Time for law to put the bite on owners of dangerous dogs

Owners of animals that attack people in public could face jail as part of a new clampdown. But do the guidelines go far enough? Chris Bond reports.

ANYONE who has ever been attacked by a dog or encountered one that is dangerous and out of control will tell you can be a very frightening experience.

For children, in particular, it is a terrifying ordeal that can leave lasting psychological scars. It’s estimated that around 210,000 people a year are attacked by dogs in England alone, including 4,000 postal workers trying to deliver mail.

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There have also been five fatal dog attacks since 2007 – four involving children. Hospital admissions for serious dog bites have more than doubled over the past decade.

So the news that owners of dangerous dogs that attack people in public now face stiffer penalties, including up to 18 months in jail, has been widely welcomed. As well as tougher sentences, judges and magistrates are being encouraged to ban irresponsible owners who put the public at risk from keeping dogs, order dangerous dogs to be put down and arrange compensation for victims under the new rules brought in by the Sentencing Council.

Animal Welfare Minister Lord Taylor says this sends a clear message to dog owners that they are responsible for keeping their pets under control. But while most animal charities welcome the introduction of tougher sentences, the belief is that this alone can’t solve the problem.

One of the main concerns relates to the existing Dangerous Dogs Act, which banned the ownership of four types of dog bred for fighting – the pit bull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo argentino and fila brasileiro. The Act came into force in 1991 after six-year-old Rukhsana Khan, from Bradford, was savaged by a pit bull terrier. She suffered more than 30 wounds to her face and body before being rescued by a group of men who had to beat the dog off with sticks.

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But the legislation that followed pleased no one and Gavin Grant, the RSPCA’s chief executive, says the Act simply “does not work”.

Laura Vallance, head of public affairs at The Dogs Trust, while welcoming the new guidelines, agrees that more needs to be done to prevent attacks and dog abuse. “In terms of sentencing it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully it will be more of a deterrent. But we would like to see the Dangerous Dogs Act repealed and replaced by better legislation that helps stop dog attacks in the first place.

“We’ve been lobbying the Government ever since the Act was brought in. We feel it was a knee-jerk reaction and we need new legislation, but Defra has been dragging its heels on this for the last 21 years.”

She points out that in Scotland and Northern Ireland the local authorities have more wide ranging powers than they do here.

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“If someone makes a complaint about a dog that is reportedly out of control, but hasn’t attacked anyone, the local authorities can order the owner to make sure it is kept on a lead, or muzzled while in public places and they can order the owner to make sure the dog is properly trained. This is very important because it’s about owners taking responsibility for their animals.”

Another issue is that under existing laws criminal cases can only be brought against dog attacks that occur on public land and not private property.

“The law needs updating,” says Vallance, “We would welcome proposals that deal with this because health visitors and postal workers, in particular, are being attacked by dogs while trying to do their jobs.

“We can bring in news powers to compensate victims but it’s about owners taking responsibility for their dogs and making sure they are properly trained because a lot of incidents are avoidable.”

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Defra admits that changes to the law are needed and says it is looking at extending the existing dangerous dogs laws to include private property. “We need to extend the law and close this loophole because there have been cases where children were mauled and the authorities weren’t able to take action,” a spokesman told the Yorkshire Post.

But Defra points out this is a “complex” issue and that any changes to legislation need to protect the public as well as ensuring pets being properly looked after are not wrenched from their homes unnecessarily.

“We are determined to crack down on people who fail to keep their dogs under control, and earlier this year we consulted on measures to do this including extending the dangerous dogs laws so they cover private property. There are no easy solutions to tackling dangerous dogs so we have taken the time to make sure we got this right.”