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Was Guide Dog attack ‘ignored’ by police?

A GUIDE dog owner has slammed a police force for its inaction over an incident when her guide dog was attacked by another dog whilst working. Despite strong evidence and an admission of guilt from the other dog’s owner, the police decided that it was not a serious enough attack for a ‘first offence’ to pursue the matter, whilst a senior officer implied that to prosecute under either the Dogs Act 1871 or even the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act could be seen as using the law unfairly to favour a blind person.

Christine Cheal from Hooe, Plymouth is registered blind and is a Guide Dog owner. Her guide dog, black labrador ‘Monty’ was attacked by a Staffordshire Bull Terrier whilst she was working him in-harness in Plymouth city centre one day in October last year.

The other dog was on a lead but its female owner had difficulty pulling the dog away from Monty, until members of the public helped out. Christine fell to the ground in the struggle. Luckily, neither she nor Monty was physically injured but this was only the beginning of her problems. When she and her sighted husband Brian later attempted to make a perfectly legitimate complaint to Devon and Cornwall police to take some kind of action against the SBT’s owner they were met with official ‘stonewalling’ of the worst kind.

"We have subsequently experienced extraordinary difficulty in getting the police to take action against the owner of the dog - let alone use the powers available to them contained in the various pieces of dog control legislation," Brian Cheal told OUR DOGS. "Their reluctance is largely based on the grounds that no one was injured. It looks as though they might take action by advising the owner to keep her dog under better control, but this has only been achieved by making repeated phone calls, finding the name and address of the dog owner ourselves and finally making a verbal complaint.

"Over three months has now passed since the incident occurred. The same un-muzzled dog and the owner continue to come to the city centre even now. We have been told that the action the police will take will be in the form of an official warning and not as my wife would prefer, a magistrates Court Order under the terms of the current Acts, to have the dog muzzled in public and possibly excluded from the city shopping centre."

Brian contacted the Environmental Health Department at Plymouth City Council and spoke to Alistair Cunningham the Dog Warden line manager who was very sympathetic but explained that their powers are very limited with regard to seeking exclusion orders for dogs. Mr Cunningham said he would write to the owner of the dog and also offered to liaise with the police in future should a similar incident occur.

Mr Cheal adds: "It was interesting talking to the manager. It does seem that the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act is a blunt instrument when dealing with cases where there is minimal or no personal injury. This, and other factors explain the reluctance of the police to use it except in extreme cases. We had a case reported in our local paper recently where a 12 year-old girl was knocked off her bicycle when she collided with an off-the-lead Rottweiler.

The case was taken to court for a Control Order to be placed on the dog but just before it reached court the owners of the dog had the dog put down. The case took 12 months to come to court. According to the manager, this is very common, dog owners will then tell everybody - 'look what the council/police made us do etc'."

It is understood that Plymouth City Council, in recognising there was a problem some time ago, had approached the Home Office to include the control of dogs in the new Anti-Social Behaviour Order legislation. These new measures would require a lower burden of proof and would be more low-key than DDA or 1871 Dogs Act cases, but Home Office officials declined this.

OUR DOGS contacted Alistair Cunningham who said: "On the whole have a good rapport with the police and work closely with them on dog matters. I cannot comment on why Devon and Cornwall police took the action they did in this case, as that is a matter for them."

After contacting The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association for help with chasing up their complaint at police inaction, the Cheals were advised to write to Maria Wallis the Chief Constable for Devon & Cornwall police, and also to DEFRA, who are responsible for dog control legislation.

Brian Cheal listed a number of key points in his letters which he asked the Chief Constable and DEFRA to consider:

With regard to how the incident was dealt with by Plymouth police a number of issues still cause concern: -

1) No one came to see my wife; indeed, no one has spoken to her at any time in spite of my requests to do so.

2) Some officers were under the impression the incident was a Plymouth city Council responsibility.

3) There has still been no adequate explanation why a charge under the terms of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act was not considered. It is abundantly clear in the act "for the avoidance of any doubt…….etc (section 5)" that a person does not have to be injured for a control order to be applied for and that specific measures such as muzzling and/or exclusion from certain areas can be applied for (my underlining).

