A dog is a man’s best friend, or so the saying goes. But is man a dog’s best friend? A steady rise in reported dog attacks would suggest not always.
Between 2005-2018, 37 fatalities across England and Wales have been linked to dog attacks. In 2012 the Government estimated that over 200,000 people a year suffer from dog bites.
At present, four breeds of dog are prohibited under UK laws: Bull Terriers, Japanese Tosas, DogoArgentinos and Fila Brasileiros. Despite some common thoughts to the contrary, Staffordshire Terriers are legal to keep and breed.
Research published by the British Health and Social Care Information Centre suggested a 76% increase in dog attacks from 2014-2015.
In 2015, NHS figures showed that 7,227 hospital admissions were a result of dog-inflicted injury, up from 4,110 in 2005. Children under the age of 9 accounted for 1,159 (28.1%) of these victims.
Current and past legislation has attracted criticism for discriminating based on a dog’s breed alone, and for failing to curb annual increases in dog-related incidents.
A history of dog regulation in the UK
Dogs Act 1871
The Dogs Act 1871 was the first significant piece of legislation to address the risk to humans posed by dogs. The Act responded to the growing incidence of rabies, which was linked to urban dogs. Sections 1 and 3 of the Act relating to stray and rabid dogs have since been repealed, but Section 2 is still in force today. It requires that an owner is brought before a Magistrate’s court should their dog – whatever the breed – receive a complaint. The judge may then impose a fine, order for increased owner control, or issue a destruction order for the dog.
The Animals Act 1971
The Animals Act 1971 placed a non-negotiable liability on dog owners, following reported attacks. Regardless of whether it was the owner’s fault – or indeed whether they were present – the owner would be required to pay compensation for any injury or damage incurred on the part of the claimant. This also applies to injured livestock. The owner is considered liable if the dog displays characteristics which are atypical of their species, and if these characteristics were known to the owner.
The Control of Dogs Order 1992
This Act legislates that all dogs in public spaces must wear a collar displaying the name and address of their owner. This allows them to be identified and handled accordingly if involved in an attack.
Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999
The focus of this 1999 Act was not to criminalise dog behaviour, but rather to promote the welfare of dogs in breeding establishments. New laws made it mandatory that breeding businesses obtained licences from local councils. These were only granted if the council felt satisfied that the dogs were receiving adequate accommodation, nourishment, and exercise.
Puppies were not allowed to be sold until they were at least 8 weeks old. While emphasising the wellbeing of dogs, it is thought that adequate upbringing and care reduces the likelihood of dogs acting aggressively later in life. These measures were enhanced by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and Dangerous Dogs Amendment Act (1997)
When introduced in 1991, the Dangerous Dogs Act was intended to reduce public fear and injury by dogs. It did so by placing criminal liability on any dog owner allowing their dog to behave dangerously.
This is not limited to inflicted injury, but includes giving a person reason to believe that it may. The latter has been contested given the difficulty of judging a dog’s intent. Successful prosecution can result in fines, compensation to the injured, or even prison sentences. Secondly, the Act enforced a ban on four dog breeds which, if found within the UK, would be seized and subject to mandatory destruction orders.
In response to numerous complaints, the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997 removed destruction orders and introduced the Index of Exempted Dogs – a register of banned dog breeds deemed of no risk to the general public. If someone comes into possession of a prohibited dog that seems ‘well socialised’, they can appeal to the Metropolitan Police’s Status Dogs Unit where the dog is examined. The police apply to the court who decides whether to grant a Certificate of Exemption, which adds the dog to the register.
As of 10th February 2014, there were 2,658 dogs registered on the National Index of Exempted Dogs. Of these, all but 6 of these were not a pit bull. While the 1997 Amendment reduced prosecution based solely on a dog’s breed, it was still acceptable to seize any dogs suspected to be a forbidden breed. This meant that nearly 5,000 dangerous dogs were confiscated by the police from 2013-2016.
Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014
Part 7 of the 2014 Act amended the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 by increasing the maximum sentence for irresponsible dog owners charged with a criminal offence.
It introduced a case-by-case approach to addressing dog bite attacks, which takes into consideration factors such as the dog’s past behaviour and the mental state of the owner. Criminal liability was also extended to private areas, rather than just in a public place.
Alternative approaches to canine control
In May 2017 the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee announced an enquiry into prohibited breed dog legislation. In a press release, the Chair of the Committee, Neil Parish, criticised the government’s strategies, describing them as”well-intentioned but misguided”.
The report published by the Committee called for a review of the existing legislation and policy to better protect the public. Rather than breed-specific prohibitions, an alternative proper control model was proposed, which focused on education, intervention, and prevention. The Committee recommended a re-assessment of bans on selected breeds, an independent review into the factors driving dog aggressions, and mandatory dog awareness courses for owners of a dangerous dog.
This stance is supported by dog and animal welfare groups, such as Dogs Trust, the National Animal Welfare Trust, and the RSPCA.
The Kennel Club maintains that the Government should adopt a ‘deed, not breed’ approach, to prevent unjustified termination of dogs under the prohibited breeds. While recognising the necessity of dog regulation, existing laws overlook a range of factors which drive dangerous behaviour; notably, the irresponsibility of dog owners and inadequate training. The Kennel Club further notes that existing laws have failed to prevent a large number of attacks caused by supposedly ‘safe’ dog breeds.
In addition to current guidelines, all dog owners are advised to take precautions to ensure their dog’s safe conduct. The most basic yet invaluable measures are said to include rigorous dog training, ensuring the dog responds to basic commands, and looking out for early signs of aggressive behaviour. It was stressed that utility workers and postal workers should not feel threatened by a dog when carrying out daily tasks.
“All dogs can be dangerous, and we can’t ban all dogs that might one day bite someone.”- Neil Parish, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2017
According to the RSPCA over a third of the people killed by dogs since the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was brought, in were attacked by legal breeds.
According to the University of Lincoln in 2016, the annual cost to the NHS of treating dog attack victims has been estimated at £3 million.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded a total of 67 fatalities following dog attack incidents between 1991 and 2015, with 37 fatalities occurring between 2005 and 2015.