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‘No knee-jerk reaction’ as dog laws face overhaul

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.

‘Proper control’

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.

‘No plans’

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.’


The Behaviourists’ View
Dogs needn’t be dangerous

On behalf of The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC), the Chairman, Donna Brander, would like to issue the following statement regarding the recent tragic events involving children and Rottweilers.

‘This is a tragedy for all concerned and the APBC extends its deepest sympathy to the families involved. All dog owners have the responsibility of understanding and addressing the potential dangers of keeping any dog. Dogs should be well socialised, particularly to children and infants, in order to be well adjusted to the special behaviour children and infants sometimes display. Even when habituated and socialised to the distinctive behaviour of children and infants, the interaction of dogs and children or infants should always be supervised by an adult.’

The early weeks of a puppy’s life are crucial for it to develop into a well-balanced adult dog. Lack of adequate socialisation is the biggest cause of aggression in dogs. Whilst there are many responsible breeders who are aware of the importance of early socialisation and who are breeding good puppies, there are also many inadequately socialised puppies being sold as family pets. The APBC believes that much could be done for both human and dog welfare if legislation was introduced to prevent the ‘mass production’ of un-socialised puppies in puppy farms.

However, problems can sometimes occur when children and dogs are left unsupervised. Children may frighten the dog, without realising it, and, as they do not pick up the dog's warning signals, the dog may resort to biting if it feels trapped and unable to escape. The typical example is of a toddler being allowed to follow a dog under a table, where the dog is trying to seek refuge.

Allowing children to 'hug' dogs can be dangerous as this can be very intimidating for the dog. Always stroke a dog on the side and do not reach over its head.

Parents should never allow their children to go up to an unknown dog in the street to pat it, without first checking with the dog's owner that it is alright to do so. Equally, do not allow children to tease neighbour's dogs through the fence as this may aggravate the dog and potentially lead to the dog nipping at fingers under the fence or even jumping over the fence.

Supervision and common sense are of paramount importance and part of responsible dog ownership and parenthood to ensure the safety of both children and dogs.

The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour contains a chapter on ‘Pets and Children’, which gives practical tips and advice on how to handle a variety of situations from both the human and dogs’ point of view. Dog owners who have behaviour problems with their dog should seek advice from a professional behaviour counsellor. Many insurance companies will cover the cost of a behaviour consultation with an APBC Member.

l For further information on the APBC and details of members, visit www.apbc.org.uk


KC says ‘key is in preventative measures’

The Kennel Club issued a detailed statement on the review of the dog laws which, it is understood, will be announced formally towards the end of this month:

Having closely followed and monitored the recent horrific dog attacks, the Kennel Club would like firstly to share their deepest sympathies with the families concerned, and secondly offer advice for the public at large as to how these attacks can be prevented.

Public feeling is running high and is somewhat divided but adding any breed to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA) would not help the situation and could in fact exacerbate it. Breed specific legislation is not the solution: Banning an entire breed for the actions of individual animals achieves nothing, as all dogs have the capacity to be dangerous if not properly trained and controlled.

Caroline Kisko, Kennel Club Secretary said: ‘The key is in taking preventative measures, so these sorts of attacks don’t arise in the first place. These measures include awareness, education and training – the onus being on the owner. A responsible dog owner knows that you never leave a dog and a child, especially an infant, alone and unattended. It is the responsibility of parents, teachers, and the government to educate children with what to do (and what not) when they are in the company of a dog’.

The Kennel Club offers two education programmes; one aimed at children – Safe and Sound, and one for dog-owning adults. The purpose of the Safe and Sound Scheme is to promote the safe interaction between children and dogs, and teaches children how to behave around dogs to stay safe. It can never be taken for granted that any dog will be 100% safe with everyone all of the time, and children have to be taught how to behave in the company of even the best trained dog. The scheme is in the form of a fun, interactive programme on the website (www.thekennelclub.org.uk), and is very popular with children.

The Good Citizen Dog Scheme covers both the theory and practical dog training skills, which are important in everyday life situations. There are three levels of award, adding to the incentive to take part in the scheme.

The DDA was originally drafted in haste in response to a spate of dog biting incidents in the late 1980’s, and it’s because this legislation was rushed through Parliament as a knee-jerk reaction that it was poorly drafted and these incidents continue to occur. Another hasty decision will do nothing to address the real issues of responsible dog ownership, in order to protect the public.

Adding the Rottweiler to the DDA is likely to worsen the situation, as a minority are likely to take an unhealthy interest in another breed that is given the official label ‘Dangerous Dog’ as we have seen to be the case since the ban on Pit bull Terriers.

What is required is the proper training of dogs, coupled with the training and education of owners, and the general public as a whole. Caroline adds: ‘We need governmental support in spreading the message, and this is why we continue to work closely with the Metropolitan Police Service, Dogs Trust, and a leading dog law solicitor to re-evaluate and re-write the current dangerous dog legislation.’

The rewrite will update the DDA so the Police and local authorities can become involved earlier and so act preventatively – the DDA currently only applies after an incident has occurred and only when a dog attacks in a public place. Thus, if a dog is displaying signs of undue aggression, be it in the home or a public place, they will be able to step in and take the necessary measures for the immediate safety of the Public. The issue of a type of anti-social behaviour order for owners is also being discussed.

She added: ‘Our sympathies are with the families after what have been horrendous incidents. As far as the dogs are concerned we would counsel a measured response rather than an immediate reaction. The Kennel Club continues to work with the Metropolitan Police and others on the review of the Act while at the same time promoting the education of dog owners and children through both the Safe and Sound and Good Citizen Dog Schemes. The importance of training and education cannot be overstressed and we are lobbying the government to consider financing for education of both dog owners and non-dog owners alike. The Kennel Club schemes provide an excellent basis for this education but with government funding and support we could reach a far greater audience.’

The Kennel Club will be meeting within the Dangerous Dog Act Study group in the next few weeks to discuss this important welfare issue.

After this the Kennel Club will once again be approaching politicians with its findings and a plan to better protect the public from any dog, of any breed, in any environment.