You cross a parking lot and hear a dog barking frantically. A few rows further, a dog paces and paws inside a car. It’s a hot day and your instinct as a responsible dog owner kicks in. You rush around looking for something to smash a window.
Before you pick up a stone, stop and think. By breaking this window, you may be breaking a law. Worse, your well-meaning action can do more harm than good.
It’s not as easy as putting on your superhero cape and freeing an endangered puppy. The laws of the Good Samaritan vary by jurisdiction. Acting without understanding the law could make you liable for property damage and the safety of the dog and the community.
More than a dozen states recently enacted Good Samaritan laws limiting the liability of people who remove a dog from a car, but the details vary widely, according to Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center.
Indiana, for example, blames rescuers for half of the damage to the car. Delaware requires rescuers to leave a note. In Arizona and California, you must stay with the dog until authorities arrive. Some only allow first responders to remove an animal. Other state laws provide little guidance. Therefore, breaking into a car, especially if the animal was not in danger, could expose you to vandalism, theft, or other criminal charges.
Loopholes for thieves
AKC’s government relations team (AKC GR) works with state legislatures to ensure new laws are balanced and sound. We want to protect pets, but limiting legal liability for breaking into a car to save an animal can have unintended consequences. Full immunity from prosecution could give the green light to dog thieves and vandals.
Think of the person safely securing a dog in a vehicle after dark in the training club parking lot to organize an indoor rally training course. This person could come back to find the car windows smashed and the dog gone, even if the dog was not in danger. The same goes for the owner of a motorhome parked in front of a dog show with the air conditioning on full blast.
In several states and communities, the AKC GR has helped amend proposals that would have removed any liability for people who break into a vehicle and release a dog. Instead, the AKC GR supports laws that require specific safety and notification measures to be taken, such as calling 911, securing the dog and vehicle, and sending a note if the dog is taken elsewhere.
With the increase in dog theft, unless proper controls are in place, well-meaning laws can create big loopholes for thieves. The person breaking a window and taking a dog away may not be heading directly to the animal shelter, and an accomplice may wait until the area is cleared to steal other property from the vehicle.
There is also the issue of unintended consequences which may not be covered by the Good Samaritan liability provisions. For example, what if the released dog bites someone: is the person who released the dog responsible for the damage? What if the dog escapes, collides with traffic and is hit by a car or causes a shipwreck?
A step back
So what can you do While nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice, there are a few common sense actions you should consider before attempting a rescue.
First of all, as a dog owner, never leave a dog in a vehicle where their health and safety could be compromised. It’s also wise to avoid appearing to be doing this, even if you think the situation is safe.
If you see a dog in a troubling situation, consider the following:
- Is the dog showing physical signs of immediate danger?
- Is the air conditioning turned on or is the vehicle otherwise ventilated?
- Is it in the shade where there is no significant heat gain?
- Is the driver present, perhaps standing nearby locked up by his own dog, with a locksmith on the way?
- Is there a law enforcement officer on the scene or has someone else already called for help?
After a quick assessment, if you still believe the dog is in immediate danger and no one else has taken action, think about how it is safe and legal for you to do it. Good Samaritan laws in many jurisdictions require you to call law enforcement and follow directions. If you don’t know who to call, dial 911.
If law enforcement asks you to get into the car, think about how you will safely secure the dog. Do you have a leash, belt or purse strap? Do you have water for the dog? What will you do if a panicked or defensive dog comes out struggling or biting?
First check if there is an open door. If you must break a window, choose one that will cause the least risk to yourself, the dog and the vehicle.
After releasing the dog, be responsible for its safety until the authorities arrive. If you are removing the dog from the immediate area to take it to a veterinarian or animal control, contact the authorities and leave a note on the vehicle with your name, contact details and in particular where you are taking the dog. You may also be responsible for securing the vehicle and its contents.
For more information on this important dog safety issue read here or email AKC GR at [email protected]
Sheila Goffe is Vice President of Government Relations for the American Kennel Club.