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The Dangerous Dogs Act: ten years of misuse

TEN YEARS ago saw the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act (Amendment) Act which became law on the 8th June 1997. It was the only time the now infamous DDA legislation had been changed since its introduction in 1991 and it has never been altered since. Ten years on and we take a look at where we are now with the breed specific component of the law.

The DDA is breed specific legislation (BSL) – Section One of the legislation directly prohibits four types of dog:

• the Pit Bull Terrier
• the Japanese Tosa
• the Dogo Argentino
• the Fila Brasileia

It is illegal to keep any of the above types of dog, unless the dog is registered on the Index of Exempted Dogs and certain conditions of exemption are strictly adhered to.

Back in the early 1990s there was intense media coverage of dog attacks, the ‘pit bull’ had become the new ‘devil dog’ and the focus of media attention. Events took a drastic turn following two separate highly publicised dog attacks in the summer of 1991. The Government responded by declaring that certain dogs would be culled in one mass operation, sending out panic into the dog owning community. Following further advice from animal welfare organisations, this knee jerk reaction of intended mass slaughter was later modified instead to a compulsory registration system embodied in the DDA, which with very little research was rushed through Parliament in record time.

The aim was to eradicate a type of dog over the next generation. Owners had to fulfil certain requirements within a very short space of time in order to bring their dog within the law. There was a deadline given after which time the Index closed and those dogs not fully exempted became illegal.

There were originally 8,200 dogs notified to the Index of Exempted Dogs, by the end of 1992 a total of 4,821 dogs were on the register, this figure had dropped to 2,841 when the Act was amended in 1997.

The Act doesn’t refer to the ‘American Pit Bull Terrier’ and uses the word ‘type’. What wasn’t initially explained was how the word ‘type’ should be interpreted. No governmental guidelines to ease the confusion led to frequent lengthy legal hearings debating the finer points of what was and what was not of the ‘type’.

Dogs found to be of the type faced the compulsory death penalty by court order. Courts were and still can be subjected to days of conformational analysis. Originally a points system was developed and using this score system a Great Dane scored 85% and a Dachshund was shown to be 76% type.

Landmark case

In 1993 the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court determined the legal definition of the word ‘type’. In the landmark case of Dunne and Brock Their Lordships, Justice Glidewell and Justice Cresswell stated:

"That a dog of the type known as a Pit Bull Terrier is an animal approximately amounting to, near to, having a substantial number of characteristics of the Pit Bull Terrier".

Thus any dog regardless of parentage could be of the ‘type’. With this ruling the law was in effect extended to cover possibly thousands of mongrels, regardless of parentage; dogs which couldn’t be registered as the deadline had passed and the Index was now closed.

Following the introduction of the DDA it became almost routine for pet dogs to be seized often amidst scenes of great distress. Taken away frantically struggling on the end of a catch pole, whilst children cried and pleaded for their dogs life, to be kept kennelled at secret locations with no contact allowed was and is still remarkably acceptable according to the Act. Owners endured months and in some cases years of complex legal hearings desperately attempting to secure the return of their dog.

The legislation is ultimate proof that the principles of democracy and justice have been blatantly ignored. Section 5 (5) reversed the burden of proof and this was not restored, even when the Act was amended.

The basic right of innocent until proven guilty does not apply - it is taken away from dog owners who once accused have to prove their dog is not of the ‘type’ rather than the prosecution prove that it is!

The penalty for owning an un-registered dog, or breaking the strict rules of owning a registered dog, e.g., muzzling and leash at all times in a public place, (which was later determined to include the inside of your vehicle) was death to the dog if found guilty. There was no other option available to the Courts when sentencing; destruction of the dog was compulsory. Owners fought long and hard to keep their dogs alive and some cases became powerful symbols of a struggle for some justice and change.

Following endless campaigning by many groups including the NCDL (now Dogs Trust) and concerned individuals, the long hoped for Amendment came into force on June 8th 1997.

