Owning Attack Dogs

As a pet owner, you will be held accountable for the violent behaviors your pets exhibit. If your dog or other household pet attacks another person, you could face legal repercussions.

California has laws in place meant to protect people from violent animal attacks, whether they are domesticated pets, live on a farm, or in a zoo. Owning or having control of an animal, like a dog that is trained to fight, attack, or kill is illegal. The legal penalties could include jail time, steep fines, and losing your household pet.

Review the information below to gain a better understanding of what it means to own a dog that is trained to fight or attack.

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How Does California Define “Owning Attack Dogs?”

The definition of owning attack dogs is outlined under California Penal Code 399.5. This law states it is a crime for someone to own a dog that is trained to attack or kill. The main factors taken into consideration when determining this crime are:

  • The defendant owned or controlled a dog that is trained to attack, fight, or kill,
  • The defendant failed to exercise ordinary care, AND
  • This dog bites another person two or more times, OR
  • This dog bites an individual once and that bite caused a serious injury.

Owned vs Controlled: What is the difference?

The owner of the dog is completely responsible for its care. Someone who is charged with controlling the dog does not necessarily mean they are the owner. If they are supposed to be taking care of it and tasked with controlling it, they are still accountable for what happens to the animal or for what the animal does while in their care.

What does “failure to exercise ordinary care” mean?

If the owner or person in control failed to properly restrain or control their dog, in other words, they did not use the ordinary care that a reasonable person would have under the same circumstances, they are responsible for the violent attacks of the dog. Basic examples of this type of failure are:

  • Failing to have your aggressive dog on a leash while out on a walk.
  • Knowing your dog can act violently, yet allowing them to roam an unfenced area without supervision or being tied to keep them from leaving the area.
  • Your dog can jump the backyard fence and has been known to bark at people or attack other people’s pets. Instead of taking the precautions necessary to keep the dog from leaving the yard, you simply let it run around. It continues jumping the fence.
    • Steps that would fall under ordinary care and necessary precautions to prevent further incidents include building a taller fence, or using a chain, rope, or tie to keep the dog from jumping out of the yard.

What is considered a serious bodily injury?

California law defines a serious bodily injury as a severe physical impairment such as:

  • Wounds that require serious sutures, also known as stitches,
  • Getting knocked out or losing consciousness,
  • Brain swelling or concussion,
  • Fractured or broken bones,
  • Severe disfigurement,
    • Scars or other noticeable changes in one’s facial structure or skin.
  • Any loss or impairment of body parts, limbs, or organs.
    • Missing a finger or toe,
    • Damaged lungs, kidneys, or other organs,
    • Vision, voice, or hearing loss,
    • Permanently disabled leg, hips, arm, or any other body part.

Associated Offenses

California PC 399 – Failing to control a dangerous dog or animal;

This crime is committed when someone willfully lets a dangerous animal roam free and/or does not use ordinary care in keeping it, and their failure to keep it results in the animal seriously injuring or killing another person.

California PC 597 – Animal abuse or animal cruelty;

This law states it is a crime to physically harm, injure, neglect, starve, overwork, or kill an animal.

California PC 597.7 – Leaving an animal in an unattended vehicle;

It is a crime to leave an animal, unattended, in a motor vehicle when the environmental conditions are considered dangerous to the health or well-being of that animal.

California PC 597.5 – Dogfighting;

This law is violated when someone owns, keeps, or trains a dog and intends to engage that dog in exhibition fights with other dogs, to fight other dogs for entertainment and amusement, or to gamble and bet on the winner.

California Dog Bite Laws

The owner of a dog that bites someone is held personally responsible for the injuries to the victim. Even if the dog never bit anyone before or if it was an accident, California has strict guidelines for a dog bite situation. The animal cannot be convicted of assault and battery, however, the owner will be held accountable for the animal’s behavior.

The Prosecution

Owning or controlling attack dogs and failing to exercise reasonable restraint of them is not enough to be charged with PC 399.5. For the prosecution to successfully get a conviction they must first prove beyond a reasonable doubt the facts of the case. These factors are also referred to as the:

Elements of the Crime

  • The defendant owned or controlled a dog that is trained to attack, fight, or kill and they knew the animal was trained to exhibit this violent behavior,
  • Yet, they failed to exercise ordinary care, AND
  • The dog has bitten people two or more times, OR
  • The dog bites another person once and that bite results in a serious injury.

