DOG LOVERS across the UK are under threat from a ‘stealth attack’ on dog ownership as a growing number of councils seem intent on turning man's best friend into public enemy number one.
Across Britain, the measures - dubbed ‘dog asbos’ by opponents - are being introduced which prevent the animals from being let off their leads or from exercising in public places – and even limiting dog ownership.
Under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act, dozens of local authorities are introducing new control orders to replace existing by-laws relating to dog fouling and to keep the animals out of public areas, such as playgrounds. Owners who breach the orders will face £75 on-the-spot fines, rising to a maximum of £1,000 and a criminal conviction if they fail to.
Critics of the move, including the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust, say the orders will lead to many dogs having inadequate levels of exercise and could result in pets being abandoned because their owners will no longer be able to care for them. They also accuse councils of using the orders as revenue-raising tools and as a form of ‘stealth tax’.
Ironically, the orders limiting dogs from being exercised are being enacted at the same time as the government’s much-vaunted Animal Welfare Act has come into force, where owners are compelled into a ‘Duty of Care’ towards pet animals, which includes proper and regular exercise for dogs.
Chris Laurence, the veterinary director at the Dogs Trust, said: ‘It's extraordinary discrimination for a country that is supposed to be made up of dog-lovers. I'm not aware of anything like it in the rest of the world.
In some areas, you will not be able to take your dog off a lead unless you are in your own garden. In these areas, it’s going to be very difficult to live with a dog.’
At least a dozen councils have introduced orders, with up to 20 more consulting on plans. Many more councils are thought to have orders ‘in the pipeline’. The Kennel Club has launched an initiative called KC Dog to help dog owners co-ordinate and fight such measures if their local authority plans to introduce dog control orders.
An Early Day Motion, in the House of Commons, supporting its work has been signed by more than 40 MPs. Several of them, including Tony Baldry, Roger Gale, Andrew Rosindell, John Whittingdale and Derek Wyatt, have joined the group.
Holly Lee, from the Kennel Club, said: ‘We've always seen the danger that these orders might be disproportionate and become money-making schemes for local authorities.’
Meanwhile, in Manchester, dogs are to be banned from large areas of 97 of the city's 134 parks.
In Camden, north London, dogs will only to be allowed off the lead in 10 ‘exercise areas’.
Sue Ash, 41, who exercises her Golden Retriever, Kir, in the area, said: ‘Most of these exercise areas are barely the size of a tennis court. There are already laws for dog fouling, which could be implemented.’
The RSPCA has responded to consultation processes in areas where it has become aware of proposed orders.
Piers Claughton, from the RSPCA, said: ‘Everyone understands the problems of dog mess and needing to restrict their access to some areas like playgrounds, but these orders have to be proportionate to the problem.’
Earlier this year, Sandwell District Council in the West Midlands announced its plans to enact an order that would ensure all dogs are kept on leads in all areas. It also wanted dog-free zones to be introduced into all outdoor public spaces.
Jayne Harvey, 49, who walks her dogs, Quill, a Belgian Shepherd, and Flair, a Weimaraner, in Sandwell, said: ‘These orders make a mockery of the idea of freedom. It looks like the only place you will be able to take your dog off the lead is in your own home.’
Councillors and officials in Sandwell were, however, taken aback by the sheer force of public opposition to their plans and, prior to last week’s local council elections, withdrew its current proposals for dog control orders in the borough.
Councillor Derek Rowley, Sandwell Council's cabinet member for Community Safety & Partnerships, said: ‘It is evident from the responses we've already received from people that there is considerable misinterpretation over exactly what is being proposed.
‘We are therefore withdrawing the proposed orders so we can look in greater detail at this. In the meantime, there is no point continuing with the current consultation.’
Councillor Rowley tried to damp down criticism by adding: ‘I would like to stress that the vast majority of Sandwell dog owners are responsible.
‘Our aim has always been to tackle problems caused by the minority of irresponsible dog owners that result in complaints to us about dogs roaming free and dog fouling, in the interests of a safer, cleaner borough for everyone.
‘However, we recognise that there has been misunderstanding in what we were asking people to comment on. For example, some people interpreted that we wanted to exclude dogs completely from all the borough's parks. That was never the case.
‘We were seeking people's views on a number of possible dog exclusion areas across the borough, including some specific areas within our parks and open spaces such as children's play areas and sports pitches and memorial parks and remembrance gardens.
‘We acknowledge that there has been misinterpretation, which is why we have withdrawn the current proposals and consultation so we can look at this in more detail.’
Even though Councillor Rowley’s comments were reported in the local media, the issue was raised again on Tuesday of this week on an early morning programme on BBC Radio WM, when another local councillor suggested that plans for the control orders would be revisited, leading to furious comments from dog owning listeners.
Referring to the proliferation of plans for dog control orders, a KC spokesman commented: ‘KC Dog has recently become inundated with news from its participants about dog control orders being introduced in their areas. The number of local authorities proposing to force owners to keep dogs on leads in parks, or even worse, ban dogs from parks is extremely concerning and takes no account of the fact that dogs need regular exercise to maintain good health and welfare. These restrictions on dog walking could very well put somebody off of dog ownership in the future, which would be a great shame considering all the benefits dogs bring to people’.