4) There were witnesses to the incident that were not followed up by the police.

5) After officers had visited the owner of the dog in late October, the report we received from an officer included comments that the owner of the dog was a responsible dog owner. The officer appeared to endorse this view. Indeed, the owner of the dog told officers that after the incident she had made the decision to muzzle the dog in public. This was untrue. I had personally seen the owner with unmuzzled dog in the city centre some 2 months after the incident and had reported this to the police in early October.

6) I had repeatedly told officers dealing with the case that my wife wanted the dog excluded from the city centre. Given that the owner of the dog had difficulty holding/pulling the dog away, it remains unclear if officers expressed this desire (for exclusion of the dog from the city centre) to the owner of the dog and her subsequent willingness to comply. My wife remains concerned that, should the owner with dog continue coming to the city centre, even if the dog is now muzzled, my wife remains dependent for her safety (and the continued willingness of her dog, Monty, to work) on the good eyesight and alertness of the dog owner. It is our view that a responsible dog owner, knowing their dog is predictably aggressive with other dogs (as it is clear from other sources this is the case), would not bring their dog to a busy city centre where an unpredictable meeting with another dog is likely to occur.

7) There appears to be a lack of awareness training for officers on the special needs of guide dog/assistance owners.

Chief Constable Wallis did not reply, but a Supt. Pavey sent a brief acknowledgement to Mr and Mrs Cheal and advised them that the matter had been passed to an officer at their local police station to deal with. The couple were subsequently visited three weeks later by an Inspector Pope who discussed the incident with them and attempted to explain why the local police had not pursued the matter more vigorously.

One of the arguments advanced by Inspector Pope for the reluctance of the police to take the action that Christine Cheal requested – i.e. muzzling the offending dog and excluding it from the city centre under the terms of the DDA - was that the Act had to be applied equally to all UK citizens otherwise they (the police) might be in breach of the EU Human Rights Act if 'special treatment' were allowed for a blind person. He also stated that it was 'normal' procedure for the police not to take action if a person was not injured - in spite of the fact that Section 3 of the DDA is quite specific that a person need only be in fear of attack or ‘apprehensive’ for the law to be applied, as indeed it has been in numerous other DDA and 1871 cases. According the Mr Cheal, Inspector Pope also suggested that it would be usual for the police to gather evidence of other incidents relating to the dog in question and that "magistrates would be reluctant to convict for a first offence".

Again, this is complete nonsense and does not hold up to numerous similar cases where dogs have been convicted for first offences or where there is a total lack of evidence suggesting that the dog has a history of aggression.

Brian Cheal adds: "My gut feeling is that this is yet more obfuscation and yet another 'reason' for not enforcing the law. I think the law could me more explicit but it is obvious to Christine and I that the both police and magistrates are in urgent need of awareness training and unequivocal guidelines on how to interpret the law in relation to guide dog owners. This can only come from Government. Guide dogs should be recognised in law in relation not only to dangerous dogs but also nuisance dogs. 'Lower' level incidents where neither the guide dog owner or guide dog are injured but where an attack or interference takes place can be very distressing to both guide dog owner and dog.

"Recently a new law has been applied in 18 American States where particular attention is given to attacks on working guide dogs and the law is quite specific that such an incident on a working animal is treated very seriously. Christine would like a situation whereby, when such incidents are reported, they are acted upon immediately by the police, with the close co-operation of Local Authority Dog wardens. Having to push the authorities to take action every time an incident occurs is wholly unacceptable."

Philip Alder of DEFRA’s Animal Division wrote back to Mr Cheal expressing his sympathy and concern for the attack on Monty and hoping that he and Christine had both made a full recovery from the incident.

In answer to Mr Cheal’s question as to whether there was any supplementary guidance issued to the police and magistrates on dealing with attacks on working Guide Dogs, and if not whether there are any plans to address this, Mr Alder replied that a significant amount of guidance had been issued to the police and the courts since the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act was implemented, the intention of that guidance being to assist the police and the courts in understanding and using the legislation effectively.