Caring for abused animals can often mean taking in animals that were forced to fight and forced to act violently. This in itself is not a crime, however, failing to take this into account when attempting to integrate the animal into society can lead to dangerous situations.

Who Can Face Charges

Each of these cases explains who can be charged with a PC 399.5 offense. If you or someone you care about can relate to any of these examples, get the help of a legal defense lawyer as soon as you can. A conviction for this offense will have lasting impacts on your future and the fate of the dog.

Example 1:

Arnold adopted a pit bull that had been trained to fight in dog fights. Even with its history, he lets it run around the yard without any restraints. The dog had bitten one of his neighbors before, resulting in a wound that required over two dozen stitches and left lasting scars. While he was working on his car in the driveway, he let his dog out without a leash, chain, or muzzle. His pit bull runs up to the mailman and bites his face, resulting in serious injuries. Arnold knew his pit bull was aggressive and it had seriously injured someone before, yet he continued to let the dog roam free. He could be charged with PC 399.5.

Example 2:

Bailey’s german shepherd was trained to fight by its previous owner. She knew about its history but hoped she could retrain it. It had bitten two of her roommates, but the wounds were superficial and they did not complain. One day, she leaves her garage door open while working and her german shepherd runs out. It attacks a teenager riding his skateboard. It bites his forearm and causes him to fall. He hits his head on the sidewalk while the german shepherd continues biting his forearm. The teenager is left with a concussion and multiple bite wounds. Although Bailey had good intentions for the german shepherd, it was trained to attack. It also had a history of attacking some of her friends. Bailey could be charged with PC 399.5.

Legal Defense

Fortunately, there are common legal defenses typically used to dispute charges for owning attack dogs. A dedicated criminal defense lawyer will be familiar with these defenses. They will have the expertise to determine what the best possible route is for your case.

Did you know the animal was dangerous?

To be guilty of owning an attack dog the defendant must have known the animal they owned or controlled was trained to kill, fight, or attack. A PC 399.5 charge would not apply in cases where the defendant had no idea the dog in their care was trained to act violently.


Stan adopted a bullmastiff and did not know the dog was trained to attack. He brought it home and after a few weeks of good behavior, he thought it was safe to bring the dog to the dog park. Once he let his dog off the leash, it attacked another dog. When the other dog-owners stepped in to stop it, the bullmastiff bit them. Stan managed to stop and restrain the dog after it had bitten another dog and three people. Although the dog attacked multiple people, Stan did not know it was violent. He had no idea the dog had been trained to attack or fight. This case would fall under California’s Dog Bite Laws, but it should not rise to the level of PC 399.5 because the owner, Stan, was not aware of the dog’s violent training.

Did the alleged victim take reasonable precautions under the circumstances?

It is not unheard of for dogs to be provoked or show obvious signs of aggression. If the alleged victim ignored such signs or provoked the dog, the situation should not rise to a PC 399.5 offense. Moreover, if the alleged victim failed to take precautions that a reasonable person would have taken under the same circumstances, the defendant should not be guilty of owning an attack dog.


Margaret knew her neighbors’ dog was protective of the yard and would often bark at people walking by. The owner would not leave it outside without having it chained-up. She had heard that it bit the mailman once. She loved dogs and thought it would like her if she gave it dog treats. She brought over a piece of cheese and some beef jerky, but as soon as she walked onto the driveway, the dog began acting aggressively, viciously barking at her. Instead of reversing her course and leaving it alone, she held out the treats and walked closer. Once she was close enough, the dog lunged at her, biting her hand. She blamed the owner for the dog’s behavior, claiming he owned a dog that was trained to attack people.

Under the circumstances, the owner should not be charged with a PC 399.5 offense even though their dog had bitten someone before. In this case, Margaret not only trespassed onto her neighbor’s property, but she also approached the dog that was chained in the yard, a dog she knew had a violent streak. She understood it was aggressive, yet ignored those factors in an effort to befriend it. It can be argued that a reasonable person, under the same circumstances would have acted more cautiously. The dog’s owner should not be held responsible for her actions. Margaret placed herself in a dangerous situation.

Are you exempt?

There are a few people who are exempt from California’s owning an attack dog laws. A PC 399.5 offense does not apply in cases where the owner or person charged with controlling the dog is a police officer who is assigned to the canine unit or if they are an on-duty animal control professional.


