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RSPCA Summer Conference 2008 part 3
The challenges of managing dogs within our communities

Next up was Inspector Neil Davies of Merseyside Police.

He focussed on the events following the tragic death of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson who was mauled to death by her uncle’s Pit Bull Terrier in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2007. Inspector Davies explained that the force had faced ‘uncharted territory’ with the Dangerous Dogs Act, but that their aim was to ‘clear the county of dangerous dogs’.

He went onto explain that a whole procedure had to be set up from scratch, in order to carry out the ‘dangerous dogs amnesty’ that was ordered. Officers competent in the identification of pit bull type dogs were drafted in from the Metropolitan police to train Merseyside officers.

Inspector Davies added that the force soon learned it had to deal with other agencies, but said that the RSPCA were not supportive of the amnesty, although local RSPCA officials had attended working meetings and given good advice. Interestingly, Inspector Davies paid tribute to the anti-BSL support group Deed Not Breed.

The Q and A session was quite intense. Bill Lambert of the Kennel Club pointed out that TV reports showed that most of the dogs seized were clearly not dangerous. The KC offered free DNA profiling but this was not taken up by the force.

Inspector Davies answered that he was not aware there was a DNA test that would clearly show breed as looking for ‘type’. ID officers showed dogs were pit bull ‘types’ under the law.
The following speaker was Dave Griffiths, a Hampshire Council Environmental Health Officer and Chair of the Isle of Wight Dog Warden Group. Mr Griffiths had represented dog wardens on the DDA Reform Group.

He outlined the problems facing local authorities and dog wardens, due to the high increase of strays in England. There was an increase in Staffordshire Bull Terriers in rescue; the breeding rate has increased as a breed, but this was not always responsible breeding.
The new law relating to strays now that the police no longer have involvement in this area was outlined in some detail.

A key point of Mr Griffiths' presentation was that no records were kept on the number of dogs bred, sold or imported, either as rescues or purchased. He suggested whether a system of compulsory dog insurance should be introduced, rather than compulsory legislation. Education in dog matters and ownership was a necessary tool, better laws regarding the breeding and sale of dogs and the need for Local Authorities to better use dog legislation such as the Dogs Act 1871, which was superior to the DDA.

Genuine partnership

The sixth speaker was Tim Wass Chief Officer of the RSPCA Inspectorate.
He began by saying: ‘This feels like a surreal reunion… I see so many faces I recognise from 22 years ago when we were debating these very issues, which begs question Have we moved forward?’

He went on to say that the future lies in tackling all issues and genuine partnership working with other agencies. He added that he took a pragmatic view and believed that acting together, agencies could deliver significant change if they approached matters in the right way due to the experience of all those in the audience.

Dog fighting was covered next in some detail. Chief Inspector Wass said that this was criminality like any other with a spectrum of different people and behaviours involved.

He showed secretly filmed footage of youths on a council estate urging dogs to fight. After the film was shown, he asked the audience outright: ‘Are you up for a challenge?’ There was a clear need to reach out to communities. To this end, he pledged on behalf of the RSPCA that over the next 12 months they will conduct 40 Community Animal Action events in the 40 worst effected, high crime, lowest socio-economic standing areas of England and Wales. ‘In doing so. what we learn can turn perceptions on their heads,’ he declared. ‘The challenge is to get into the heads of kids and dog fighters… We need to change perceptions on animal cruelty – specifically with dogs and dog fighting - as they have been changed over drugs, drink driving, knife crime etc.: It is not acceptable behaviour.’

This drew a strong round of applause and clearly had set the audience thinking.

Angela WalderThe final speaker was Angela Walder, an RSPCA Trustee, who clearly spoke from the heart, if not always from the head. He main topic was whether Dog Registration would work.

She likened the whole issue to Alex, her 47year-old pet tortoise, who only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.

She said that the conference would take issues raised today back to the RSPCA and that the message of what needed to be done was clear. ‘We need less jaw-jaw and more war-war!’ she declared. ‘Lack of resources were often cited as an excuse for inaction, but the social reformers of the past did not use this excuse, they just got on with it. If we can get public on our side then will GET Government action - it’s whether local or national government!’

Turning to dog registration, she presented various registration systems from round the world. The first she focussed on was New Zealand which had a detailed system, enshrined in its Dog Control Act 1996. This included compulsory microchip and registration, administered at local level with data collated nationally, Discounted fees were available for more responsible owners e.g. those who have had their dogs neutered, undertaken approved training etc.

In Australia, specifically Victoria State, registration was done at local level administration. There was mandatory microchipping of dogs and cats with a percentage of the registration money raised from going to ownership education schemes.

Across Europe, 22 countries have a licensing or registration scheme. In 15 of these it is felt that the authorities are not enforcing it properly so it has had little or no positive impact on stray dog population. Poland is only country where government collects annual figures on stray dogs.
So, she asked, would dog registration help? ‘As part of a wider package it could help. It could promote responsible ownership, Tracebility, Contingency planning, Epidemiology (for example, in Slovenia, canine vaccination records are kept by the state and reminders sent out for rabies vaccinations).

Miss Walder concluded: ‘Things cannot stay as they are. Things will not improve by serendipity. What we have seen today is the start of a genuinely informed public debate. Sharing best practice and partnership working. We need key players to buy into any system. Dog registration also needs public support for it to work.’

Sadly however, in what had been a very positive and united conference, the one sour note in proceedings was introduced by Miss Walder when she attacked all dog breeders, saying that there was ‘far too much dog breeding’ and that there was ‘no such thing as a responsible breeder.’

In a conference that had called for unity in tackling the very real issues facing dogs, it became clear that certain sections of the RSPCA still harboured a deep resentment towards the dog show world.

A final auto-vote was taken, this time on dog registration. The question was: Would compulsory dog licensing resolve existing problems? The voting was closer than could have been expected, despite – or perhaps because of - the last speaker’s presentation: Yes: 58%, No: 42%
After a final coffee break, the conference held an open discussion, in which the following key points were summarised by Chairman Bill Swann:

* There is a need for clarity in identifying the real problems
* Must continue to identify trends, such as the number of dog bites,
anti-social behaviour, rise in dog fighting
* Identify other issues such as stray dogs, indiscriminate breeding
* Questioned whether the DDA is working? Delegates obviously didn't
think so
* Need for more data
* Need to ask why our society is allowing this to happen.
What needs to change?
* Possibly the way in which dogs are bred? Indiscriminate breeding
needs to be looked at.
* Dog fighting must be stopped, along with the use of dogs for
intimidation and threat.
* Some kind of licensing/registration scheme?
How can it be done?
* Legislation? Via central or local government?
* Strengthen/maximise existing legislation