IN THE wake of the media hype about ‘dangerous dogs’ – and Rottweilers in particular, news of an already ongoing review of dog laws has been announced by the Dog Legislation Advisory Group, backed by the Metropolitan Police.
Following the death two weeks ago of fivemonth-old baby Cadey-Lee Deacon after she was mauled by two Rottweilers kept as guard dogs in a pub in Leicester, the national media whipped up a level of hype about ‘dangerous dogs’ not seen since 1991, when the then panicky Conservative Government under John Major gave in to media pressure and steamrollered the Dangerous Dogs Act through Parliament in just a few days. Since then the DDA has been held up as an example of ill-conceived legislation.
Veteran peer, the late Lord Houghton of Sowerby, derided the DDA as ‘a knee jerk reaction of the worst kind’ and was proved right when the Act failed to tackle the real problem of badly trained dogs, but instead snared hundreds of crossbreeds simply because they resembled dogs of the Pit Bull ‘type’.
The DDA then was used as a model for many other breed-specific acts by Governments across the world, including Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, despite the overwhelming evidence that the DDA was flawed.
Following the recent spate of attacks, which have been reported by the UK national media, calls have been made for Home Secretary John Reid to add Rottweilers to the list of ‘banned’ breeds under the DDA. However, these calls have been resisted by Mr Reid, due to the existing overhaul of the Dogs Act 1871 which may, in turn, lead to the repeal of the DDA as tougher, but more explicit laws, are put in place.
Dog owners who fail to keep their pets under 'proper control' could face tough new penalties under the proposed new law.
Lawyers reviewing dangerous dogs legislation have drafted proposals that would force owners to pay up to £5,000 compensation to victims and spend up to six months in jail if they defy court orders to keep their dogs muzzled or on a lead.
Recommendations from the Dog Legislation Advisory Group, backed by the Metropolitan Police in support of Commissioner Ian Blair, also give provision to officers to raid homes where they suspect dangerous dogs are being kept.
A much broader, definition of the term 'dangerous' has also been drawn up. This makes owners liable if someone is afraid that a dog might become dangerous. Action will be taken if a member of the public can 'reasonably believe that any person or animal is likely to be caused harm', states a draft of the proposals that were leaked to The Observer newspaper. For the first time, Britain's 5 million dog owners may be liable for prison or heavy fines if their pet is considered to have behaved dangerously in their own home or garden.
The far-reaching proposals were formulated during the summer and until now have remained a secret.
Home Secretary John Reid is also understood to be examining possible flaws in the existing legislation and ordered officials to meet their counterparts from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, who are responsible for canine legislation, to 'discuss possible gaps' in the existing legislation.
Superintendent Simon Ovens, a Scotland Yard expert on dangerous dogs, said it had decided to act following an increasing number of incidents involving aggressive dogs. He confirmed work had started to persuade the government to 'amend the existing Dogs Act'.
The proposals, backed by the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust, are expected to be supported by the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Phil Buckley of the Kennel Club said the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act was recently described to him by a number of politicians as being ‘one of the worst pieces of legislation ever agreed. It's about time that we get away from targeting specific breeds.’
Under the proposed 'dog orders', animals seized by the authorities may be rehomed if it is judged they would not be dangerous in the hands of a different owner. Owners will have a valid defence if they can prove their pet was provoked or attacked a person who should not be in their home, such as a burglar.
A spokesperson for DEFRA stated that there were ‘no plans to amend dangerous dogs legislation,’ but confirmed that a review of the Dogs Act was underway and that DEFRA was speaking to the Home Office about such ‘possible gaps’ in the law,
‘We are discussing with the Home Office any possible gaps in the law where dogs are used as a weapon to deliberately attack someone. However, we do not believe there is any need to significantly alter the current legislation which we believe has had a dramatic effect in protecting people from dog attacks and are confident that it has helped prevent many serious injuries.
‘A rise in the number of prosecutions for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control does not indicate that the legislation itself is faulty. A fall in the number of prosecutions against the background of the recent tragic stories in the press would be a greater concern.
‘There are no plans to add Rottweilers to the list of prohibited type dogs.
‘We have not received any representations from the police (who enforce the legislation) that such dogs should be added to the list. We are aware of the public's concern at the recent attacks but consider that these are isolated incidents and that the vast majority of Rottweilers are not dangerous.
‘Although the Dangerous Dogs Act does not cover attacks on private land, the Dogs Act 1871 does.’
‘Punish the Deed’
Meanwhile, other agencies spoke out for the need for restraint and not to target Rottweilers as a specifically dangerous breed.
Steve Cheetham, the Chief Veterinary Officer for the RSPCA lifted a statement made by many anti-BSL groups and said the focus should be ‘on the deed not the breed’.
Chris Laurence, the veterinary director of the Dogs Trust, agreed that it was wrong to criminalize particular breeds.
‘Judging a dog by its breed is unreliable. There are nice Rottweilers and nasty Golden Retrievers,’ he said. ‘The way a dog behaves is largely due to the way it has been brought up.’