Don, an animal control officer, was called to investigate a stray dog roaming a Chula Vista neighborhood. He manages to subdue the stray only to have it escape the kennel and attack a pedestrian. The victim claimed Don did not properly secure the animal and tried to have Don charged with PC 399.5. Don would not be guilty of owning attack dogs because his profession provides him with exempt status. He may have had control of the animal for a short time, but he is not legally responsible for the stray’s behavior.

Penalties for PC 399.5

The defendant is not the only one who will face legal consequences. Some punishments will apply to the dog as well.

If convicted of owning an attack dog, you will face;


As long as one year in county jail, or

Informal (summary) probation, and/or

Fines as high as ten thousand dollars.


A possible county jail term of 2, 3, or 4 years, or

Formal (felony) probation, and/or

As much as ten thousand dollars in fines.

The judge has full discretion in determining whether the defendant should serve jail time or receive strict probation.

What happens to the dog?

The judge will decide what happens to the dog once the defendant has been convicted. If the animal is found to possess uncontrollable violent tendencies and is still dangerous to the extent that a future attack cannot be prevented, the judge may order:

  • The attack dog be taken from its’ owner and removed from its’ home or location, OR
    • This could mean the animal would be placed into the care of a facility that can rehabilitate the dog.
  • The canine would be put to sleep.
    • In other words, the dog will be humanely killed.
    • Humane killing is when the animal is killed instantly or put down without feeling any pain.

Enhanced Penalties

If the alleged victim was severely injured, they are within their rights to pursue a civil suit against the defendant. They can sue for punitive damages which means even more financial repercussions for the defendant. The defendant could be held responsible for any missed wages, legal fees, medical bills, and counseling bills they received as a result of the animal attack. If the victim dies due to the dog attack, the defendant will likely face felony consequences.

Can I lose my gun rights?

California’s felon with a firearm law, PC 29800, states that anyone convicted of a felony cannot legally possess or carry a firearm. Regardless of what type of felonious crime was committed, if you are convicted of it, the right to bear arms becomes restricted.

Yes, if the defendant is convicted of felony PC 399.5 for owning an attack dog, they will lose their right to acquire, purchase, own, receive, or possess a firearm. Violating California’s felon with a firearm law is a felony that could result in up to three years in county jail or state prison.

Penalties for Similar Offenses

There are cases in which the owner of the attack dog is guilty of abuses as well. If it is discovered the animal was abused, neglected, or trained to attack by the owner, they could face additional offenses. The legal consequences could include county jail or prison sentences to be served consecutively along with steeper fines.

The following are only some of the most commonly associated crimes to PC 399.5. If you or someone you know is facing multiple offenses, do not hesitate to find a legal defense attorney who can help.

California PC 399 – Failing to control a dangerous dog or animal;


As long as six months in county jail, and/or

Fines as high as one thousand dollars.


As long as three years in county jail, and/or

Up to ten thousand dollars in fines.

California PC 597 – Animal abuse or animal cruelty;


As long as one year in county jail, and/or

Fines as high as twenty thousand dollars.


16 months, 2, or 3 years in state prison, and/or

Up to twenty thousand dollars in fines.

California PC 597.7 – Leaving an animal in an unattended vehicle;


A one-hundred-dollar fine.


As long as six months in county jail, and/or

Up to five hundred dollars in fines.

California PC 597.5 – Dogfighting;


Summary (informal) probation,

Up to one year in county jail, and/or

Fines as high as five thousand dollars.

Potential forfeiture of assets.


Formal (felony) probation,

16 months, 2, or 3 years in county jail, and/or

Fines as high as fifty thousand dollars.

Possible asset forfeiture.

California Dog Bite Laws

These laws impose strict responsibilities for the owner if their dog bites someone. Even if the dog never displayed violent tendencies or has never bitten someone in the past, the owner of the dog is legally accountable for any compensatory damages to the alleged victim. This means the owner of the dog will be liable for any pain and suffering the victim went through as a result of the dog-bite. This includes covering any financial losses, such as medical bills or lost wages.

Let Us Help

If you are located in San Diego, Orange County, or Los Angeles and need legal assistance contact the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum. Fighting a PC 399.5 offense alone can be overwhelming, especially when considering the potential outcome for the dog. Not only will the defendant be facing fines and potential jail time, but most attack dogs are generally taken away from their owners.

If you have any questions concerning owning attack dogs, PC 399.5, or would like more information on California’s dog bite laws, do not hesitate to call us. We can help. To schedule your no-obligation, free consultation, call 619-233-4433 or use our online contact form. We welcome all inquiries.