After a series of maulings which have left one woman and two babies dead, is it time to look again at the Dangerous Dogs Act? Sarah Freeman reports.
December 10, Leeds General Infirmary: Doctors confirm Emma Bennett has lost her fight for life. The pregnant mother of four had been attacked the previous day by two dogs at her home in the east of the city and died of her injuries just hours later.
The early hours of February 10: 11-month-old Ava-Jayne Marie Corless baby girl is asleep in bed. Minutes later she is dead, mauled by what police described as a pit bull type dog.
A little after 8.30am on February 18: Paramedics are called to a house in Carmarthenshire. They arrive to find the lifeless body of six-day-old Eliza-Mae Mullane. She too had been attacked. This time by the family’s pet Alaskan malamute.
By the time floral tributes began appearing outside each of the victim’s homes, the dogs which caused the horrific injuries had been destroyed. Yet these kind of attacks were never supposed to have happened at all. At least not with such alarming regularity. Those kind of headlines were meant to have been done away with when the Dangerous Dogs Act became law in the UK back in 1991.
The legislation - rushed through parliament following a similar series of attacks - was controversial at the time. Banning four types of dog, critics claimed the knee-jerk reaction not only failed to address the root of the issue, but may in fact lead to a rise in the number of problem animals.
Those words may have come back to haunt lawmakers in recent weeks with the legislation looking increasingly ineffectual. Take the case of Carla Cutler. Last year, the four-year-old was riding her scooter along the pavement when she was set upon by a pit bull terrier - one of the breeds banned under the Act - named Lucky.
Her mother eventually pulled the dog, which had fastened its jaws around her daughter’s head, away, but Carla has been left scarred for life and unable to move half her face. On Monday, the dog’s owner, Hezron Curtis, was sent to jail for just over two years.
It was the maximum sentence Judge Peter Clarke QC was able to give, but describing it as the worst injuries he had seen inflicted by a dog in his 40 years in the criminal justice system, he also demanded “urgent reform” of the Dangerous Dogs Act.
It’s an argument which the RSPCA are well versed in. In fact the animal charity goes further. Not only is the legislation largely toothless, but the organisation insist the banning of specific breeds was always too much of a broad-brush approach.
The RSPCA also claims it has been forced to destroy a number of dogs, not because they had been involved in attacks, but simply because they are deemed to be the wrong sort of breed.
“There is no evidence to support the notion that some breeds or types of dog are by their nature more dangerous than others,” says an RSPCA spokesman. “Breed specific legislation punishes certain types of dogs for the way they look and fails to consider a dog’s individual behaviour. As a result, dogs whose behaviour poses no risk are branded ‘dangerous’ just because of their appearance.
“We want to see an end to specific breed legislation. Dogs can’t help who their owners are, yet the law unfairly places the onus of responsibility on the them, rather than the irresponsible actions of the owner.
“Some dogs brought into our centres, as part of cruelty investigations, are later identified by the police as a prohibited type. Despite may of these dogs being friendly, well socialised and perfect candidates for rehoming to responsible owners, the law doesn’t allow that. This causes much heartbreak for our staff who form very strong bonds with these dogs particularly as many of them have only ever known violence or neglect from their owners.
“Current legislation has not prevented attacks on people, animals or discourage irresponsible ownership. It has also failed in other countries where it has been evaluated like the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark. The law was intended to phase out these types of dogs. However, many experts say it simply made the prospect of owning a banned dangerous dog desirable to the type of people who encourage their dog to be aggressive.”
It’s a claim which would appear to be backed up by statistics. Since 2005, 20 people have died as the result of dog attacks in the UK and each year in England alone more than 200,000 people are bitten by dogs with the cost to the NHS of treating injuries about £3m.
In fact hospital admissions due to dog bites have been steadily rising for the last five years from 4,611 in 2007 to 2008 to 6,302 in 2012 to 2013.
The government is currently considering amending the legislation so owners of killer dogs would face the same jail terms as dangerous drivers. It would mean judges would have the power to sentence those whose animals attack and kill to up to 14 years in prison, while those whose dog causes serious injury would be liable to five years in jail.
Under the rules an owner whose dog “nips, bites or barks” at a person such as a postman could in theory face court action. While there is a debate to be had on whether the proposed changes go too far in the other direction, there is a consensus that change is needed.
“We are concerned by Home Office proposals to tackle irresponsible dog ownership under Anti-Social Behaviour legislation, which we do not believe goes far enough, or is indeed clear enough, to tackle the roots of the problem,” says a spokesman for the animal welfare charity Dogs Trust, which runs a rehoming centre on the outskirts of Leeds. “Although we welcome the fact that this issue is finally being addressed, we are disappointed that the Government has opted for a piecemeal approach.
“We cautiously welcomed the recent proposed changes to the maximum penalties for dog attacks. However, we do not believe that an increase in sentencing will do anything to prevent dog attacks in this country. The emphasis should be placed in tandem with education surrounding responsible ownership and dog control and preventative measures to tackle irresponsible behaviour before an attack occurs.
“Increasing the maximum prison sentence should, of course, incentivise responsible dog ownership but this on its own is unlikely to prevent a single incident. Irresponsible dog owners are unfortunately going to continue to act irresponsibly and these proposals will not address this problem. The time is right to look at the preventative measures that are urgently required to stop dog attacks from happening in the first place. We will continue to campaign for reform to existing dog control law until we are satisfied that any new measures are preventative rather than punitive.”