Successive Governments have sought to perfect policy on dog control and welfare. These are high profile issues – regularly topping MPs’ and Defra’s post bags. Government is pressed to take action, to have a policy and to change the law.
There have been twenty-two fatalities as a result of dog attacks since 2005 - thirteen children and nine adults - and more than six thousand people a year are so injured by dog attacks they require hospital admission. The very young or the elderly tend to be most at risk of attacks, which can be highly traumatic and cause live-changing injuries, in addition to adding strain to the NHS.
Yet we are a nation of dog lovers and dogs provide a source of great companionship for many people. Any approach must balance two competing but often complementary outcomes: securing public safety and promoting high standards of animal welfare. Steering a course through these areas can be tricky, particularly given the high profile of many of the incidents, but the two aims are not always mutually exclusive.
In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) consulted on a package of measures that aimed to address both policy aims. The final measures strike this balance; they reflect the fact that it’s often the owner, not the dog, that is the problem - and that there is a need to reduce the number of dog attacks and incidents in the first place.
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is probably the most famous piece of legislation in this area. It is principally a public safety measure, but its ban on certain breeds (amongst them, the pit-bull terrier) is controversial. Animal welfare charities and campaigners oppose its breed-specific legislation - arguing for ‘deed not breed’ -whilst many of the Act’s supporters would like to see the ban extended to include other breeds. Crucially the police, who are in the front-line of dealing with some of the terrible dog attacks, support the existing bans.
However, the most important part of the Act applies to all dogs. Under Section 3 it is a criminal offence for an owner or keeper to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control; that is, a dog that injures someone or behaves in a manner that the person has a “reasonable fear of injury”.
Yet up until last year, Section 3 had a significant flaw; it only applied in public places or places where the dog was not supposed to be. Attacks within the home could not be prosecuted – be these on family members or legitimate visitors, such as health professionals, utility workers, or the 3000 postal workers who are attacked each year.
Following a very effective campaign, led by the Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union, the Act was amended earlier this year to make such attacks in the home a criminal offence. In response to concerns about dogs legitimately attacking burglars, Parliament agreed that attacks on trespassers in, or entering the home would be excluded from prosecution.
Opening up the debate
Dogs and dog control are emotive issues, and, even as the amending legislation passed through Parliament, Defra had to remain flexible. Whilst the amending Bill was in the Commons, there were strong arguments from across the political spectrum to increase the maximum penalties for allowing a dog to attack someone. The maximum penalty for allowing a dog to kill another person stood at two years imprisonment but some commentators wanted life imprisonment.
Defra undertook a short, on-line public consultation which fitted in with the Bill timetable. A simple tick-box questionnaire was used with options for sentences for different offences. The online survey made front page news and was completed by 3,180 people and organisations (some also contributed written representations). The results showed that some 91% of people considered that maximum penalties should be increased; 83% thought there should be an increase for injury to an assistance dog or a person, 69% for the death of an assistance dog, and 76% for the death of a person.
The result was that the maximum penalties were increased to fourteen years’ imprisonment if a dog kills a person and to five years if someone is injured. These maximum sentences are comparable to causing death by dangerous driving (14 years) and causing actual bodily harm (5 years).
Clearly, preventing dog attacks in the first place is preferable to punishing those whose dogs are out of control. Defra, working in partnership with Home Office, has brought forward comprehensive information for local authorities, the police and social landlords, on how they can use the new streamlined tools on anti-social behaviour to target irresponsible dog owners. A practitioner’s manual outlines good practice in local authorities and police forces
The new measures include the Community Protection Notice which can be issued more or less on the spot – for example, if a dog is running loose in a park and threatening children. There is no limit on what can be required of a dog owner under a CPN, save it has to be reasonable to address the anti-social behaviour; it might require a person to mend fences on their property to prevent a dog escaping, to fit a post-box guard, or even to attend dog training classes.
The government has also introduced a policy of compulsory microchipping of all dogs by April 2016, following advice from key stakeholders that only a compulsory scheme would increase the number of microchipped dogs (currently 70%).
Local authorities and charities share in the benefits of quicker dog-owner reunions; they spend £33m a year looking after the 110,000 dogs picked up as strays annually, and may need to destroy dogs they can’t rehome.
Microchipping also encourages responsible dog ownership. Wandsworth Council’s policy that all dogs in their social housing are microchipped has resulted in huge decrease in dog-related incidents on their estates. Knowing that they can be easily traced by their dog’s microchip, owners became more responsible and less likely to simply let the dog loose.
We undertook a successful social media campaign to communicate the benefits of microchipping using the hastags #chipmydog and #Microchipping.
Better information, better owners
Defra Ministers have also been concerned that the ease with which a dog can be bought reduces understanding of the commitment required for responsible ownership. Defra’s research showed that the internet now provides a huge source of dogs for sale from advertising sites such as Gumtree and Preloved. Working with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group, a grouping of animal welfare charities and the pet industry, Defra Ministers engaged directly with the main on-line advertising sites to agree voluntary minimum standards for pet adverts. Amongst other elements, advertisements must now include a photo of the animal, its age, details of the breeder as well as sources of advice for pet care. Anyone offering suspected prohibited dogs is reported to the police, and adverts that don’t meet the minimum standards are taken down. Some 130,000 problematic adverts have been removed in the last year.
The information and advice to potential owners has also been improved with input by a number of animal welfare charities. Prospective dog-owners are encouraged, for example, to consider a rescue dog before a new puppy or – if buying a puppy – to do so through a reputable, properly licensed UK-based dog breeder and to observe the puppy interacting with its mother. The government has also financially supported charity education initiatives in schools and on inner city estates to promote responsible dog ownership.
Looking to the future
Within this package, policies to promote dog welfare sit alongside other preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of attacks, and changes to the 1991 Act ensure that irresponsible owners can be prosecuted if necessary. Thus, both public safety and animal welfare can be promoted.
Government will continue to work closely with frontline practitioners in the police and local authorities to monitor how the new measures affect the numbers of stray dogs and the number and nature of dog attacks. It will also keep working with the third sector and industry to moderate on-line sites advertising pets for sale. As the nature of the problem changes over time it may be that further changes to the law are needed.