Barking mad government takes on dog owners

Britain’s Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 is the standard example of a knee-jerk response to tabloid panic, introduced by a government enveloped in sleaze which expected to lose the next election (although John Major won, in defiance of the pollsters). The only worse example was the “cones hotline” – the number now goes through to the Highways Agency 24-hour information line – introduced by Major shortly after the 1992 election.

Spot the similarities with today’s struggling government. Amid Britain’s worst economic performance in living memory, the biggest deficit in living memory and (vague) threats of a downgrade to government debt, what does the country really need? Yes, another clampdown on dangerous dogs.

The government started a consultation today, Tuesday, on whether more needs to be done to limit dangerous dogs, including the options of forcing dog owners to insure and microchip their dogs. Here’s its explanation of why:

There has been growing concern over public safety issues relating to dangerous and
status dogs. The term “status dog” describes the ownership of certain types of dogs
which are used by individuals to intimidate and harass members of the public. These
dogs are traditionally, but not exclusively, associated with young people on inner city
estates and those involved in criminal activity. In recent years, incidents, attacks and
fighting of these dogs has increased and some of these incidents have involved
children, resulting in tragic fatalities. This is an issue which the government takes
very seriously.

But the numbers are actually tiny. True, they have been rising, but only 763 people were found guilty of having an out-of-control dog (of any breed) in a public place in 2008, the latest available, with another 115 having illegal “dangerous” dogs under the 1991 act (the data is in the consultation document). If there is a real problem of aggressive dogs attacking cute children in parks, it is one of enforcement, not legislation.

There is a loophole in the criminal law: attacks on private property are not covered, so children or visitors being mauled by the family pet, which anecdotally seems to make up a lot of the reported attacks, is not a criminal offence. But even this is covered by civil law dating from 1871: the victims or the police can apply to court to have the dog destroyed.

Under the Dogs Act 1871, any person may make a complaint to a magistrates court that a dog is dangerous, or report the matter to the police. If the court is satisfied that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, it may make an order for it to be controlled or destroyed. (Defra’s explanation)

On top of that, in London it is an offence to allow any unmuzzled ferocious dog to be “at large” in a public place – giving police pretty wide-ranging powers to deal with nasty creatures.

The real worry, as the consultation showed, is class-based, as the dogs that concern people are owned by “young people on inner city estates and those involved in criminal activity”. Nice Daily Telegraph-reading Labrador owners and Daily Mail-reading sausage dog owners will be caught up in a net supposedly needed to control the nasty minority of Sun-reading bulldog owners. One Telegraph blogger is already proposing targeting new dog rules at council estates instead.

This is not how law should be made. True, dogs can be used as weapons; but anyone doing so is hardly likely to register their dog, so new laws demanding registration won’t stop such use. Dogs can be badly trained, in which case they may be more aggressive; but again punishment after the event is already possible, and raising the cost of ownership is hardly likely to solve the problem, or encourage better training. Microchips are almost irrelevant – dogs who bite people don’t hang around while their owners run off, so a new law on that would not help.

On top of that, the dogs people are scared of are not necessarily the most aggressive. Consider this US research reported widely a couple of years ago: the most aggressive dogs are sausage dogs, while Rhodesian Ridgebacks – beloved of South African whites as supposedly aggressive guard dogs – are not particularly aggressive.

The best solution is simply to enforce the current laws, and – just as with hoodies, where we should accept that people dress differently – we should accept that people own different types of dog. Reading between the lines of the government’s consultation it appears that they agree. Here’s an example of understated civil-service speak, which roughly translates as “we don’t need to do anything”:

It should be noted that under the current legislation, it is an offence to allow any dog
to be dangerously out of control in a public place or a place it has no right to be.
This is not restricted to any particular breed.

Declaration of interest: I have two cats. And yes, I’ve been bitten once or twice, and my children have even been scratched by them (although mostly they put up with the pain my children inflict on them). How about a Dangerous Cat Act 2010? Worth a consultation, at least.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.