sure he went home to his mommy and cried about how his poor dog was assulted…

  17. The Oregon supreme Court ruled recently that animals can be victims the same way that humans are and “shall be afforded some of the same basic protections as human beings.”

    Makes it so you have a little more legal ground to stand on if you live in OR but even without this ruling, I’d still defend my dogs the same as I would my kids. I may personally put my dogs lower on the totem pole than my kids buyt when it comes to the defense of either, they are all family. Hurt either and you’re either going to either wish you were dead, or be dead.

    1. In almost any Legal Venue animals are qualified as Property only like your tv or vehicle. They have rights as to abuse and be able to live well cared for. The courts don’t recognize in court pain and suffering of the owner in the loss of a pet. Only Recognize dollar value to owner. That is initial cost and extra, if for instance ; it was a Show Dog, or a Movie and/or tv dog that required lots of training at a high cost. In that case it would be Nuts not to have it insured by HA, HA, Lloyds of London like ZZA Gabors finger nail.

    2. Be cautious Bob. The article quotes the OR Supremes as recognizing that animals can be victims, and allows owners to be charged with their abuse (instead of just being inanimate property). The second case allows law enforcement to enter private property without a warrant in exigent circumstances to render aid to animals (much like the law already allows for humans).

      Nowhere did the Oregon Supreme Court indicate that because they were recognizing animals as potential “victims” that they would then share the same legal standard allowing deadly force against a human to protect them.

  18. I read through these responses and wonder what people would do if they were in the pit bull stabbing scenario. Almost everybody has stated that they would defend their own animal with violent force, but many have also stated that they think the man that stabbed the pit bull was wrong. I doubt that many of us knife/gun carrying folks would simply stand by and say “Please stop your wonderful, beautiful pit bull from killing little Mr. Fluffy.” Most of us would feel our blood boil, and our heart pound and want to help our own pets in any way possible. Now, what if your dog was attacked and you responded to save its life, would the owner of the other dog be justified in killing you to protect its own pet? Even if all you do is step up and start punching the dog, based on the previous discussions, that pet owner does not know if you mean them harm as well. If I saw a man start punching a large dog violently, I would wonder about their sanity and whether or not they were a threat to me. Especially if it was my dog that caused them to act that way. Perhaps they may decide that it was my fault and that they should then turn their aggression on me.

  19. Two trains of thought:
    If you dog has a protective streak, you could claim the attack was a direct attempt to disarm you in a public setting. Who knows, the attacker easily could have moved on to you once the dog was dead.

    In PA our dogs are covered under our agriculture laws. The laws allow for the protection of domestic animals, so I have the right to shoot any dog running horses, attacking another dog or cat, or killing chickens. On your own land it would be an easy stretch to include this scenario as protection of ag property, but I’m not so sure you could argue the same point if it occurred on public land.

  20. Sharon McKenzie —

    If the Westie received no injuries, what exactly was it that the shelter that had the pit paid for when they covered the MEDICAL TREATMENTS the Westie received as a result of the injury?

    How about the fact that the shelter had been posting FOR A YEAR AND A HALF on a FB page for that specific pit bull that it was a known problem dog who was aggressive towards other dogs and had been repeatedly banned from various “adoption events” because it was uncontrollable? The last such post less than a month before this attack. That this dog COULD NOT BE TRUSTED around other dogs, felines, etc.? How about the numerous independent witnesses who described how the pit bull in question — OFF LEASH — ran through the crowd to attack the Westie who was ON LEASH (while his owner was taking it to the vet). How about the fact that ALL witness *except* the people who lost control of the pit report the man didn;t say ANYTHING about pits UNIIL THE ATTACK STARTED?

    1. In any event, it is not necessary to suffer an injury before defending yourself. After all the next injury could be the killing or permanently disabling one.

      The whole point of self (or other) defense is to prevent injury, not engage in a “fight”, fair or otherwise.

  21. The people trying to make the guy out to be a pit-hater looking to kill a pit are the ones who lost control of a KNOWN DANGEROUS ANIMAL. . . The disinterested parties who witnessed it (including those who were there to adopt a rescued dog) make it clear what happened.

    Pit bulls are NOT a “devil breed”. THIS pit bull, however, should have been euthanized a LONG time ago, because it was – by ALL accounts – an uncontrollable, highly aggressive animal that EVEN the pit bull rescue people knew was a “problem dog”.

    Just as not all pits are dangerous, not all pits (or collies, or labs, etc.) are automatically angels, just because YOU like the breed.

    1. There’s a difference between a dog that doesn’t get along well with other dogs and a “highly aggressive animal.” I know, because my dog doesn’t get along with other dogs. But it’s nice to know that you think my dog should be killed.

  22. Caleb. –The shelter people THEMSELVES couldn’t place this dog because of its behavior. They publically lamented for a year and a half prior to this incident how they couldn’t take this *specific* dog to adoption events because it could not be trusted around other dogs (or anything smaller than the dog), even on leash. That this dog had to be kept away from all other dogs at all times.

    It’s not about the breed — it’s about a particular animal that had a history of problems so severe the “experts” couldn’t get it placed. A dog that had been repeatedly banned from similar events for being a danger to other dogs. A dog that the handlers from teh rescue shelter that knew the dog couldn’t control, in an environment where they KNEW the dog needed to be controlled.

    Yeah, that *particular* beast was an uncontrollable danger. As for your dog, I don’t know. Can you control it when other dogs come around? If so, then no problem.

    1. They couldn’t place my dog either, because he’s not good with children and other dogs. It wasn’t until a childless couple with no other dogs came along.

      The point I’m trying to make again is that just because it’s hard to find a good home for a dog doesn’t mean the dog is dangerous or needs to be euthanized.

  23. But it’s nice to know that you believe that, because you own a PARTICULAR breed of dog, it’s perfectly fine to take any other dog of that breed that has a KNOWN aggression problem severe enough that it gets repeatedly banned from rescue adoption events for being a threat to other dogs, then let it off the leash so it can attack a LEASHED dog much smaller than it. That you think just because it shares the same breed label as your dog, apparently it is automatically innocent.

    Dude, that’s more Kool-Aid drinking than a guy with a Hi-Point in a Serpa holster loaded with DRT ammo.

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