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Dogs in the news

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A WELL-ESTABLISHED principle in disease control is that the time to think about appropriate control measures is between outbreaks, not in the heat of the moment when an outbreak is happening. The same principle should apply when trying to think about how best to prevent dog attacks, although unfortunately this is rarely the case. The point is worth raising now because, after some delay, the Government is currently in the process of drafting new dangerous dogs legislation in England and, after the tragic death of 14-year-old Jade Anderson following a dog attack at a house in Wigan last week, dog attacks are very much in the news. Headlines such as one which appeared in the Daily Express last week –‘Now curb the devil dogs’, above a story explaining that ministers were under pressure to rush through a ‘Jade's law’ to stop more children being killed by dangerous dogs – give an indication of the mood. It was in just such an atmosphere that the much-derided Dangerous Dogs Act was drafted in 1991, and it would be unfortunate if the same kind of mistakes were made again.

In February, the Secretary of State at Defra, Owen Paterson, outlined a package of measures aimed at curbing irresponsible dog ownership in England, marking the end of a consultation process dating back to 2010. The measures planned include extending existing dangerous dogs legislation to private property, requiring all dogs to be identified by microchip, and giving the police the discretion to decide whether or not to seize dogs pending the outcome of court proceedings. However, they include little in the way of measures actually to prevent dog attacks and, by failing to address the deficiencies of the breed-specific Dangerous Dogs Act, fall far short of the comprehensive package of measures that is required (VR, February 16, 2013, vol 172, p 168). They also fall short of what was suggested by Defra when it first consulted on the issue in 2010 and, in a report in February this year, were described by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) as ‘woefully inadequate’ (VR, February 23, 2013, vol 172, p 195).

Last week, the chairman of the EFRACom, Anne McIntosh, wrote to Mr Paterson asking the Government to publish draft legislation on tackling dangerous dogs for urgent scrutiny. In her letter, she noted that the Secretary of State had indicated that the timetable for scrutiny of the legislation was likely to be tight given the need to include the measures in a Home Office Bill that is expected to be introduced shortly, and that the EFRACom should be given time to review the proposals thoroughly. In this she is undoubtedly correct. After a consultation period that has stretched over three years, the last thing anyone needs at this stage, and particularly in the current climate, is for new legislation to be rushed through.

It remains to be seen whether the Government intends to modify its plans in the light of this latest incident, as its proposals already include extending existing laws to private property. However, if it does, it might usefully consider introducing a proper system of dog control notices that could help to prevent dog attacks by addressing problems and behaviour associated with irresponsible ownership before they arise rather than afterwards. Provision for such notices is already made in legislation in Scotland, and they are also being considered for new legislation being developed in Wales. Ideally, although the Government is unlikely to repeal the Dangerous Dogs Act, legislation in this area should be based on deed not breed, and so any calls to extend the scope of the existing Act must be resisted. Any dog has the capacity to be aggressive and dangerous if not properly socialised and trained, and more needs to be done to educate owners about their responsibilities.

It remains unfortunate that the parliamentary attention devoted to legislation relating to dog ownership tends to focus so specifically on the limited circumstances surrounding dog attacks, which are multifactorial in origin. This point was well made in the report from the EFRACom in February, which argued that the Government's current approach ‘ignores the real cause of antisocial behaviour related to dogs’ and that ‘irresponsible dog breeding and the failure to socialise puppies in the first few months of life can lead to persistent problems which are hard to tackle later on’. It was also made in a report from the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare in July last year, which drew attention to the efforts being made by government ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland to crack down on irresponsible dog breeding by tightening up on the licensing of breeding establishments and also called for the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding to be placed on a firmer footing (VR, July 14, 2012, vol 171, pp 30, 31-32). Dog attacks do not occur in isolation and tackling the problem effectively will require a comprehensive, holistic approach in which education, legislation and combined effort will all play an important part.

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