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Dogs, society and the law

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THE Government has said that it intends to tackle the problem of irresponsible ownership of dangerous dogs, but just how it intends to do this has still to be made clear. Last December, it published a summary of the results of a Defra consultation on the issue that had been initiated under the previous government and said, perhaps somewhat ambitiously, that it planned to announce its approach early in the New Year (VR, December 4, 2010, vol 167, p 882). Since then, the Home Office has carried out a consultation seeking views on Government plans to streamline the ‘tool kit’ used to tackle antisocial behaviour, which includes proposals relating to the control of dangerous dogs. The results of the Home Office consultation are still being analysed but it would be unfortunate if the Government were to be under the impression that the problem of dangerous dogs can be solved simply through changes to antisocial behaviour legislation. Without repeal and replacement of the Dangerous Dogs Act, and a move to a more preventative approach through the development of dedicated and consolidated legislation, the problem of dangerous dogs will remain.

Pressed on when a decision on the Government's approach to dangerous dogs might be expected during a debate in the House of Commons last week, Jim Paice, the minister of state at Defra, said he would like to be able to give a precise timetable, but could only say it would be soon. In the meantime, he told MPs, ‘We are working closely with the Home Office to get on top of what we all accept is a serious situation.’

With the Government apparently still undecided, a report published last week provides some useful insights into the particular problems associated with ‘status’ or ‘weapon’ dogs, while underlining the importance of a preventative approach. The report, which was commissioned by the RSPCA, describes the results of a literature review and a research project undertaken by criminology researchers at the universities of Cardiff and Glamorgan, to investigate possible links between ownership of these types of dogs and young people's involvement in offending and antisocial behaviour, alongside issues of welfare, neglect and cruelty to dogs (see p 59 of this issue).

Among points made in the report are that, despite a dearth of research on status dogs, an extensive range of measures are currently in place to manage the problem in England and Wales, and that although education, training and communication can be identified as being vital to successful projects, enforcement and regulation rather than prevention have dominated the UK response. Highlighting a lack of quantitative data about the problems caused by status dogs, and the need for a joined-up, interagency approach, the authors remark that ‘Currently, there is a dearth of single agency-based intelligence gathering, never mind “joined”, multiagency information sharing at national or local levels’. They recommend that further investment is urgently needed in monitoring and evaluating data between agencies and also in terms of the type of incident.

A series of case reports, based on interviews with owners, considers the attitudes and experiences of young owners of status dogs, and will be of interest to those who are concerned about this issue or vets who may be presented with these dogs in the surgery.

Discussing possible prevention strategies, the report focuses on the gains that could be made by ‘moving beyond a predominantly reactive, enforcement-orientated approach to a more balanced approach which also prioritises a proactive, prevention-orientated policy programme’ and argues that greater attention needs to be given to multiagency, joined-up preventative initiatives alongside enforcement.

In many respects, the report serves to underline a point made by David Grant during a debate at last year's BVA Congress, namely that status dogs are part of a wider problem in society and that it will not be possible to solve the problem without understanding the root cause and addressing the issues in an integrated way (VR, October 2, 2010, vol 167, pp 508–509; February 5, 2011, vol 168, pp 133–134). It is certainly not an area for knee-jerk legislation, as experience with the Dangerous Dogs Act has demonstrated, but one requiring a more considered approach to legislation based on deed not breed, coupled with compulsory identification of animals and more effective education on responsible pet ownership (VR, March 20, 2010, vol 166, p 344).

■ ‘Status dogs, young people and criminalisation: towards a preventative strategy’, by Gordon Hughes, Jenny Maher and Claire Lawson.

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