Were you given any information about the law when you first took on the responsibilities of dog ownership? When I got my first dog, 15 years ago, I had no idea how our newest family member could get me in trouble with the law. Luckily she proved loyal and obedient, and the first insight into the legal aspects of dog ownership was when I became a constable four years later.
They say that ignorance is bliss, but try telling that to a magistrate and you’ll soon be told that ignorance is no defence in law. However, my new role showed me that many dog owners remain ignorant of key legislation until their beloved pets’ actions bring them into conflict with the law. The best time to learn the law is not when a constable knocks on the front door. When you’re facing the very real possibility of an unlimited fine, up to two years’ imprisonment and the destruction of a beloved family member, it’s already too late.
So what exactly constitutes a dangerous dog? Surely not little Spot, playfully chewing on a rubber bone in the front room? Don’t bet on it. Most people’s understanding of a dangerous dog is the American Pit Bull, or one of the other three dogs specifically named in the Dangerous Dogs’ Act 1991. Though the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentinos and the Fila Brazilieros are specifically deemed to be dangerous, you might be surprised to know that the law says that your own dog, regardless of breed, “shall be regarded as dangerously out of control on any occasion on which there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will injure any person, whether or not it actually does so.”
Your dog may only pose a danger to spiders and unwary slippers, but every dog comes with a complete range of canine instincts and behaviours. In 1999, a typical year for complaints, 730 owners found this out to their cost and were prosecuted under the 1991 Act. From this number, 406 were convicted and 200 received cautions.
The dog’s behaviour must be in a public place or in a place “which is not a public place but where it [the dog] is not permitted to be.” A public place is defined as “any street, road or other place (whether or not enclosed) to which the public have, or are permitted to have, access whether for payment or otherwise, and includes the common parts of a building containing two or more separate dwellings.” Even the inside of a car parked on a street has been deemed a public place.
Sometimes you can find yourself in a distressing situation even when you’ve taken all possible precautions, as the owner of a young German Shepherd learnt when the dog bit two boys in her absence. One of the boys was badly injured and required a lengthy stay in hospital. The dog involved was of previously good character and the boys had regularly played with him in the garden with the owner’s permission. They had been warned not to enter the garden when the owner was not present, but they did so on this occasion, climbing over two locked gate to do so. By their own admission, the boys began to tease the dog. When one of the boys took a toy from the dog, he attacked them both, snapping and snarling, and forcing the injured boys to flee.
As the investigating officer, I looked first at the Dogs’ Act 1871. This Act has served Britain well for more than a hundred years and is still widely used. This Act gave rise to the saying that “every dog has two bites”. This popular misconception arose because magistrate often impose an order to control the dog under this Act. They do not always do so, however, and they do have the power to destroy a dog in the first instance.
Though the dog had obviously been dangerous at the time he bit the boys, he had been confined to a rear garden, the access to which was by two locked gates. As the owners had clearly done everything possible to ensure that the dog was under proper control, no action was possible under the 1871 Act.
Had the dog not been kept under proper control, the magistrates would have had the power to order that the animal be kept under proper control by muzzling, keeping him on a lead, or excluding him from specific places. They could also have ordered that, as a male, the dog should be neutered. In view of the boys’ injuries, they would probably have ordered that the dog be destroyed.
I then looked at the Dangerous Dogs’ Act 1991. This Act was rushed through parliament in response to a series of high-profile dog attacks, the most notable of these being the attack by an American Pit Bull Terrier on sixyear-old Rucksana Khan in Bradford. Once again, because the dog had not injured the child in a public place, he had not committed an offence, even though he would have committed an aggravated offence under this Act.
Many dogs seem to have something against police officers, and I’ve been bitten more than once when making enquiries. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I examined the dog. Thankfully, he showed himself to be good-natured, with no signs of aggression. As I could find no offences that he had committed, I submitted a report recommending that no further action be taken. This was immediately overruled by my supervisors, who had obviously based their opinion not on the legislation, but on their emotional response to the child’s injuries.
Fortunately, after much debate, the Crown Prosecution Service finally agreed with me and no action was taken against the dog or the owner. Unfortunately, so distressed was the owner by both the incident and the manner of the investigation that she made the heart-rending decision to have the dog destroyed anyway.
A police investigation into an allegation that your dog is dangerous will always be traumatic, even when the allegation is blatantly unfair. You become suddenly aware that the courts have the power to order the execution of a beloved member of the family. You face the possibility of a substantial fine and even a prison sentence. Even if the court only imposes an order to keep the dog under control, you and the person in whose charge the dog was at the time of the incident could well end up with a criminal record.
