Owning a dangerous dog is not murder

This time around the physical characteristics of the dog play no part. But the tendency to allow the horror of individual cases to make bad law is still sadly evident

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The Independent Online

The last time that politicians pronounced on the matter of dangerous dogs, the result was a piece of legislation routinely held up as the epitome of risibly ill-considered and populist law-making.

Alongside not unreasonable restrictions on behaviour (for example, holding both owner and handler criminally liable for an animal being dangerously out of control in a public place), the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 also set out a confusing list of not-quite breeds that must be muzzled, micro-chipped and kept on their leads. Cue much confusion and little benefit.

This time, at least, with proposals to extend the law under consideration, the physical characteristics of the dog play no part. But the tendency to overreact, and to allow the horror of tragic individual cases to make bad law, is still sadly evident.

There are some sound proposals here, too. It is makes sense, say, for restrictions on out-of-control dogs to apply to private as well as public spaces. But it goes too far to suggest that an owner should face a life sentence if their dog’s victim dies.

Yes, owners should be held responsible for their pets’ behaviour. Yes, the current maximum tariff of just two years in prison is arguably too light. Careless driving, after all, can put someone away for five years, and dangerous driving for 14. But a life term – sending the owner of a deadly dog to prison for longer than the average rapist – is excessive.

Nor is it likely to be particularly effective. Rather than setting so much store by the deterrent effect of jail, the Government should be boosting enforcement efforts. Animals that are not well-controlled should be identified earlier, and their owners sent to mandatory handling classes. Prison sentences will not stop dog attacks; training will.

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