Dangerous dogs measures dismissed as 'tinkering'

 

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The Independent Online

The Government was today accused of failing to crack down on attacks by dangerous dogs, after it unveiled measures which critics said were "just tinkering around the edges" of the problem.

The measures include closing a loophole in the law so that dog owners will face prosecution if their pet attacks someone lawfully on their property.

Ministers also announced plans for compulsory microchipping of puppies by breeders before they are sold, a move proposed two years ago in an independent review to stop poor welfare "puppy farming" by unscrupulous breeders.

But animal welfare charities criticised the failure to bring in measures to prevent attacks, such as "dog control orders" which would force owners to keep dogs identified as potential problem animals on a lead or muzzled in public.

And news that the plans were subject to a further consultation was met with dismay by campaigners and the postal workers' union, who have been pushing for changes to the law for years.

Announcing the proposals, Environment Department (Defra) minister Jim Paice said: "We are known as a nation of animal lovers who take proper care of our pets. But there are a minority of irresponsible dog owners who don't.

"These people allow their dogs to menace or even attack innocent members of the public. This has to stop.

"Today we are announcing a comprehensive package of measures that tackle the problem head on, which will better protect legitimate visitors to private property and will enable the police to take action before someone is hurt or killed."

But Communication Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes said: "We were hoping that all the fanfare around the dangerous dogs announcement this weekend would mean that positive action was on the way. Instead all we're getting is yet another consultation."

He said that during the consultation 12 postal workers would be attacked every day, with many having no protection in law as 70% of attacks took place on private property.

"It's about time the law bit back to protect innocent dog attack victims.

"Thousands of postal workers and telecom engineers - along with other workers who go on to private property and parents of small children - desperately need the private property loophole closing so that they have some protection.

"Government action is well overdue and thousands of people have suffered debilitating injuries while the Government has dragged its feet," he said, adding that action was needed now.

The Dogs Trust welcomed the extension of the laws to ensure prosecution of owners whose dogs attack people on private property, and said compulsory microchipping should be a central part of policies to tackle irresponsible dog ownership.

The charity said microchipping would not prevent attacks, but would effectively link dogs to owners and make them responsible for their pet's behaviour.

However, the Trust also called for ways to deal with attacks before they occur, for example by issuing dog control notices to owners of dogs which are out of control or aggressive, ensuring they are muzzled or on a lead in public.

Clarissa Baldwin, Dogs Trust chief executive, said: "Government must tackle this problem head on with completely new legislation, rather than just tinkering round the edges.

"We're extremely disillusioned that there is nothing in the consultation on measures that will actually help to prevent dog attacks, which is surely what the aim of these proposals should be."

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home said today's measures were a "wasted opportunity" for the Government to address irresponsible owners and welfare issues.

The charity's chief executive Claire Horton said: "If only puppies were to be microchipped it could take many years for this to affect all dogs, and with scant detail from the Government on how this scheme will be enforced, will it make any difference?

"How in real life will this tackle the thousands of irresponsible owners who will continue to unscrupulously breed and sell puppies, or abandon dogs with little thought for animal welfare?"

According to Defra, five people were killed following a dog attack in the home between 2007 and 2010. Four of them were children under the age of four.

And the number of dog-related admissions to hospital is on the rise, up from 2,915 in 1997 to 6,118 in 2010, costing the NHS £3.3 million in 2009 alone to treat the most serious cases where victims had to be admitted.

Four dog breeds, pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argenino and Fila Brasileiro are banned in Britain, and the police warn that removing the ban would increase the risk of dog attacks because they were originally bred for fighting.

But the Kennel Club said that instead of a ban on specific breeds, the law should be changed so that if any dog's behaviour is worrying it can be reported and magistrates can hand out control notices requiring owners to take steps such as properly fencing their garden or ensuring the animal is muzzled.

The control orders would ensure the problem is dealt with before it gets to the point where a child dies, Caroline Kisko, Kennel Club communications director, said.

She also said: "The introduction of compulsory microchipping would be a bold move which would have far-reaching benefits for dog welfare in this country.

"It would help the authorities to reunite dogs and owners more swiftly, to ensure that puppies sold in pet shops can be traced back to their breeder and to clearly link owners to dogs and their dog's actions.

"However, it is not a catch-all solution for protecting the public from dangerous dogs and their irresponsible owners, which can only be done by introducing measures to penalise irresponsible dog owners before an attack occurs."

And the Guide Dogs urged the Government to go further with its plans by treating attacks on guide dogs as attacks on their owners because of their impact on already vulnerable people.

Richard Leaman, Guide Dogs chief executive, said: "We are extremely concerned about the number of attacks on guide dogs by other dogs. There were 147 attacks on guide dogs between June 2010 and December 2011. The impact of such attacks can be devastating.

"We believe that an attack on an assistance dog should be considered an attack on the person, to reflect the fact that a guide dog is a vital mobility aid and that such attacks are very distressing for people who are already vulnerable."

He said the owners of guide dogs which were attacked were left shaken and sometimes too scared to leave their house on their own.

"When a guide dog is attacked, the freedom of movement that the dog has given to someone who is blind or partially sighted can be snatched away in a few moments," he warned.

The Blue Cross welcomed moves to extend the law on dog attacks to cover private property and steps to introduce compulsory microchipping, provided it covers dogs of all ages.

But Steve Goody, director of external affairs for the Blue Cross animal charity, said: "Although we are pleased that the Government is finally addressing the problem of dangerous dogs, the measures announced today do not go far enough.

"To provide real protection to the public we need the introduction of preventative measures, such as dog control notices, which would allow the authorities to step in before serious attacks take place."

And the RSPCA accused the Government of breaking the promise set out in the coalition agreement to promote responsible pet ownership and to target the irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.

RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant said: "Britain's dogs deserve better. Too many are abandoned and abused, demonised and dumped.

"All owners need to be accountable to their dogs, the irresponsible deterred and the abusive prosecuted. That is the approach we need to take. These proposals need to go a lot further to achieve that."

He said the measures unveiled today were the perfect chance for the Government to make huge strides to improve on the "disastrous" Dangerous Dogs Act brought in in 1991, and to boost dog welfare.

"Instead they have taken only the smallest steps and merely tinkered with a piece of legislation that many people widely acknowledge is one of the biggest failures of modern politics.

"These measures not only lack bite, they raise major questions about how exactly they expect to effectively tackle the danger of irresponsible ownership to both people and animals."

The British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association said the proposals did not include measures to prevent dog attacks.

Harvey Locke, past president of the BVA, said: "Dog welfare charities, veterinary organisations, trade unions, and enforcement bodies have been united in the call for a complete overhaul of the legislation and a new, consolidated Bill to focus on prevention.

"There will be a huge amount of frustration and disappointment with today's announcement."

Lawyers representing victims of dog attacks welcomed moves on microchipping and extending the laws to cover private property.

But David Urpeth, partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, called for owners to have compulsory insurance to pay for the rehabilitation needed by victims of attacks.

PA

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