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Progress of sorts

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DEFRA'S announcement last week that it intends to make microchipping of dogs compulsory in England from April 6, 2016, has been widely welcomed as a measure that will help reunite lost or stolen dogs with their owners. However, the decision was announced as part of a package of measures aimed at curbing irresponsible dog ownership and has come about largely as a result of Defra's efforts, going back three or four years now, to come up with an effective approach to tackling the problem of dangerous dogs.

Hopes of a more effective policy on preventing dog attacks were raised in 2010 when Defra launched a public consultation on the issue. Measures proposed at the time included extending dangerous dogs laws to cover not just public places but also private property; giving the police and councils powers to issue dog control notices; and requiring owners to get their dogs microchipped. Tantalisingly, it also raised the prospect of reform of the breed-specific Dangerous Dogs Act which, since its introduction in 1991, has proved to be as ineffective as it is unpopular (VR, March 20, 2010, vol 166, p 344).

By the time Defra got round to announcing how it proposed to proceed some two years later, the package of proposals was much less comprehensive, being limited to extending existing dangerous dogs legislation to private property; giving the police the discretion to decide whether or not to seize dogs pending the outcome of court proceedings; and requiring dogs to be microchipped. The measures announced by Defra this week (see p 170 of this issue) essentially confirm that, having conducted another consultation exercise in the meantime, this is what it intends to do.

None of these measures is unwelcome; indeed, the BVA, along with other organisations and animal welfare charities, has been pressing for compulsory microchipping for some time. It is also good to see the Government acknowledging the importance of educational initiatives in encouraging responsible dog ownership, by making £50,000 available to animal welfare charities to foster innovative community projects. However, in failing to address the deficiencies of the Dangerous Dogs Act, and in failing to include more in the way of measures to prevent dog attacks, as the introduction of a system of dog control notices might have done, they fall far short of the comprehensive package of measures that is required. It was for reasons such as this that, when the Government consulted on this limited set of proposals last April, a number of organisations, including the BVA and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, suggested it was ‘tinkering around the edges’ of dangerous dogs legislation and that a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity had been missed (VR, April 28, 2012, vol 170, pp 424, 425-426).

Announcing the new measures last week, Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State, said that Defra was working closely with the Home Office and other authorities to introduce new powers to help frontline professionals tackle antisocial behaviour in dogs, noting that the draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill published by the Home Office on December 13, 2012, would provide ‘a set of flexible, effective tools and powers to enable police and local authorities to tackle a wide range of antisocial behaviour including dog-related incidents’. However, the Home Office's Bill is still in development and it is difficult to be certain about what those powers will be. Perhaps even more important, once the legislation is finalised, is the question of how they will ultimately be applied.

The decision on microchipping is welcome for a number of reasons but will not in itself solve the problem of irresponsible ownership and dangerous dogs. Microchips are only as useful as the information held on the database, so it will be important that owners keep their details up to date. As always, there must concern that it will be responsible owners who comply with the legislation while irresponsible owners may not. What is missing from the Government's announcement is an indication of how, after April 2016, the new rules on microchipping will be policed and enforced. This, potentially, could have implications for practices, and roles and responsibilities need to be clarified well in advance.

In his announcement last week, the Secretary of State made reference to the ease with which it is possible to buy dogs and other pets over the internet, and the work being undertaken with animal welfare charities to try to address this, but he did not mention the problems associated with irresponsible dog breeding. The measures announced by the Government last week represent progress of sorts, but a much more comprehensive approach is needed.

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