But just how do you mount a defence against an allegation that someone had “grounds for reasonable apprehension” that your dog was going to injure them? As the legislation means that the burden of proof is reversed, you have to prove that your dog was not dangerous at the time. This can be almost impossible, depending, as it does, only on the allegations of the ‘victim’.
In the case of Beth, a 13-year-old dog that growled and barked at an elderly woman in Aberporth, Wales, in 2001, proving her innocence was somewhat easier than usual. Maxine Turner, Beth’s owner, explained that the woman had complained to the police about Beth on three separate occasions over two years. When the police arrived to investigate the woman’s malicious allegations, Maxine’s nightmare began.
“Beth does bark,” says Maxine. “But everyone knows her. The old woman made a habit of walking past my house with her own dog. Her dog annoys other dogs. It would bark at Beth, and Beth naturally barked back. But Beth couldn’t have bitten her.”
Why? Because Beth had lost most of her teeth years before the alleged incident. When this fact was brought to the court’s attention by Colin Taylor, Maxine’s solicitor, he rightly complained that it was, “the most ridiculous case ever brought before this court”
“What was she going to do — lick her to death?” asked Maxine.
The case would be laughable if it was not so upsetting for both Beth and Maxine. “My solicitor told me that if Beth was found guilty, then an order would be made for her to be destroyed. I had to live with this worry for months. The police said that, as a complaint had been made, they had no choice but to take me and Beth to court”
Police funding is partly based on crime figures. Because of this, there is little incentive for the police to use common sense if there is an easy opportunity to boost their performance statistics. Better-performing forces are given the most funding by the government, and it is in the interests of the force to detect as many crimes as possible.
So what can you do to avoid being turned into a criminal by the unforeseen actions of your best friend?
- Most importantly, understand that all dogs are capable of behaving in a manner that would fall within the definition of dangerous.
- Make sure that there are adequate signs alerting people to the presence of the dog when it is in your garden, regardless of whether you have any concerns about his behaviour.
- Make it clear to people where they can and cannot go on your property.
- Place a post-box at the gate. The 6,450 postal workers who are bitten by dogs each year will at least applaud your efforts.
- Always supervise your dog when he interacts with children or strangers.
- When you’re with your dog in a public place, make sure you have full control at all times. If your dog will not immediately respond at a distance to voice commands, keep it on a lead all times when there are other people animals around.
- Be aware that your dog can be intimidated by groups of strangers and even familiar people. Crowds especially can frighten dogs, so be extra cautious near schools and shops.
- Don’t leave your dog tied up and unsupervised outside a shop. This will certainly be deemed to be a public place and a court is unlikely to accept that dog was properly under control.
- Understand your dog and its moods. Look for signs of injury or illness, both of which can make a dog behave in an unpredictable way.
- Never encourage your dog to chase people or animals
- Do not let children under 16 walk the dog alone. They will not be in a position to control the animal adequately in a difficult situation. As a dog owner, you can avoid prosecution only if you can prove that you left the dog in the care of a person you believed to be responsible. Where the dog’s owner is under 16 years old, it will be you, as the head the household, who will be prosecuted.
Be aware of the legislation as it affects you and of your responsibilities as a responsible dog owner. Don’t assume that your dog will always behave in a rational and calm manner. Your dog’s life, your good name and even your liberty could well be at stake.
UK Animal Legislation relating to dogs.
Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953
Under this Act, the owner and the person in charge of a dog will be guilty if he chases or attacks livestock on any agricultural land, or is not on a lead in an enclosed field in which there are sheep. Livestock includes cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses and poultry. Agricultural land includes all farmland, market gardens, allotments, nursery grounds and orchards.
The Animals Act 1971
This allows the owner of livestock worried by a dog to claim compensation through the civil courts.
The Road Traffic Act 1988
This allows local authorities to designate certain roads where dogs must be kept on a lead at all times. Such roads must have visible signs displayed.
The Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996
This states that you must clean up after your dog if it fouls any land that is open to the air and to which the public are entitled or permitted to have access. It does not include land used for agriculture, woodland, marshland, heath or moor, common land, or roadsides where the speed limit is normally above 40 mph. If you fail to clean up after your dog, you may be presented with a fixed penalty notice. It is not a defence to say that you were unaware of your dog’s actions.
The Control of Dogs Order 1992
This says that if a dog is found in a public place without a collar and identification bearing the owner’s name and address, then the owner (or person in charge of the dog) will be guilty of an offence.
First published in Dogs Today