Leading article: Pets, pests and their owners

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The Independent Online

The family of Ellie Lawrenson, the five-year-old girl killed by her uncle's dog on New Year's Day, is said to be "absolutely devastated" by her death. It was, indeed, a sickening attack, though sadly only the latest in a series of such incidents. There have been calls for a toughening and an extension of the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, itself the product of a similar level of public concern about out-of-control "pets". There is something to be said for taking another look at the law, although it might be better if the police and local authorities were a little more assiduous about enforcing that existing legislation, however faultily drafted.

There seems to be a consensus that dangerous dogs should be regulated and controlled, and in some cases outlawed. Yet what is a dangerous dog? We ought not have to wait until it has mauled a child for a dog to be so defined. The argument that legislation is useless because there are nasty Alsatians and vicious Jack Russells should be discounted; there are types of dog that are powerful enough and of such a temperament that they can maim and kill. Certain breeds, as was recognised in the 1991 Act, that are specifically bred for fighting are already banned, including the pit bull terrier. There is a good case for adding to that list the "pit-bull type" which would explicitly encompass all manner of cross breeds and mongrels that, despite uncertain parentage, are clearly capable of killing.

There would be rough justice and arbitrary judgements in such cases, and distressingly so for some owners whose dogs would be destroyed. Inevitably, hard luck tales and pictures of sad-looking mutts in cages would emerge. Yet there is a case for state action. If an outright ban is deemed by the Home Office to be too troublesome (what's new?), then the laws relating to muzzling such types need to be more vigorously applied, and extended to private places as well, where many of these attacks take place.

There also needs to be a new duty for owners to keep their animals in appropriate and sanitary conditions, and for them to be trained properly. Too many of these large breeds, which need much exercise, are confined to tiny spaces and neglected. This has an adverse effect on their territorial behaviour and makes them harder to control.

Thus "bad owners" should be be dealt with, too. At present, only cruelty, which is difficult to prove, allows the RSPCA and the other authorities to intervene. Bad dogs and bad owners are usually known - and feared - within their communities, and they blight the lives of those around them; dealing with them would save life and injury and these proposals need to be taken seriously.