Are You Ready To Go To Court?
As many of you know, from time to time we both serve as expert witnesses in animal injury – usually dog bite – cases. Dan has evaluated dogs from several dog fighting cases (including the Michael Vick case) and Suzanne has served as an expert in five cases involving fatal attacks on children.
We have a couple of current cases in which dog trainers are serving as experts for the other side (whether we are retained by the defendant or the plaintiff depends on the facts of the case.) While we can't discuss the details of these cases because they are ongoing, what we can say is that it appears these particular trainers are ill prepared to serve as expert witnesses in court.
Recently, an acquaintance (we don’t know this person well enough to use the term "colleague") asked our opinion about the qualifications for someone to perform as a "behaviorist" to conduct a court ordered evaluation of a dog. The individual informed us s/he was confident in "my capabilities to accurately do this" (assess the dog for "aggression"), but didnt know whether s/he would be considered a "behaviorist" without a graduate degree and professional certification. We thought it might be instructive to share our reply with you –
[[ Well, if you are confident that your aggression assessment will be accurate then you are better at it than we are! We just did a court assessment on a large breed dog and although we saw some tenseness and freezing, we saw no overt threats or aggression. In our report we said that although we couldn't identity the eliciting stimuli in our assessment, that didn't mean there weren't any. We knew this dog had previously bitten 3 people. So – you might want to be a bit cautious about maintaining you can "accurately" assess the dog in question.
Second, we would suggest asking the court or whoever ordered the assessment for their definition of "behaviorist". That would be the safest approach to determine whether you fall under the courts guidelines. Plus you should be honest about your credentials, experience etc. when presenting yourself to the client and to the court. The term "behaviorist" is not a protected term, but our definition at minimum is someone who has a graduate degree in a behavioral science, but that's just a personal opinion.
You should also consider what may happen should this assessment be contested by whoever represents the "other side". In other words, if the other side hired their own expert – who turned out to be either of us, or another CAAB or veterinary behaviorist, would you feel confident that our review of your assessment (procedures, conclusions, etc.)would support your work or do you think we could find problems with it?
While everyone needs to start somewhere when it comes to expert testimony, mentoring is crucial, as well as knowing you can support your methodology and conclusions with science based references (and newsletters from training organizations don't qualify).] ]
Anytime you take on legal work -or even aggression cases – you should be prepared for worst case scenario. Have you thought about what could happen should a dog you are working with injure someone and the case ends up in court? Are you sure you are up to the task of, as a friend and colleague put it, being questioned by an attorney for the other side whose goal is to discredit you and/or your opinion?
Court cases test your ability to think rationally and critically. While it may be tempting to feel honored by being asked to serve as an expert witness, trust us when we say that the experience could quickly become your worst nightmare if you are in over your head, and don’t realize it until it is too late.