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Time for a New Perspective on the Dangerous Dogs Act

About The Author

Amy Ling (Former Private Law Manager)

Amy graduated with a first in Philosophy from The University of Manchester in 2012. Following three years working within the social housing sector, Amy is currently studying for her LPC and will begin a training contract at a city firm in September 2016. Amy is an accomplished mooter, and was on the winning team in the 2015 JustCite International Mooting competition. Outside of the law, Amy is a keen runner.

Introduction

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (including Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997, (“the Act”)) was introduced  in order to tackle the breeding of dogs for fighting and situations where dogs either attacked, or were provoked to attack others. Controversial since its inception, the Act sits alongside other legislation aimed at animal ownership including the Guard Dogs Act 1975, Dog Control Order Regulations 2006 and (soon to come into force) Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.  

Section 10(3) of the Act defines a dog as dangerous ‘on any occasion on which there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will injure any person, whether or not it actually does so, but references to a dog injuring a person or there being grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will do so do not include references to any case in which the dog is being used for a lawful purpose by a constable or a person in the service of the Crown’.

Following an increase in high-profile dog attacks in recent years, such as those involving Jade Anderson, one of five children killed by dogs on private property since 2007, and that of that of Della Woods and Hayley Sulley who allowed their dog to escape into a neighbours garden, mauling an elderly neighbour to death, the 1991 Act was amended to strengthen sanctions on owners.

Although these changes have been broadly welcomed, prohibitions and sanctions based on ‘breed type’ still remain within the Act. Such provisions continue to court heavy criticism from dog charities and campaign groups who argue they fail to take account of the impact of ownership, are not cost effective and potentially increase the prevalence of such breeds as ‘status dogs’. Should this position be re-examined?

Strengthening Powers Against Owners

On the 13th May 2014, the Act was amended once again with a range of new provisions. The changes include:

  • Extending the ability to prosecute to those where dogs have attacked a person in their home or on any private property (except a trespasser);
  • Increasing the maximum sentences for an owner who allows their dog to attack someone to up to 14 years for a fatal attack and up to five years for causing an injury;
  • A new offence of up to three years for an attack on an assistance (formerly, ‘guide’) dog; and
  • Giving the courts the ability to impose preventative measures such as requiring owners to attend dog training classes, repairing fencing and muzzling the dog in public.

As quoted in the government briefing on the changes, the Animal Welfare Minister Lord de Mauley is supportive of the new powers:

Irresponsible dog owners will not only face longer prison sentences, but will also be liable for prosecution regardless of where an attack takes place, even in their own home. This will give protection to those who provide vital services in the community – postal workers, nurses, utility workers - as well as people visiting family and friends.

The Crime Prevention Minister, Norman Baker, in the same paper, echoed this, by stating that the measures ‘will protect individuals and also assistance dogs, which bring security, confidence and independence to their handlers’.

Outside of the government, these changes have been welcomed by the Communication Workers Union, who had been lobbying for the extension to private property through their “Bite Back” campaign. The Royal Mail also supported the changes, arguing that dangerous dogs on private property represent a “significant hazard” for their staff, with 5,500 attacks on staff since April 2011. Other estimates put attacks on the general public by dogs at almost 6000 a year, costing the NHS an estimated £10million.

The amendments all focus on the behaviour of the dog; as highlighted by the National Animal Welfare Trust, the law applies ‘to all dog owners no matter what size or breed, whether your pet is a Chihuahua, a Cockapoo or a Collie cross’. However, there remains within the Act a strong focus on particular ‘breed types’, which place prohibitions on certain dogs and owners, irrespective of their actions or behaviour.

Nature v Nurture: The Controversy of ‘Breed Specific Legislation’

Section 1 of the Act prohibits ownership a dog of any of the following ‘breed types’ traditionally bred for dog fighting, as well as their cross breeds: the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. Any dog sufficiently matching these physical characteristics of these breeds will count as a prohibited type, hence the use of ‘breed type’ rather than purely breed. An assessment of whether the dog falls into these categories is made by the court. It is interesting to note that this does not include the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, which is often associated in the public imagination with dog attacks in the UK.

