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Letdown on dangerous dogs

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‘DISAPPOINTING’, ‘frustrating’, ‘wasted opportunity’, ‘tinkering around the edges’ …

These are words that have been used to describe the ‘clampdown on dangerous dogs’ announced by the Government this week, and in the circumstances they do not seem unreasonable.

It is more than two years since Defra (under the previous administration) issued a consultation document on reforming dangerous dogs legislation in England and Wales, including possible repeal of the Dangerous Dogs Act (VR, March 20, 2010, vol 166, p 344), and 17 months since, under the current Government, it published a summary of the 4250 responses received. The majority of those responding, including a majority of what Defra had identified as ‘key interested parties’, did not consider that breed-specific legislation was effective in protecting the public from dangerous dogs and should be repealed; agreed that dangerous dog legislation should be consolidated into one law; and considered that the introduction of dog control orders would be a good idea. In addition, the majority of all respondents and key interested parties were in favour of all dogs being identified by microchip (VR, December 4, 2010, vol 167, p 882). In the meantime, a diverse group of interested organisations, including the BVA, animal charities, law enforcement agencies and unions, had, in an agreed statement, written to the Prime Minister pointing out that current legislation on dangerous dogs was proving inadequate and that ‘consolidated legislation that has a genuine preventive effect’ was needed (VR, September 4, 2010, vol 167, p 357).

So, what is the Government now proposing? The measures announced this week, which would apply only to England, include extending dangerous dogs legislation to private property, thus closing a loophole in current legislation, which only covers public land when many attacks occur in or around the home. In addition, ‘to ensure the welfare of dogs that have become the subject of court proceedings, and to ease the costs to the police service’, the police will no longer have to seize and kennel dogs pending the outcome of court proceedings under the Dangerous Dogs Act; instead, they will be able to waive this requirement in cases where they do not consider that the dog presents a risk to the public and are satisfied that it is in the care of a responsible owner. The Government intends to hold a consultation on introducing regulations under the Animal Welfare Act requiring dogs to be identified by microchip, with its preferred approach being to make breeders responsible for microchipping puppies before sale. It also plans to make £50,000 available for local community projects to promote more responsible dog ownership in estates, youth clubs and schools; provide £20,000 for training expert police dog legislation officers in each force; and issue new guidance to help courts deal more effectively with seized dogs.

All this falls far short of the comprehensive package of measures that is needed to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, which, as Defra minister Jim Paice pointed out when announcing the plans this week, is a complex problem for which there is no single solution. In particular, it includes little to prevent dog attacks as, for example, the introduction of a system of dog control notices might have done. The extension of dangerous dogs legislation to cover attacks on private property might seem to be a step in the right direction, but this depends on that legislation being right in the first place which, as experience of the Dangerous Dogs Act over the past 20 years has demonstrated, is patently not the case. The plan to allow the police some discretion when deciding whether or not to seize and kennel dogs has the potential to alleviate some of the costs and delays encountered under the present system, as well as the distress to the dogs and owners involved; however, it will place a considerable burden of responsibility on the police, who will effectively be being asked to make a behavioural assessment of the dog while also assessing the capabilities of its owner.

In his announcement, Mr Paice indicated that, on the advice of the police, the ban on the four types of dog currently prohibited under the Dangerous Dogs Act is to remain. The failure to recognise the deficiencies of breed-specific legislation is particularly disappointing, and runs counter to advice from the veterinary profession, animal welfare charities and others that legislation should be based on deed not breed.

Whether considered individually or as a whole, the measures announced this week do not come close to meeting the expectations that were raised when Defra launched its consultation two years ago. The Government is now conducting a further consultation on microchipping and some of its other proposals. The scope of the consultation is limited and the prospects are not looking good but it must be hoped that it might yet be persuaded that a more holistic, preventive approach is necessary.

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