The Dangerous Dogs Act bites worse than it barks

Poor treatment is one reason why any dog could become dangerous. Raymond Larose

Proposed changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act are based on the assumption that Britain faces a growing threat posed by dangerous dogs and their owners. The proposal is to impose harsher penalties. Before we buy into this narrative, it would pay to inspect the issue in a less sensational way.

At the outset, it isn’t a single problem posed by aggressive dogs, but three separate issues. First there is the problem posed by so-called aggressive “status dogs” and their owners. Second there is the perennial problem posed by dogs of all breeds to people like postmen. Finally there are problems that some dogs pose to the families of their owners, which in some cases have resulted in deaths.

Rather than recognising these as distinctive problems which require different solutions, they are conflated together and the problem is too often made to be one of dangerous dogs bred to be violent by gang members. Let me offer a less sensational diagnosis.

Undeniably some use dogs as status symbols, but by focusing disproportionally on this problematic but rare aspect of dog ownership, we lose sight of a more common reality that is very different. There are around eight million dogs in Britain - how many of these are weaponised dogs wielded by gangs? A thousand?

Some young people certainly own dogs like pit bulls for the reasons of status; but many other breeds are also owned for status reasons by pedigree dog breed enthusiasts. From my own research with status dog owners it was evident that they had neither the knowledge nor funds to train their dogs to be killers, and breeding to select aggressive traits was not systematic. Young people certainly value particular breeds, but their concern is to own a handsome specimen, not a deadly one.

The most common problem posed by these young owners is an inadequate response to dog-on-dog aggression. After all, these breeds were originally bred for dog fighting, but humans can still be injured when dogs fight each other. Animal welfare problems are also a concern - dogs are not properly trained, exercised, fed, and are often neglected or abandoned. The owners care about their dogs, but do not always know how to care for them. This applies to many owners of dogs, or indeed many other pets, not just status dog owners. Instead of seeking to ban certain breeds and criminalise their owners - as the Dangerous Dogs Act was established to do - a campaign directed at promoting responsible ownership would be preferable.

With regards to the experience of postal workers, as it is natural for dogs to bark at trespassers there will always be dogs barking at postmen. So long as they are prevented from doing anything more than bark, that is all we can ask for. Some dogs of any breed attack postal workers and there is no link between status dogs and postal workers’ injuries. Fining anyone who keeps an aggressive dog (no matter what breed or size) in their front garden or where it can injure a worker is the way forward here. There has to be a physical threat present – a dog barking, no matter how aggressively, indoors or in a fenced off garden does not pose such a threat. Postal workers should also have the right to refuse to deliver mail if an aggressive dog is present.

Looking at the problems posed by dogs to their human families, in my analysis of all dog bite fatalities since 2005 it transpired they have taken place within a home context. Very often the owner, dog and victim belonged to the same family. Some of these dogs were pit bulls, but other breeds were also involved.

From the circumstances of these deaths, there are no patterns that can be drawn from the breed of the dog, nor any connection to status dog ownership (there is none); all that can be surmised is that these are double tragedies. They are tragic because someone has been killed, often a child. And it is tragic because a dog has been inadequately cared for – poor socialisation with babies and children, not exercised or fed properly, dogs and children left unsupervised – and as a result someone dies. And of course, the dog is inevitably put down as well. To claim that we would get justice for these tragic victims by handing out life sentences to the owners makes no sense.

In my opinion, shared with many professionals, dogs are not born bad, but made bad by being poorly raised. This, in turn, leads to problems. What we need then, is to take proper care of our dogs. Young people should learn how to interact with dogs, adults should have to ensure children and dogs are not left alone, and dog owners of powerful breeds need to learn how to deal with these dogs. Encouraging positive ownership is much better than further demonising and stigmatising status dogs and their owners.