Comment: Microchipping dogs is only the start

By Billy Hayes

Microchipping of dogs is good news, but the really significant change being brought into law was almost an aside in Defra's press release – yet it will help thousands of dog attack victims who were previously left without protection in law.

Currently if you are attacked by a dog on private property there is no protection in law, making it very difficult to bring irresponsible dog owners to account.

Postal workers will be the big beneficiaries of this law change. They are probably the largest single group of workers who have to go onto private property in the course of their job. They are protected by law on pavements, but one step inside the garden gate their rights evaporate.

There are 5,000 dog attacks on postal workers every year and 70 per cent of these take place on private property where the law does not apply. Add in the 400 telecom engineers attacked by dogs each year,  meter readers, home helps – the list goes on – and you have a huge number of people left vulnerable at work.

I should say, this is only the case in England and Wales. Scotland updated their laws in 2010 and Northern Ireland followed suit in 2011. Last year the Welsh government announced changes to dogs laws and is currently legislating. That left just Westminster.

So today's announcement will help victims of dog attacks. Those which occur on private property will be able to be prosecuted, bringing fines and criminal sanctions against irresponsible owners. And microchipping will help victims to identify the owner of a dog – the person who is ultimately responsible. In some dog attack cases it is hard to identify the owner and so microchipping will be of great use, as well as for helping to reunite lost pets with their owners.

However, today's announcement leaves something to be desired. There is no firm timetable for introducing the law to cover private property, and microchipping won't become compulsory for another three years. We'd like both to be sooner so that people benefit from these changes, and to ensure it doesn't drop off the agenda before this parliament is finished. It was 2010 when David Cameron first promised to improve dog laws, but since then we've had two more consultations (following Labour's in 2010) with no material change to the arguments, a lot of feet dragging and thousands of attacks in that period.

We would like to see other measures brought in also, in particular ones which would help prevent dog attacks. Dog Control Notices (a bit like a 'dog Asbo') would identify dogs displaying dangerous or aggressive behaviour and require the owner to do something about it before an attack occurred. We don't have those from Defra today. We're also a little concerned about the resources and training available to enforcement agencies who will be required to uphold these laws. Changes are good but become meaningless if they can't be enforced.

Postal workers have no choice but to go onto private property as part of their everyday work. Those who are victims of dog attacks in the course of delivering the mail have a variety of experiences. Common injuries include fingers being bitten off through letterboxes, deep wounds, scratches, gashes and bruising from dogs jumping up and biting postmen and women on their arms, hands, faces and legs. Two attacks – in Sheffield and Cambridge – were so serious that we feared for the lives of both postmen.

It was after the attack on Paul Coleman in Sheffield just before Christmas 2007 that we really stepped up our campaigning and lobbying efforts. Paul was subjected to a terrifying attack by two powerful dogs while on his delivery round. He was dragged to the ground and one dog clamped its jaw onto his leg and wouldn't let go even when being hit with a hammer. Paul suffered serious leg, arm and chest injuries and was in hospital for six days, undergoing skin grafts and plastic surgery. At one stage, doctors feared that he could lose his right arm, in which significant nerve and muscle damage occurred. Surgeons managed to save it, but Paul has permanent scarring and suffers reduced mobility. He's been very vocal about the danger that dogs pose to people ever since.

Many CWU members tell us of their experiences with the addendum 'what if it had been a child?' There are lots of teenagers delivering leaflets and newspapers who would fare far worse than a grown postman or woman. We need far better awareness among dog owners that their pets should not have access to the front door. Royal Mail is supporting better awareness campaigns now which is positive and hopefully we can get the message out there that the age-old image of a dog biting a postie is not at all funny.

Billy Hayes is general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. CWU has been campaigning for a change to dangerous dogs laws since 2008 with their 'Bite Back' campaign.

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