Finally, after the first public consultation two and a half years ago and 22 years since the knee-jerk and ineffective Dangerous Dogs Act was rushed through Parliament, yesterday saw the government announcement its proposals aimed at tackling welfare and irresponsible dog ownership.
The package of measures include, among other things, compulsory microchipping of all dogs, extending the law to cover private property, and seizure of suspected prohibited breeds. But was it worth the wait?
While we welcome some of the measures including extending the laws on dog attacks to cover private property and compulsory microchipping for all dogs, we're not getting the champagne out of the chiller just yet....
This was the government's opportunity to finally tackle the big issues, but instead we believe they have merely tinkered with the existing legislation rather than make the comprehensive reform of dog laws that is so desperately needed. With no preventative measures and our animal centres filled to bursting with abandoned and abused dogs, we simply can't wait another 22 years.
The government seems to think that compulsory microchipping is a silver bullet which will solve the problems irresponsible ownership brings. If only it were that simple. Many of the abused and abandoned animals that the RSPCA rescues already have microchips, but inadequate and out of date records mean owners are unreachable or can simply claim that they 'gave the dog away years ago'. Just this week I spoke with an RSPCA inspector who told me that she had been involved with a case where the emaciated body of a microchipped greyhound had been dumped in a bin. However, when she traced the registered owners they claimed they had given the dog away. Unable to prove ownership, the people who subjected that dog to such cruelty remain unaccountable for their actions.
It remains unclear if owner details registered on the database will be regarded as legal proof of ownership of a dog, or if it will be made an offence to fail to keep a dog's microchip up to date. Without such conditions, dogs will continue to suffer and cruel and irresponsible owners will remain unaccountable.
Extending the law to cover private property might allow those injured by dogs to claim recompense but we wonder how this will actually protect people from being bitten in the first place. Preventing dog bites can not be resolved through legislation alone and is reliant upon education to ensure people can interact safely with dogs.
The measures also worryingly suggest that Breed Specific Legislation is here to stay. The RSPCA along with the police, local authorities and others support the abolition or phasing out of breed specific legislation. Any dog, regardless of their breed or type, can be dangerous... in the wrong hands. The law punishes dogs for the way they look with no regard for the individual dog's temperament. To reinforce the myth that people will be afforded better protection by continuing breed specific legislation which labels some dogs as inherently 'dangerous' is wrong and focuses the attention at the wrong end of the lead.
Moves by the government to give police forces greater discretion when dealing with prohibited types of dogs (e.g pit bull terriers) are cautiously welcomed but may only impact on a very small sub-set of dogs. Some dogs spend years in kennels while their fate is being decided through the courts and sadly, these measures do nothing to tackle the plight of those animals. Enforcement bodies should be given greater discretion on the need to seize any dogs in the first place and where dogs must be seized, deadlines on behavioral assessments should be set to reduce the welfare impact of kennelling on dogs.
After 22 years of the RSPCA having to deal with the reality of inadequate legislation some of which fails to hold cruel and irresponsible owners accountable for their actions and some which punishes certain dogs unjustly, we're hoping that these measures through effective enforcement, will have some real bite. However it is far from what the RSPCA has been calling for and as with all these things, the devil is in the detail. Watch this space...