Analysis: Muzzling the dangerous dogs debate

Britain’s obsession with pets notwithstanding, some dogs’ bites are worse than their barks.

By Alex Stevenson

Figures provided by the Conservatives show that 100 people are being hospitalised every week because of dog attacks. Convictions for people allowing out-of-control dogs to injure others have more than doubled under Labour.

There’s no doubt it’s a problem which needs to be addressed. But when looking at the way politicians deal with the issue we mustn’t ever forget they’ve got one eye on the coming general election.

Arguably the only politician who can be trusted to comment on the issue without electioneering is Betty Williams, Labour’s Conwy MP who is standing down at the election.

She literally bears the scars from her experience with this issue. Last September she fell victim to an attack by a Rottweiler which bit her right forearm.

While not disfigured, the marks are still clearly visible. She’s been told they’ll be there for life. She has trouble cutting meat with that arm, for example.

“A vicious attack like this leaves you with a mental scar,” Ms Williams told me.

For her, the proposals announced today – including compulsory third-party insurance for all dog-owners – don’t go far enough. She wants to see the government amend existing legislation so that all dogs which bite are impounded pending investigations.

In a first for me, at least, the interview – taking place in the Palace of Westminster – was interrupted by the unexpected appearance of a small mouse.

There is no need to describe the brief flurry of activity which followed. I will happily admit to shrinking back after ringing front door bells, as an unseen canine monstrosity hurls itself forcefully against the thin door, but on this occasion am less keen to describe the unhappy events.

The incident underlined an issue at the heart of the debate about dangerous dogs – the risk that those affected are opposed to them simply because they seem scary.

Despite this salutary warning, it seems the problem is not about the animals being excessively scary. The sad truth is the growing social problem which needs tackling is what is most worrying of all of all.

Dangerous dogs are increasingly being trained and conditioned for aggressive behaviour by their owners. In London their ownership by gang members confirms reports that they are being used as weapons. This debate isn’t about scary animals, nasty though they are. It’s about a growing social problem which needs tackling.

What is notable about the debate taking place today, as the government launches its consultation, is the marked absence of any real dissent from the leading political parties.

It feels as if there are real grounds for Labour-bashing here. The government is responding to a perceived problem with heavy hands, it could be argued, proposing the ordering of compulsory third-party insurance and the microchipping of dogs. Some critics might even call this an infringement of civil liberties, creating yet another area in which the state interferes. One critics said a sort of “doggy DVLA” would have to be created. Has this really been thought through?

For now, the looming prospect of the general election seems to be prohibiting politicians’ responses. The idea of the Tories not appearing tough on unpleasant gang members with their violent dogs is simply unthinkable. It has the effect of muting their criticisms, meaning consensus is the most likely outcome as the election approaches.