The 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act which covers attacks by uncontrolled pets is a controversial piece of legislation that remains out of touch with reality. With an estimated 10 million dogs in the UK, and a substantial rise in the number of dogs attacks against humans, dogs and other animals, dog owners need to take far greater responsibility for the actions of their pets.
A dog is considered to be dangerously out of control if it injures a person or another animal. As the legislation currently stands, and in theory, if a dog owner allows their dog to injure a person, they can be jailed for up to two years and/or fined. If a dog is deemed to be ‘out of control’ the owner can be fined up to a maximum of £5,000 and/or sent to prison for up to six months. A court might also decide that a dog is dangerously out of control if the owner of the animal believed they could be injured in trying to prevent the dog attack. In reality though, the law remains toothless and highly subjective. Dog owners can only be prosecuted if their pet attacks a person when out of control in a public place or when entering private property without permission.
Recent data shows that around 6,447 people were admitted to hospital for dog bites in 2011-2012 which represented a 5.2% rise on the previous year. Some recent appalling cases – including the death of a 14-year-old who was savaged by four dogs – have led to urgent calls to toughen up current legislation. In addition the number of pets attacked by other dogs in the presence of their owners continues to rise with tragic consequences for all parties. The Guide Dogs Association, for example, reported that the number of attacks on guide dogs from other dogs had risen to 8 per month within a 24 month period from June 2010 to May 2012. The British Horse Society (BHS) set up a website to record, for lobbying purposes, all equestrian accidents which included 194 dog attacks on horses in 2012. The BHS has set up a working group alongside PC Keith Evans (dog legislation officer for West Midlands Police), who has been tasked to help move the legislation on dogs attacks forward. Public support to put pressure on the government to bring about changes to the law has been boasted by a number of online petitions. Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston has already presented a petition to parliament, and, Nicky Morgan, Conservative MP for Loughborough is launching an online petition to be sent to the Home Office calling for the law to tackle the behaviour of irresponsible dog owners whose pets attack others, including attacks that take place on private property.
Earlier consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has led to possible future legislative changes. This includes provision to amend the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act as part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which is currently making its way through parliament. Part 7 , as part of a wider package of measures, covers proposals to reduce the numbers of dog attacks, and, to make owners more responsible for the actions of their dogs. If accepted, this will be housed alongside the Bill’s anti-social behaviour powers and will be used to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners. These changes would see the maximum jail sentence of two years for owning a dangerous dog increase substantially. In addition to current proposed legislative changes, there is widespread public agreement, and lobbying by the RSPCA, for the (re)introduction of dog licensing.