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(Updated 2/4/01)

The DDA: ten years on

Nick Mays examines the early origins of the hated Dangerous Dogs Act, ten years after it was first introduced in the Spring of 1991...


The Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in by the last Conservative Government after a spate of particularly nasty attacks by dogs alleged to be American Pit Bull Terriers. The cases which galvanised media and public opinion (in that order) were six year-old Rukshana Khan from Bradford and Frank Tempest from Lincoln, both of whom sustained horrific injuries by these dogs in the Spring of 1991.


John Major had only recently become Prime Minister and the Government was deeply unpopular. The recession was beginning to bite and the Government was “on the ropes”. The media had found a new bogeyman to hit on in the form of “dangerous dogs”. Ever since 11 year-old Kelly Lynch had been mauled to death by two Rottweilers in 1989, there had been lurid accounts of dog attacks in the national newspapers. Things reached fever pitch in the summer of 1990, but miraculously, when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, the dog attacks either ceased to happen or weren’t good copy any more. When, however, the Gulf War ended in early 1991, dogs were back on the agenda.


It is pertinent to remember that there WAS a problem insofar as this was the time of the “lager lout” and there WERE some idiots buying big dogs as “macho accessories”. The RSPCA also played a part in whipping up the frenzy against dogs with their repeated calls for compulsory dog registration.


Major’s Government had to be seen to do something, so, the then Home Secretary Kenneth Baker planned to introduce emergency legislation to combat ‘dangerous dogs’. After the Khan and Tempest attacks, Baker’s first instinct had been to order all the Pit Bulls in Britain to be exterminated, but he was forced to back down when dog owners, vets and the RSPCA refused to accept this genocidal plan. The next best thing was to ‘phase out’ the dangerous breeds, so Baker drafted the Dangerous Dogs Act with the help of the RSPCA and a handful of other ‘experts’. The Kennel Club’s involvement at that time was minimal. As far as they were concerned, Pit Bulls were not a recognised breed in the UK, so the matter didn’t concern them. Section One of the new Act effectively made it illegal to keep the American Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. There were no members of the later two breeds in the UK and only one Tosa. The Pit Bulls were an easy target, so Baker decided that any dog of the ‘type’ known as the Pit Bull Terrier should be neutered, registered, tattooed and microchipped and subject to third-party insurance. These dogs could not be bred from, sold or exchanged. The ultimate aim was that the breed would die out in 10 years or so.


More insidious however, was Section 3 of the Act, which covered ALL dogs in the UK and stipulated that any dog “dangerously out of control in a public place” would also be liable for destruction, a mandatory death sentence, as with Section 1.


Seized


The Act was rushed through Parliament with minimal debate and, as we all know, the DDA came into being in May 1991.


Thus it was that the DDA came about...In the ten years following 1991, scores of mongrels and crossbreeds were seized as Pit Bull “types”. At least 10 pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terriers have also been seized and most of these destroyed.


A well-known RSPCA Chief Inspector regularly appeared for the prosecution in DDA cases, even after the RSPCA withdrew their Inspectors from such cases in April 1993 after donations were hit by public disgust at their stance. Even two Labradors were taken under the DDA. as pit bull ‘types’.


A veritable cottage industry of experts for prosecution and defence grew up around the DDA... Three vets regularly appeared (and still do appear) for the prosecution. The cases lasted months, years even... dogs were held in solitary confinement... public opinion changed... the Act was cruel and unjust.


Campaigns were launched. The most bizarre aspect was (and still is) that Section 3 dogs, that is dogs which had, in some cases, bitten people did not have to be seized, but a poor PBT lookalike was seized, just for resembling a breed “type”.


The very worst aspect of the DDA was that the burden of proof was reversed.


The dog was deemed guilty and had to be PROVED innocent. It was down to the owner to prove that it was NOT a Pit Bull “type” or dangerous... hence the plethora of experts for both sides. It is also clear that the prosecution side, the Crown side, has greater financial resources than the Defence, so experts could - and do - make a tidy sum out of their “expertise”...


After years of refusing action, Major’s Government eventually agreed to amend the Act... interestingly just before the 1997 General Election. It didn’t win them any votes. Far from being the stick to hit the thicko, working-class Pit Bull owners, (a fact which Kenneth Baker later tacitly acknowledged in his own autobiography) the Act had offended everybody including many traditional Tory voters...


Nowadays, the DDA is less draconian. Magistrates have discretion in sentencing dogs found “guilty” under the Act, the mandatory death penalty is gone and ‘guilty’ pit bull ‘types’ may be registered as such... but the abuses go on. On the South Coast no fewer than five dogs were seized by the SAME police officer as “Pit Bull type” during 1997 and 1998. All five cases were either lost by the police, dismissed or dropped.


Worst record


People ask why, when there is so much drug abuse, petty crime, assaults etc. do the police bother with dogs that have not harmed anyone? Campaigners often answer that it simply looks good on the crime figures. The Metropolitan Police have the worst record of seizures under the DDA and individual officers seem to have enormous powers to pursue cases against dog owners.


The Home office has issued numerous guidelines that MINOR control incidents should NOT be dealt with under Section 3 of the DDA, but the less draconian 1871 Dogs Act. Yet still dogs are seized under the DDA.


Crucially, a dog does not actually have to BITE anyone. If a dog - your dog causes someone “apprehension”, then the police can seize it. The burden of proof is still reversed... you have prove that your dog did NOT bite, just as under Section 1 an owner has to prove that it is NOT a Pit Bull “type”.


A lot has been written about the DDA and it has to be said, without becoming a conspiracy theorist, there does appear to be some evidence that certain individuals for their own agendas use the Act. Such a ‘conspiracy’, if such existed, would not come from the Government, but most likely individuals, civil servants and others who have their own reasons for using the DDA... and it is used against PEOPLE rather than their dogs.


So - as regards “dangerous dogs”.... the DDA has done little, if anything, to improve dog ownership, or to cut down dog attacks. Dog fighting has moved further underground, so the professional dog fighters are untouched by it. Just recently, the RSPCA broke up a dog fighting ring in the south of England by some cunning undercover infiltration by its officers. But a hardened dog fighter cares little for the law. Quite often, instead of Pit Bulls they use other ‘strong’ breeds.


Ten years on, the DDA is still here... the abuses go on, the tragedy continues.


* In subsequent issues of OUR DOGS, Nick Mays will examine some of the highlights (or low spots) of the DDA over the past 10 years, its most infamous victims, the legal wrangles, the losses and the victories, and how the DDA has given rise to new Breed Specific legislation around the world.