"The legislation applies equally to any owner/keeper whose dog may have become dangerously out of control," wrote Mr Alder. " The application of the legislation to individual cases must be down to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts."

Mr Alder continued: "I can assure you that we take any attack by a dog on a person or other dog seriously. There are already a number of pieces of legislation which address the issue of control of dogs. Section 3 of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (as amended 1997) gives protection to the public from a dog of any type or breed which is dangerously out of control in a public place, or in a private place where it has no right to be. A dog is regarded as being dangerously out of control in a public place on any occasion on which there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will injure a person, whether or not it actually does so. The court has the power to impose a muzzling order on a dog of any type which it judges actually or potentially dangerous….

"The Town Police Clauses Act 1847 makes it a criminal offence to allow an unmuzzled ferocious dog to be off a lead in a street, park or open space in most areas or to allow any dog to attack or menace any person or animal.

"Under the Dogs Act 1871, any person may make a complaint to a magistrates’ court that a dog is dangerous, or report the matter to the police. The 1871 Act allows magistrates, in a wide range of appropriate circumstances, either to order the destruction of dangerous dogs or impose alternative controls on them."

Mr Alder went on to state that, as a matter of course DEFRA constantly reviewed their legislation and would always consider suggestions for amending those laws.

Clearly, there appears to be a disparity in how individual police forces enact the various pieces of dog control legislation at local level and how seriously they view incidents such as the attack on Mrs Cheal’s guide dog by another dog.

This point is echoed by Jill Allen-King, MBE, the Chair of the European Blind Union Commission on Mobility and Guide Dogs who has experienced similar problems herself over the years.
"The whole incident is appaling," said Mrs Allen-King. "And any dog attack is bad enough. I’ve had five guide dogs myself and have had problems with so many dogs that have been allowed to wander of stray on their own, My first guide dog was pestered for 10 years by a neighbour’s dog and this can really un-nerve you and cause you to lose confidence with the work you do with your dog.

"Some people walk very close to you with their yappy dogs and this is so unnecessary. My third guide dog was taken out of service after three years because another dog attacked her. If ever another dog came near her afterwards, she was aggressive to them, which is no good for a working guide dog, so she had to be withdrawn by the GDBA. Most dog owners are responsible people, but some people just don’t care and let their dogs roam."

Mrs Allen-King continues: "We expect support from the police and dog wardens. I have chaired the Committee on Mobility and Guide Dogs and I know David Blunkett the Home Secretary. If anyone should understand these issues, he should, having a guide dog himself.

Pavement laws have been made thanks to our deliberations, but it is then up to each Chief Constable to decide which laws to implement in his or her county. That’s total nonsense. ALL laws should be enforced. To take an example, cycling is illegal on footpaths, but not all police forces enforce that law…. It’s down to Chief Constables to enforce it or not. It certainly isn’t due to a lack of manpower or lack of resources, its how those resources are used and that decision is taken at local level."

Brian and Christine Cheal, meanwhile, still feel aggrieved that their experience has been ‘stonewalled’ by officialdom. However, it has not soured their feelings towards other dogs in general, and they maintain a positive outlook to the fact that most dog owners are responsible and manage to control their dogs adequately.

"Other dog owners have largely been immensely sympathetic to Christine," says Mr Cheal. "We live in an area where people come from all over the city to run their dogs and Christine and Monty seldom have any problems in this respect. The same goes for when she is working Monty. Most dog owners know to keep their dogs from approaching them at this time.

"Since the attack Monty was quite nervous of other dogs when he was working and in harness. During this time Christine used to drop the harness and allow him to greet another friendly dog - she would first ask the owner if the dog was okay with other dogs- if the opportunity arose, to reinforce that not all dogs he met whilst in harness were aggressive. This seems to have worked.

"Unfortunately, not everyone has such a responsible attitude and it is ludicrous for the police to decide that they will not enforce a particular law simply because they think it might cause them a bit of bother to do so. But it seems that other dog on dog incidents are prosecuted elsewhere with vigour. Perhaps some consistency of approach from the police would be a good idea?"

Devon and Cornwall police have issued no official comment on the matter.