Pets out in public

What are my rights?

My friend had to go out of town for the day, so I'm taking care of their dog. That pup can get a bit aggressive outside of the house. But if anything happens, I won't be held responsible because it's not my dog.
  • Yes
  • No

Whether you’re a dog person, a cat person, or a micro mini pig person — as an animal owner you have legal obligations to your pet. Owners must also make sure their pets behave appropriately out in the world. Here, learn what to look out for when you take your pet for a walk, on a road trip, or for a run in the park. (We also have information on taking care of pets at home.)

What you should know

You are responsible, even if you’re not the owner

“I take care of my friend’s dog on Thursdays — he does a lot of shift work and I’m happy to help. Doris (the dog) is generally very well behaved, but every now and then she gets excited to see other dogs, and manages to escape my grasp on walks. I’ve let my friend know about this — I don’t want him to get in trouble. But he told me that I could be responsible too if Doris causes any trouble while I’m walking her."

– Brooke, Harrison Hot Springs

The moment you take a pet out of the house, you’re responsible for everything it does. Any injury to people or other animals and you’ll likely be on the hook. Even if the pet runs off and commits its crimes solo.

You’re also responsible for what a pet — any pet — does to other people and animals that come onto your turf. Let’s say you’re having a backyard BBQ, and your friend brings their dog. You can be held responsible if that dog hurts another guest. The owner may have to share some of this responsibility, depending on the circumstances. And the owner may have to adapt to service providers, like the mail carrier, adjusting their delivery schedule if an unruly pet prevents them from doing their job safely. 

Bottom line — if you’re in control of a pet (or it’s on your property), be vigilant about its behaviour.

Even a loveable, “people-person” pet can be a menace

Remember that even a big goofy Golden Retriever can be a menace if it bowls people over in its overzealous affection. Dogs that jump up can be as problematic as dogs that bite. And herding breeds can accidentally take down strangers just by nudging them. Indeed, injuries caused by “non-aggressive” dogs are a common source of civil lawsuits involving animals.  

But if your dog is aggressive, you have to take special measures

Special rules apply to dogs that are temperamentally threatening. Municipalities don’t tend to list specific breeds. (Arguably, meanness in a dog can be a matter of nurture than nature.) An “aggressive” dog is one disposed to attacking others, or that has bitten another dog or human in the past. (Check out section 1.2 of the Vancouver animal control bylaw on this.) 

In this case, you have extra duties as the owner or custodian. These may include muzzling your pet outside of the house. Non-compliance can lead to fines, or worse. If someone gets injured, you can be liable for damages (and potentially all the related costs of hiring a lawyer and going to court). 

A big, open park or field does not give you the right to go off leash

“I don’t have a dog myself, but I love seeing them play. There’s a small park near our house where the neighborhood dogs and owners chew the fat. Lately, they’ve been allowing the dogs to play without leashes, and it all seems to go just fine. But now I’ve heard other neighbours have called the City, and apparently some of the owners have been issued fines. It’s made the park less vibrant, but I guess I understand how both sides feel..."

– Sherry, Vancouver

Certain areas allow pets (typically dogs) to roam free. And sometimes places just sort of … become off-leash areas when everyone treats them that way, letting their dogs juke around retrieving balls or catching frisbees. But that doesn’t mean off-leash play is actually allowed. If you’re one of those owners, recognize that these areas can get shut down by your municipality (usually after someone complains). And if your dog injures someone, you won’t have “Hey, it’s an off-leash area; people knew the risks” to fall back on.

Vancouver has a map of off-leash areas. Consult your municipality to find out where off-leash areas are in your neighborhood.

If your pet injures someone

Animal attacks happen, despite the best intentions of owners. We have detailed information on dog attacks and injuries. You may consider reaching out to a lawyer to understand your rights. 

Take action to prevent problems

Step 1. License and register your pet

Getting a pet licence is easy, and very much worth it. It makes tracking down a lost pet simpler, and you’ll be contributing to valuable municipal programs that protect animals and the public. Google your municipality to learn about the process. In Vancouver, you can buy a dog licence online for $45

You can also register your pet with the BC Pet Registry. This service is run by the BC SPCA. You can have a tiny microchip installed under your pet’s skin, to track it if it gets lost.

Step 2. Empathize with others

This one may seem obvious but … not everybody is comfortable with animals. Lots of pet owners have high emotional intelligence around this; they’re careful to make sure their dogs don’t rush up to greet anything that moves. New pet owners may not be as aware. 

Know your pet. Certain breeds tend to be more aggressive, making them potentially dangerous. (And past mistreatment can bring out the worst in any dog.) Problem dogs may need different leashes, larger enclosures, and possibly a muzzle.

As the owner, you’re responsible for anticipating your pet’s needs when they’re out in public. That starts with understanding their rhythms and comfort zones, whether you’re walking on-leash through a busy downtown street, or in a big, quiet off-leash park.

Step 3. Document any attacks or injuries

After an attack, emotions will be high. Whether you’re the owner or the injured party, try to keep a level head and focus on gathering data.

Exchange contact information. Write down notes of what happened and take photographs. Be careful not to say or do too much. Making a promise to pay for injuries or other damages could come back to, um, bite you if the injured party files a lawsuit.

The municipality may get in touch to let you know if you violated a local bylaw, and if so, what the fine might be. 

The injured party (which could be you!) may seek compensation from the pet owner to cover the costs of their injuries or any other alleged damage. If this is the case, we have detailed information on dog attacks and injuries).

Who can help

Helpful agencies

BC SPCA
Non-profit that works to protect and enhance quality of life for animals in BC.
City of Vancouver Animal Services
Assistance with dog licences, pet adoption, and bylaw enforcement in the city.

  • Reviewed in September 2020
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 10 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

David Kandestin, People's Law School

David Kandestin

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