Dogs: barking mad and dangerous to own: After Jilly Cooper's failed canine mercy-plea, Nicholas Roe proposes a commonsense Dog Bill

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YOU have to admire Jilly Cooper. Her fax to a judge this week making a clemency plea for a doomed dog was a stroke of dramatic genius marred only by the fact that it didn't work. The judge merely paused to rap Ms Cooper's knuckles before going on to pass sentence on poor Buster as originally planned.

There is one point to hang on to, though. The interesting thing about Ms Cooper's mercy-fax was not that she had the nerve to give it a go. No, the key was that she was trying to inject some Fantasy Justice into the British legal system. Never mind the law, Jilly was saying, let's have some common sense here. And fair enough. After all, Buster hadn't actually done anything. His owners had merely failed to comply with the conditions of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act which demands neutering, muzzling, registration and so on.

So, taking Ms Cooper's cue, let's ask this question: in a perfect world, how should we rewrite the dog laws? I say 'laws' because there are about 25 of them at present; an arcane tangle of doggy controls of which the Dangerous Dogs Act is merely one of the latest and crankiest.

Animal experts said at the very beginning that this 'knee-jerk' response to various attack horror stories was too breed-specific, too harsh, too difficult to apply (because identifying pit-bull mongrels is really, really difficult) and far too narrow in scope. Now they are being proved right.

Meanwhile, people are still being bitten (not by pit-bulls, but that's of little comfort); dogs are still barking too loudly in quiet streets; dogs are still damaging property, and causing road accidents, and mucking up parks and pavements; and we are, by the way, spending roughly twice as much on dog wardens as we did three years ago. Terry Singh, who runs the five-strong, pounds 200,000-a- year dog warden service in Bradford, says: 'We are all paying somewhere along the line. Everyone is paying.'

The point is that reality isn't coping. We have all these laws yet they are not working, which means that if ever there was a time for the fantasy of common sense it is now. Ta-ra ta-ra] I would like to publish my Fantasy Dog Bill:

Clause One: There Shall Be A Licence. And it shall be paid for, too. The problem of dog control is that we buy on a whim, then swiftly lose interest. There are 7,400,000 dogs in Britain, of which about 500,000 run loose at any time. We value only what we pay for because that is the sort of society we have become. Very well then. Pay. Say, pounds 25 initial registration plus pounds 10 a year upgraded for inflation.

Discounts will be offered for neutering, spaying or block ownership, but even so this will fund an awful lot of dog wardens. It will also give courts a visible control lever. We are talking endorsements here: three penalty points for a dog-fouling offence, five for persistent annoyance to neighbours, 10 for a bite. Accumulations over a three-year period should not exceed 15 points or the licence to own would be revoked and the dog sold. Repeated offences would make death inevitable. Sorry.

Clause Two: There Shall Be A Test. Certainly. Like a car, a dog can move quickly, kill, maim and pollute, and like a car it takes skill to control. Why require training for one, but not the other? Mr Singh is making rapid inroads into the stray problem in his city, partly through a programme of education. So this clause insists that dog-licence applicants must attend training classes, leading to a test. Subjects to include medical insights into toxocariasis - a disease that can be passed by dogs to humans through excreta; also community awareness and canine psychology.

Clause Three: Registration Inevitable. Essential. But not only registration as now - a mish-mash of voluntary tagging schemes each working independently of the other. The overwhelming need is for a single, central, computer- based system with a common technology that any police force and any dog warden has access to. The Government has sneered at this idea, saying it would be cumbersome and expensive. Bradford's experience of a voluntary scheme is that it works and saves money because stray dogs are whipped straight back to the owners, instead of languishing in the dog-pound at public expense.

Clause Four: No Laws But This. I won't bore you, but the Fantasy Dog Act would pick the best bits out of every other piece of dog legislation, compress them into one clear law, then scrap the rest. Did you know, for instance, that if a dog bites someone at present, its owner can be prosecuted either under the Dogs Act 1871 or the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act? The difference is that the early legislation gives magistrates discretion over whether or not to issue a destruction order. The 1991 Act, on the other hand, insists on destruction if the skin is broken. Did you know that bad-dog owners can escape legal control orders simply by handing the animal to someone else? 'Not my dog any more, guv,' they say, and there is little the courts can do.

Did you even know that allowing your dog to stray is not itself an offence, so long as it wears a collar with your address on? Yet stray dogs form the root of all canine problems . . . . There are other silly things which this clause would mop up, but you can see where all this is leading. A Fantasy Dog Act would produce a smaller population of loved pets; animals that do not suffer or cause suffering and would have a welcome place in the community. It would work, honestly.

If Jilly Cooper would like to fax me her support it would be a start.

(Photograph omitted)

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