The main provision, which was widely welcomed, was the removal of the mandatory destruction penalty for dogs found guilty of resembling a ‘type’. Discretionary powers were returned to the courts giving the option to order the dog placed on the Index providing that the dog would not constitute a danger to public safety. An option grabbed by many a dog owner considering the alternative of their pet being killed and returned in a plastic bin liner or not returned at all.
Seizures of pet dogs under Section One of the legislation have thankfully reduced since the Amendment of 1997, with only eleven cases of "being in possession of an illegal dog" prosecuted in the Magistrates Court in 2005 (England & Wales).

Where are we now, ten years on?

Ten years on and the number of dogs persecuted on looks alone has dwindled, unfortunately the BSL machinery capable of inflicting so much damage had remained intact.

Dog bite statistics are still not centrally kept, so there is no nationwide supportive evidence available to examine the effectiveness of any legislation.

There continues to be serious dog biting incidents reported in the news, in our opinion - mostly by dogs that are known to the victim.

The legislation ten years on has given a false impression that the problem of ‘dangerous dogs’ has been resolved, when the real concerns go by ignored. Unless, that is, there is a serious incident accompanied by press attention.

Following a tragic and fatal dog attack on New Year’s Day 2007 the authorities looked to this flawed legislation once again to provide answers and once again family pets were and still are being persecuted, whilst those who use and abuse dogs giving everyone a bad name often walk free.

Canine ‘amnesties’ have emerged. The Merseyside Police operated a ‘hand in’ in February 2007, asking for dogs of the ‘type’ to be given in much the same as you would expect an object to be given over for disposal. The idea was not supported by the Kennel Club or Dogs Trust.

Over-zealous use of the powers contained in the Act create a knock on effect which isn’t measured by any statistical information but is none the less damaging; a climate of apprehension has yet again been created amongst responsible owners. An onslaught of negative press was the catalyst which caused the numbers of bull breeds needing rescue help to steadily increase whilst the numbers of homes offered has noticeably dwindled to almost nothing in some areas.
The situation had been desperate for some time.

We have reached a point where for the bull breeds there are often no more rescue places left and they are dying in the dog pounds on a weekly basis.

Presently dogs can only be placed onto the Index by order of a court; there is currently no provision whereby a concerned dog owner can take their own steps to have their dog registered without the need for police or court intervention.

To get a dog onto the Index it is necessary for you be found guilty of owning an illegal dog (a crime!) and to place yourself at the mercy of the courts.

The re-homing of a registered dog should be legal, straightforward and easy to follow, enabling the registered owner who is no longer able to care for his dog due to a genuine reason, to transfer ownership to another responsible person.

Rescue centres should also be able to re-home registered dogs in their care - registered dogs like Taff, pictured here, who came into rescue when his owner could no longer care for him at aged ten years - you couldn’t have met a more gentle dog.

Apprehended pet dogs still suffer weeks and often months in unsuitable kennel environments at huge public expense awaiting breed identification and court hearings, when in the case of friendly pet dogs the law does not demand that this need be the case at all.

So ten years on and still ten good reasons why change is needed, this time let’s hope and pray we get it as good as we can realistically expect. When the last Amendment was made we were informed to grab it as we could always ‘go back for another bite of the apple’ at a later date. Well that has been a ten-year interval and a lot of people and dogs have suffered and continue to do so.

There is no margin for error as we have seen how the use of just one word ‘type’ can make all the difference. It may be another ten years or a lifetime before any further changes are even considered.

Ten years on and ten factors for consideration:

1. Breed bans do not promote responsible dog ownership or actively work to protect the public – It is a smokescreen which falsely gives the impression that action has been taken to prevent dog attacks, when in reality little is being achieved.

It makes good headline news to be seen to ‘get tough’ meanwhile those who are actually misusing dogs go largely undetected or simply move onto another breed of dog and so the cycle continues. It is time to get tough on bad owners and not the dogs themselves. The present law targets dogs not people. The growing problem of irresponsible dog owners as well as those purposely breeding dogs to line their own pockets with no regard to the welfare of their dogs is not addressed. Instead responsible pet dog owners become easy targets and are unfairly persecuted through no fault of their own.

