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Laying down the law
- some observations on canine legislation and the dog owners’ right

SOMETIMES IT seems that dogs and dog owners are under almost constant attack from those in ‘authority’ as well as significant areas of the media, whilst the rights and feelings of dog owners (and dogs) are swept aside as somehow irrelevant. Having just completed the Review of the Year 2003 for OUR DOGS, I’m struck at just how much do-do (or rather don’t-don’t) comes our way in a typical year.

There’s Breed Specific legislation, the proposed death of thousands of hunting hounds in the event of an unwanted hunting ban, airlines banning dogs, guide dogs being barred from travel and entry to places where their owners have every right to be, dog theft on a nationwide scale, not being treated seriously by the authorities, no dog areas in park ands on beaches.… the list goes on. As a journalist I have to be impartial in reporting such issues, but some days just wish I’d stayed under the duvet and thus avoided the annoyance and growing sense of outrage I have at the latest anti-canine diatribes.

Because I do have feelings, I do have opinions, and I do get very, very angry about the way dogs and dog owners are treated by those in authority. Dogs have been a part of human society for 100,000 years, the eternal partnership – "Man’s Best Friend". They’re not just pets, they are useful to us in many areas of society, but I believe that age-old partnership – that friendship – is being betrayed by us. Maybe not by us as in you and me, but by those who govern us in society, and that betrayal is carried out in the name of the law.


Society’s ills

I consider that laws relating to dogs are part of the malaise in general about British law in the early 21st Century; punish the innocent and assume guilt of all, rather than target the genuine wrongdoers. Okay, you can argue that there are so many facets of society that are collapsing and that is not my brief here. But yes, I believe our laws should be strengthened, that yobbish behaviour should be punished, that legislators take on board that criminals are NOT the victims, that decent, law-abiding citizens are protected from all forms of criminality and see that criminality stamped on and punished.

I also believe that respect is lacking from many areas of society nowadays, that teachers, doctors, nurses should be respected as professionals who do their best for us, that politicians should set good examples, to serve rather than rule by total power. And so on and so on.

What has this to do with dogs? Everything! Bad laws are bad laws, part of a whole. In considering one bad dog law, such as the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, you cannot look at it in isolation. Bad laws beget other bad laws, more criminalisation of the innocent, more discrimination against the responsible dog owner, more demonising of the dog.BSL BY ANY OTHER NAME

Well, I think it’s a fair bet that most readers will know my feelings against Breed Specific Legislation, embodied in the UK by the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, a totally unjust law which has been copied in variously harsher and incompetent forms the world over I won’t re-iterate all the failings of BSL here (although I will draw readers’ attention to my large article about BSL in the 2004 OUR DOGS Annual). However, I will point out that you cannot legislate with any degree of honesty or competence just because of the way something looks – whether it’s a dog or a human being. I’m reminded of the awful photographs from 1930s Germany of Nazi officials measuring the noses of people suspected of being of the Jewish ‘type’. Sixty years later, they’re measuring the noses of dogs to see if they have strong muzzles and are of the pit bull ‘type’… and yes, we’ve done that here in the UK!

Turkey banned all English football fans from the England vs. Turkey football match in October. Is that legal? Are all English fans yobs? I fear this us where we stray into what I call "Braveheart" territory… and besides, the Turks didn’t win or qualify for the European Championship.

BAN THE LOOK

So here in the UK, what shall we do to combat yobbism and petty crime should we ban Hooded Sweatshirts? Woolly hats? Baseball caps? After all, only yobs wear them, don’t they? Let’s take that attitude a bit further… one child gets hurt when playing conkers in the Autumn, why not follow the lead of the local authority who wanted to chop their local chestnut trees down? It’s simple - ban conkers, ban the trees! Let’s ban all cars for road deaths, ban makeover TV programmes because people get disappointed with their own efforts. Ban Big Brother because stupid people take part in it and it encourages them…

Where does it end? It should end with individual, personal responsibility and if there’s legislation at all, the legislation should deal with a case-by-case basis, not a sweeping punishment for all. That is the equivalent of one kid misbehaving in class, the whole class being given detention – a rule I hated because it never taught the real wrongdoers anything, Except that in the grown-up world it is far, far worse.

IDENTIFYING TROUBLE

This then leads to identification. Politicians and some animal charities LOVE the concept of compulsory identification for dogs. But hang on…how do you identify a troublesome dog? How does ID prevent that dog from causing a problem?

It’s long been held by advocates of dog registration that compulsory ID of dogs will prevent problems. But the old dog licence cost more to collect than revenue it generated. A move to introduce compulsory ID in a 1990 Vote in the House of Commons was headed off by Margaret Thatcher – she even imposed a three-line whip to prevent her MPs from rebelling!