The 1997 amendment removed the mandatory destruction rule regarding the prohibited ‘breed types’ and introduced requirements that owners must adhere to in order to keep such dogs. These include that they must be kept muzzled and on a lead at all times whilst in a public space; be micro-chipped; be insured against third party liability and be neutered where appropriate. The dog’s details must be registered on the Index of Exempted Dogs which is maintained by DEFRA (the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs). Owners of these dogs cannot give away or sell their dogs, which means that any attempt to do so, such as abandoning the dog, will still lead to the animal being destroyed, as it cannot be rehomed.

Where a dog is suspected of being of a prohibited type, and is not registered on the Index, it may be seized, with a warrant when on private property, and potentially destroyed, should it demonstrate any aggressive behaviour when observed.

This focus on ‘breed types’ has been widely criticised as ineffective in reducing attacks and numbers of dangerously behaved dogs. The Dog’s Trust describes the legislation as a ‘knee-jerk… hastily produced and poorly thought out’.

The RSPCA argues:

There is no evidence to support the notion that some breeds or types of dog are, by their nature, more dangerous than others. BSL [(Breed Specific Legislation)] punishes certain types of dogs for the way they look and fails to consider a dog’s individual behaviour when determining whether or not they are dangerous. As a result, dogs whose behaviour poses no risk are branded 'dangerous' just because of their appearance. The RSPCA want to see an end to breed specific legislation. Dogs can’t help who their owners are, yet the law unfairly places the onus of responsibility on them, rather than the irresponsible actions of the owner.

The RSCPA’s stance is that the law prevents many dogs that are ‘friendly, well socialised and perfect candidates for rehoming’ from being passed to new owners, whilst at the same time not preventing attacks or discouraging irresponsible ownership. This is illustrated by the fact that both the Jade Anderson and Woods and Sulley attacks involved dogs (Bull Mastiffs, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier and a Presa Canario cross) that would not have been classed as prohibited ‘breed types’. Perhaps a more influential factor in the Woods and Sulley case was the fact that the dog, Charlie, had not been fed for 45 hours prior to the attack.

Status Dogs

In the same policy statement as above, the RSPCA also argues that ‘the introduction of breed specific legislation simply made the prospect of owning a banned ‘dangerous’ dog more desirable to the type of people who encourage their dog to be aggressive’. As one of the aims of the legislation was to move ‘dangerous’ breeds towards extinction, this does not represent a success.

So although more attacks may be committed by banned breeds and similar types, this may actually be because the owners of such dogs are more likely to buy these breeds rather than a “Chihuahua, a Cockapoo or a Collie cross” and to promote aggression in their dogs. The more that such dogs are perceived as dangerous, the more desirable they become to those who would wish to be seen as an owner of such a dog so to prohibit them is likely to worsen the problem.

A study by academics at Cardiff University into such ‘status’ dogs (Status Dogs, Young People and Criminalisation (2011)) found that training among those involved in the group study varied from the ‘brutal and irresponsible’ to the ‘general lack of training which resulted in anti-social and dangerous behaviour towards people and animals’. Again, this was irrespective of whether the breed was prohibited.

Even those interviewed recognised that this focus on breed did not help best tackle the problem of dangerous dogs, with one participant arguing: ‘I think the law is ridiculous… they shouldn’t be going to people's houses and seizing their dogs, when they're in a family home. They should be looking for the people that are fighting their dogs’. 

Conclusion: Deed not Breed

Dogs have been bred as human companions for thousands of years. Many breeds of dog are known for having certain characteristic temperaments and are valued for their different traits and skills. For example, the Kennel Club lists the Chow Chow as having an “aloof” and “stand-offish” but “loyal” personality, in contrast to the “kind and loving nature” of the Labrador.  However, there is a distinct jump from this to a ‘black-listing’ approach, which demonises a particular breed. As Caroline Kisko, Kennel Club secretary, argues: ‘breed specific legislation is… fatally flawed and wastes limited police resources on seizing dogs of a particular breed, rather than focusing on dogs of any breed that are out of control’. 

The 2014 amendments should be welcomed, as they place greater responsibility on dog owners regarding their animal’s actions when out of control. In not having such a focus, the breed specific elements of the legislation sit outside of the spirit of these rules and should be overhauled. It is right to punish the owner for the way they have behaved (and so allowed their pet to behave) but not to punish the dog for the way it looks.

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Tagged: Criminal Law, Justice

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