2. If the Index of Exempted Dogs is to remain, the law should permit the transfer of ownership for registered dogs who need to be re-homed, by either their owners or rescue organisations.
3. Breed specific legislation is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that all dogs of a specific breed are inherently dangerous based on the actions of a few clearly in irresponsible hands. It is not based on any scientific fact or logical thinking. Dogs are restricted and deemed dangerous according to their phenotype, what they look like largely determines their fate.

Deed not breed is a strapline long supported by the Dogs Trust, Kennel Club and many other welfare organisations, groups and individuals.

4. The burden of proof is reversed; the basic right in a civilised society of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ should be restored to dog owners.

5. Great distress is caused to responsible owners who end up prosecuted for owning a prohibited type of dog. Dogs are valued members of the family and their owners suffer immensely whilst separation is enforced, worrying from day to day about the care their dog is receiving, denied access and often basic information concerning their dog’s welfare before being dragged through what can be a judicial nightmare which can end in a criminal record.

6. There are huge welfare implications for dogs seized and held in kennelling environments for prolonged periods of time whilst awaiting breed identification or court hearings. Physical and psychological damage to the dog is an important welfare issue which should be independently investigated; physical injuries noted include broken teeth, pressure sores, weight loss, tail damage, self mutilation to the extremities and untreated wounds.

Impounded dogs often arrive in kennels with no health history collected from their owners. Four dogs recently died whilst held in police custody, due to preventable infection from the deadly disease parvovirus.

If a dog is seized and held with minimal opportunities for exercise and daily human and/or canine contact, the effects of isolation on the dog’s behaviour can be devastating. Recently, one previously friendly pet dog had to be put to sleep at his owner’s request to prevent his further agony - having suffered immense kennel stress due to the confines of his kennel environment.
Puppies should not be held in kennel environments. In the present cases of detained adult dogs, a full health history including details of any treatment administered should be provided to the legal owner.

7. Attempting to ban a breed of dog sets a dangerous precedent. Section Two of the DDA allows the Home Secretary to implement restrictions on further breeds or types of dogs.

Overseas the UK legislation has been used as an example of acceptable measures and over the years numerous breeds have been targeted elsewhere, including the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, Bull Terrier, Bullmastiff, Japanese Akita, Mastiff, Rottweiler, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Shar Pei and many other breeds as well as crossbreeds.

8. Court, Police and Local Authority time could be much better spent. No one sensible wants truly dangerous dogs and more importantly their dangerous owners to be at large causing problems, but when the full weight of the law is aimed at responsible owners and their pet dogs, as has happened, valuable police and court time is wasted, the whole episode can become a public relations disaster. Valuable time to tackle the root causes - dangerous and irresponsible owners and breeders of dogs is lost.

9. The costs on the public purse can be quite staggering. There is the cost of kennelling confiscated dogs, police and local authority manpower costs, court costs, transportation costs, veterinary costs, payment to expert witnesses giving evidence, prosecution solicitors and legal teams etc. As an example the costs of kennelling dogs by the Metropolitan Police Service (London) during the five years following the introduction of the DDA reached £3,078,733 – yes you read that right, three million and seventy eight thousand pounds. The detailed expenditure of recent initiatives targeting pet dogs in Merseyside and other areas is yet to be seen.

10. The definition of type is vague, confusing and constantly open to misuse. It can also be used as a tool against a dog’s owner. Owners who may be worried about their dog’s appearance are realistically left with few choices available to them. There is no option of owner led registration to bring the dog within the law - another politician’s inspiration was to close the Index. Pet dogs end up leading miserable lives where socialisation and welfare can and often are impeded, too frightened to venture out in the day or even attend training classes and too worried to visit the vets and all because someone may point the finger of accusation at them.

The Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group (DDASG) has been discussing the issue of how to better protect the public and the welfare of dogs. They have drafted and proposed the ‘Control of Dogs Act’, which if passed though Parliament is expected to replace the amended Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as well as the Dogs Act 1871. For further details of the proposal which will affect all dogs if it becomes law - please visit the Kennel Club’s website: www.thekennelclub.org.uk

© Endangered Dogs Defence & Rescue
www.endangereddogs.com