There’s been a compulsory dog registration and ID system operation in Northern Ireland for two decades and the proof is clear financially, physically and even morally – it does not work.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, compulsory dog registration is still being considered with alarming regularity by pressure groups and charities such as the RSPCA. The most recent Private Member’s Bill to introduce such a scheme happened in 1998 and was lost. The MP in question eventually refused to speak to OUR DOGS and dog owners who pointed out the flaws in compulsory registration - he didn’t want to listen, because the answer was not to his taste.

Well, in principle, dog ID is not a bad idea. My dogs are tattooed – and that again is an issue of personal choice when it comes to microchips versus tattoos. Groups as the Dog Legislation Advisory Group advocate voluntary ID for all the right reasons – namely the welfare of the dog.

So let’s suppose compulsory dog registration was enacted as a law: I am a responsible owner, I may moan and complain, but I would pay up and register my dogs. But would the real irresponsible owner? At worst, they’d chuck their dog out. They would deny all knowledge of owning a dog if a dog warden brought it to them saying it had strayed - so how could the dog warden prove it was their dog? They couldn’t, because it wouldn’t be registered! Okay, maybe the dog would be off the street, but is justice served? What about the cost in rounding up unregistered dogs?

Talking of cost, how much would it cost to actually register a dog? Estimates of this from various sources vary between £15 and £45 per dog.

But would there be exemptions for the elderly? Or people on low incomes or unemployed? What about Assistance dogs such as Guide Dogs and Hearing Dogs for the Deaf? Let’s not forget that at a Dog Registration Seminar hosted by then NCDL in 1997 it was said by Lou Leather of the Pet Advisory Council that, in his that there should be no such exemptions for assistance dogs. Disabled people would pay as they rely on their dogs.

LIES AND CIVIL LIBERTIES

There are parallels to be drawn again. This year there has been much talk of the Home Secretary’s determination to introduce Citizens’ ID cards – ostensibly, it is claimed, to "combat terrorism". We are told by the pro-ID camp:" The innocent have nothing to fear". So would the guilty apply for ID cards? Would ID cards stop crime? What about forgeries? The latest nonsense in all of this came in the wake of yet another truly terrible child murder scandal when it was said that the Government want to introduce ID cards for all under 5s to "help child care agencies co-ordinate". And will this lead to greater co-ordination? Will it prevent wicked adults from killing children? Of course not! It’s a shameful lie to pretend otherwise.

Never mind that ID cards encroach on civil liberties – and let’s not forget all the talk of the secret services scanning our e-mails and phone calls. Big Brother doesn’t need another inlet into our lives along with CCTV on every street corner.

Dog registration will lead to cat registration and ultimately it will lead to human registration. It’s a slippery slope that will do nothing to prevent dog attacks, or cats catching birds or people perpetrating crime.

DOG STOLEN… OR MISPLACED?

Talking of crime, what about dog theft? Now there’s an interesting growth industry. Organised gangs of thieves – as well as opportunistic thieves who need money to fund their drug habits are stealing dogs across the country. They are selling them on or ransoming them. And what do our legislators think?

Well, Kent police famously told OUR DOGS when asked about the 40+ cases of dog theft in 2001: "We haven’t got a dog theft problem" – because dog thefts were logged as "dogs being lost" or "going missing". What the hell? Never mind – it’s only a dog after all! If the whining owners are so upset, surely they can buy another one?

Malcolm Moss, Conservative MP for North East Cambridgeshire called for a national campaign to make dog owners aware of the canine crime syndicate and called on the Government (Home Office) to take action.

Mr Moss wrote to John Denham, then Minister of State for the Police at the Home Office, expressing his concerns, especially at the lack of interest from police forces around the country He only received a reply when OUR DOGS chased up the department. The reply was, quite simply, that there was "not a problem that they were aware of."

Mr Moss says, quite rightly: "The Home Office cannot allow this to go by default and I will be demanding concerted action. If anybody was extorting money from shopkeepers on a national basis in this same manner, then there would quite rightly be an outcry and the police would take action.

"Dog owners have a right to the same protection of the law as any other taxpaying citizen and I intend once again to make this point very clearly to the Minister and demand that these cases are taken seriously."

Dog thefts continue apace, and are becoming increasingly brazen – and even violent. Earlier this year, a woman was approached in a park in Stevenage by two men who attempted to steal her dog. She fought and was slashed with a knife and hospitalised.

I’m not saying that all police officers treat dog thefts lightly, no more than all police officers want to seize and kill dogs under the DDA, but there needs to be a national initiative on tackling dog crime. There are lots of independent canine support groups for canine crime, many of which have helplines and websites and an excellent job they do too. Maybe it’s time for a national organisation – such as the Kennel Club – to take the initiative and co-ordinate all the groups, and channel all reports of dog theft so that everybody is "in the loop". Also they could, of course, bring pressure on the Government, maybe via the Dog Legislation Advisory Group to ensure that dog theft is a crime that is taken seriously. After all, you, the dog owner, pay your taxes for the police force…