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Missed opportunity

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IT IS, perhaps, an indication of how the dangerous dogs issue is viewed by government that, in announcing changes to dangerous dogs legislation that came into effect on May 13, Defra should have focused first on the tougher penalties now applying to irresponsible owners who allow their dogs to attack people, before getting round to mentioning some of the measures aimed at preventing such attacks. In an announcement on its website, accompanied by a photograph of a rusting metal sign warning ‘Beware of Dog’,1 Defra reported that the maximum prison sentences for allowing a dog to attack someone had been substantially increased – from two years to 14 years for a fatal attack, and from two years to five years for injury – before briefly explaining towards the end of the announcement that police and local authorities now have new preventative powers. There is clearly a need to discourage irresponsible dog ownership, and deterrence undoubtedly has to be part of this. However, dog attacks are not usually premeditated. The impression left by the announcement is that this is simply a law and order issue, when the reality is much more complicated. The emphasis should be on prevention, but the announcement focuses on punishment for the crime.

The revised legislation applies in England and Wales. As well as tougher sanctions, it contains a number of new measures, including extending the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control to private property, meaning that dog owners can now face prosecution if their dog attacks someone on their property or in their home, except, Defra points out, if they attack a trespasser. In addition, there are measures aimed at protecting assistance dogs from dog attacks; an attack on an assistance dog now constitutes an aggravated offence, and could result in a prison sentence for the owner of the dog responsible of up to three years. All this can be seen as progress of sorts but it remains disappointing that the review of the legislation, which began in 2010 (VR, March 20, 2010, vol 166, p 344), did not seek to address the deficiencies inherent in the Dangerous Dogs Act, which have caused problems ever since the Act was introduced in 1991. Specifically, it did not address the breed-specific aspects of the Act, which are ineffective, inappropriate and difficult to apply. The review offered a chance to fundamentally overhaul the legislation that was introduced in haste in 1991 and, in that respect, an important opportunity has been missed.

The preventative powers outlined in Defra's announcement include measures such as requiring owners to attend dog training classes, repair fences to stop their dog escaping and muzzle their dog in public. These will be applied through Community Protection Notices under the new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. As the Government explained when the legislation was being drafted, they are intended to allow the appropriate authorities to ‘nip problems in the bud’ and to ‘put the focus at the right end of the lead’, that is, on the person acting antisocially with their dog. This in itself is admirable. However, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act is broad in scope and contains measures aimed at protecting the public from a whole raft of other antisocial behaviours, as well as dealing with issues as diverse as forced marriages, house repossessions and illegal use of firearms by gangs. It remains to be seen whether such broad-based legislation will turn out to be suitable in dealing with dog-related incidents, or whether a more tailored approach, as applied in Scotland through the use of Dog Control Notices, would be more appropriate. Ultimately, the success of the new legislation will be judged in terms of whether it results in fewer dog attacks and fewer dogs being seized. The legislation includes measures to ensure that courts can take into account the character of the owner of the dog, as well as of the dog itself, when assessing whether a dog should be destroyed and, clearly, much will depend on how it is implemented.

It remains unfortunate that the legislative attention devoted to irresponsible dog ownership tends to focus so specifically on the limited circumstances surrounding dog attacks. Numerous factors contribute to the problem, not least among which are irresponsible dog breeding and failure to socialise puppies during their first few weeks of life, and a much more holistic approach, involving education as well as legislation, is needed (VR, April 6, 2013, vol 172, p 348). Some of these wider issues, and some of the problems encountered with dangerous dogs legislation, will be discussed in a ‘contentious issues’ debate called ‘Dangerous dogs; culprits or victims?’ during this year's BVA Congress at the London Vet Show in November.2 The Government may have revised the legislation, but the issue is likely to remain contentious for some time yet.

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