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Talking tough on dogs

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IT IS unfortunate that Government announcements relating to dangerous dogs remain so resolutely focused on being tough when what is really needed is a much more holistic approach. Thus, in announcing on its website this week that, from October 20, police and local authorities in England and Wales would be given new legal powers to tackle irresponsible dog ownership,1 the Government chose to illustrate this news with a photograph of a rusting metal sign warning ‘Beware of the dog’, just as it did when it announced changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act earlier this year (see VR, May 24, 2014, vol 174, p 514). The announcement talks of ‘tough new legal powers’ being given to police and local authorities to help prevent dog attacks, noting that, ‘For the first time, police and local authorities will be able to demand that owners take action to prevent a dog attack or risk fine of up to £20,000.’ It also quotes the animal welfare minister, Lord de Mauley, as saying ‘Dog attacks are devastating for victims and their families which is why we are taking tough action against those who allow them to happen. Police and local authorities will now have more powers to demand that irresponsible dog owners take steps to prevent attacks before they occur. This is on top of the tougher prison sentences we introduced earlier this year for owners who allow their dogs to attack people and assistance dogs.’

There is clearly a need to discourage or, as the Government has previously put it, ‘clamp down’, on irresponsible dog ownership, and deterrence undoubtedly has a part to play in this. However, all this tough talk tends to detract from the fact that dog attacks are not usually premeditated, and that many of them involve family members, and the family dog, in the family home. Ironically, it also tends to obscure the (welcome) fact that measures announced this week are actually concerned with prevention, rather than punishment after the event, which has been the main focus of attention until now.

The announcement relates to measures included in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, which was enacted in March this year. Among other things, this amended the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, extending the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control to private property, while also making clear that an attack on an assistance dog constituted an aggravated offence. In addition, it includes measures aimed at protecting the public from a whole raft of antisocial and criminal behaviours, including irresponsible dog ownership, and it is these measures that are now being brought into effect. They include new sanctions, in the form of Community Protection Notices, which can be issued by police and local authority officers to deal with ‘low level’ antisocial behaviours involving dogs (as well as other antisocial behaviours) with a view to nipping problems in the bud and preventing them from developing into something more serious.

Measures aimed at preventing irresponsible dog ownership are clearly welcome. However, concerns remain about how helpful such wide-ranging legislation will be in dealing with issues relating to dogs, or whether a more tailored system of Dog Control Notices, as is applied in Scotland, might have been more appropriate. How well the new rules are implemented will be crucial and, in this respect, a guidance document published by Defra this week – ‘Dealing with irresponsible dog ownership: practitioner's manual’2 – will have an important role to play. Aimed at police and local authority officers, the manual explains that its purpose is ‘to encourage responsible dog ownership and [discourage] other incidents involving dogs such as straying and the use of dogs for intimidation, through early engagement and education, and overall to prevent problems becoming more serious and thus reduce the number of dog bites’. Using flow charts and case scenarios, it explains how Community Protection Notices and other measures contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, as well as the Dangerous Dogs Act, might be applied to incidents involving dogs, and the circumstances in which other professionals, including vets, animal behaviourists and dog trainers, might need to be involved.

The manual is less aggressively worded than the Government's announcement this week; for example, while pointing out that public safety is paramount, it also makes clear that officers should consider the welfare impact of requirements on dogs. This is not to say that the new legislation lacks teeth. As well as Community Protection Notices, the manual discusses stiffer sanctions such as injunctions and Criminal Behaviour Orders, and the Dangerous Dogs Act will still apply. As experience with the Dangerous Dogs Act has demonstrated, interpretation of legislation relating to dogs is anything but clear cut, and much will depend on how the new legislation is applied.

It remains unfortunate that, in its review of dangerous dogs legislation, which began as long ago as 2010, the Government chose not to address the deficiencies inherent in the Dangerous Dogs Act which, by including breed-specific elements, remains fundamentally flawed. It is also unfortunate that it missed the opportunity to tackle the underlying problem of irresponsible dog breeding, as suggested by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee at the time (VR, April 6, 2013, vol 172, p 348). As Caroline Bower pointed out in a letter in last week's Veterinary Record, the causes of dog bites are many and various, and tackling the problem effectively will require a comprehensive, collaborative approach (VR, October 18, 2014, vol 175, p 385).

Ultimately, the success of the measures introduced this week will be judged in terms of whether they result in fewer dog attacks and fewer dogs being seized. Meanwhile, some of the wider issues associated with dog attacks, as well as some of the problems encountered under existing legislation, will be discussed at the BVA Congress next month, in a debate called ‘Dangerous dogs – culprits or victims?’. The Government may have introduced tough new rules, but this is a complex issue and effort must continue to be devoted to ensuring that all the contributing factors are addressed.

▪ The BVA Congress takes place at the London Vet Show at Olympia in London on November 20 and 21. Details at www.bva.co.uk/Professional-development/Events/London-Vets-Show-2014

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