It is in the news that an Uber driver was mauled by a police dog despite not initiating violence or attempting to avoid arrest. He has suffered life changing injuries. It seems the self defense recommendation in this situation is to go for the dog's eyes, which would obviously cause life changing injuries to the dog.

If one found oneself in such a situation, what is legal self defense? Does it matter if the attack is unprovoked such as in this case, rather than if you initiate violence, or if you try to escape a legal arrest?

Any jurisdiction would be interesting, I care most about the UK but as this incident and most readers are in the US this would also be a good jurisdiction to answer for.

2 Answers 2


The law on this point in England and Wales has recently changed. The main statute here is section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, amended in 2019 to add an exception relevant to police dogs.

Under subsection (1), you commit an offence if you cause a dog (as an example of a "protected animal") to suffer unnecessarily. The necessity conditions in subsection (3) include the example of protecting yourself or someone else, in (3)(c)(ii), but this list is not exhaustive. Nonetheless, that specific defence is excluded by the new subsection (3A) in the case when the dog is a police dog being used by an officer "in a way that was reasonable in all the circumstances". This exception was added precisely to cover the example of a police dog being used to apprehend a suspect, to stop people from claiming self-defence; it's known as "Finn's Law" after a police dog who was stabbed in those circumstances.

If this came up in practice, for the scenario you suggest, then the court would have to deal with (among other things):

  • Was the officer's conduct reasonable in all the circumstances?
  • Could the person have avoided harming the animal?
  • Was the level of harm to the animal proportionate?

The answers would depend on the exact facts involved, so it's not possible to say in a vacuum whether the elements of the offence could be proved.

Note that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which might otherwise apply to the officer in charge of the dog for letting it be "dangerously out of control", actually does not by virtue of section 10(3) so long as it is being used "for a lawful purpose".

Meanwhile, as a civil matter, there is a strict liability provision in the Animals Act 1971 which might catch police dogs. That Act distinguishes between animals of a dangerous species, where the liability always applies, and others where it only applies if the animal meets certain conditions. These have attracted some criticism by senior judges over unclarity in their drafting - see for example Ford v Seymour-Williams [2021] EWCA Civ 1848 and Mirvahedy v Henley [2003] UKHL 16 - but on the basis of those decisions, one could argue that

the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species

in the case of a police dog specifically trained to attack on command. However, on the other side, whether the claim is under the Animals Act, or for battery, etc.:

  • The police may argue that the damage was due to the suspect's own fault. An example I found cited in Street on Torts is Dhesi v Chief Constable of West Midlands Police [2000] WL 491455. A claimant bitten by a police dog was held to have accepted the risk of sustaining damage when he refused to come out of his hiding place, after being warned a dog would be sent in to flush him out; this engaged section 5(1) of the Animals Act and defeated strict liability.
  • The police can argue that their use of force was reasonable for the purpose of preventing crime and/or arresting a suspect. (The same argument by which human officers can use force.)
  • The police can argue that the dog was no more dangerous than an ordinary dog, that the officer did not know it could cause such severe damage, etc., thus removing it from the category of animals where strict liability applies.
  • The police have some protection from civil suit, known as "Hill immunity" after the case Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [1988] UKHL 12, which is not absolute but is very likely to defeat claims where officers were not unusually negligent, not acting outside the bounds of their duties, exercised reasonable care and skill, or did the best they could in a fast and confusing situation. See the recent judgements in Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2018] UKSC 4, a case where officers arresting a suspect accidentally hurt an elderly lady, for a very thorough discussion of duty to bystanders and police negligence in general.

So again, it all depends on the fact pattern in the specific case, but you may or may not be able to win a civil claim against the police based on the harm done to you by a police dog, even when you didn't hurt the dog.


Short Answer

Whatever is reasonable in the circumstances.

Long Answer

There are two questions asked in the OP with a different set of circumstances: an unprovoked attack and resisting arrest. But first, the law on self-defence:

Common law: a person may use such force as is (objectively) reasonable in the circumstances as he (subjectively) believes them to be to protect himself in order to avert an imminent danger - R v Owino [1995] Crim LR 743 (unreported but approved by the High Court).

Statute: at s.3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, a person may use reasonable force to prevent crime.

If the level of force becomes an issue raised at trial, then s.7 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 becomes applicable:

The question whether the degree of force used by [the defendant] was reasonable in the circumstances is to be decided by reference to the circumstances as [the defendant] believed them to be...

  • Unprovoked Attack

Although UK police dogs are highly trained and obedient to their handlers, they can sometimes turn nasty for no apparent reason - quaintly referred to as "losing their temperament" - which might result in an unprovoked attack on an innocent bystander with the handler potentially commiting an offence under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

In such cases, the bystander should be able to rely on both, or either of, the above common law and statutory defences if the force used to stave off the attack was reasonable - which may include causing the dog to suffer life-changing injuries.  But if, for example, the dog is brought under control yet the bystander continues to hit or gouge at it, then the likelihood is that they would be committing an offence of causing unnecessary suffering contrary to s.4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006

  • Resisting Arrest

Assuming the dog maintains its temperament throughout and immediately follows its handler's commands, this is a different set of circumstances.

As well as relying on s.3 of the 1967 Act, a police officer may use reasonable force under s.117 of the Police and Criminal Evidence 1984 to make an arrest under s.24 of that Act. If a suspect resists arrest (an offence under s.89(2) of the Police Act 1996) and does not comply with the handler's lawful orders then they may use the dog's particular set of skills as reasonable force. Once the suspect becomes compliant and stops resisting then the dog will be called off by the handler. If, during the period of resisting arrest, the suspect attacks the dog then it is unlikely that they could claim self-defence to a charge under the 2006 Act.

(Note that all police dog bites should be reported to, and investigated by, the Dog School Manager to ensure that the force was actually reasonable and if there are any behavioural issues that need addressing.)


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