Modification of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 Proposal
The recent proposed ban of the XL Bully has, for us, highlighted once again the lack of consistency in how the Dangerous Dog Act 1991 is applied or utilised by enforcement agencies across the country.
As a specialist dog training provider, working primarily with reactive dogs, we regularly work with clients whose dogs are subject to specific measures as part of a Contingent Order under the DDA 1991, where the dog has not been identified as a banned breed, but has been involved in an incident where it was considered to be ‘dangerously out of control’.
Given that these powers and orders are enshrined in legislation, you would expect the experience of each client and the impact on their dog should be broadly uniform. The reality however is that the application of the DDA 1991 is a geographical or financial lottery. Sometimes the matters are dealt with by a voluntary agreement between the owners and the police, but in other instances the animal will be seized pending prosecution and the owner having to demonstrate that the dog is suitable for an order rather than having to be PTS.
There are key factors which control or dictate the application of this law:
- The severity of the breach (how badly the dog bites a person or is out of control) The only time there is a uniform application of the law is where a fatality occurs as a result (quite rightly so) but in lesser offences, ranging from serious and multiple bite wounds, the legal consequences vary massively depending on the Police Service involved and the owners financial ability to defend or mitigate their dogs actions and future behaviour.
- Who is sent to investigate and assess the dog after a complaint is also an important consideration. This will generally be a Police Officer or Police Dog handler. It is important to note that neither of these two Officers have any professional qualification or experience in assessing the temperament of a dog. They have no standards written or otherwise to weight their individual opinions against. The Dog Handler is trained to perform and deploy a dog under a specific set of guidelines in certain scenarios. This certainly does not make them experts in dog behaviour. The public in general do not realise this and at an emotionally stressful time. These uniforms and associated authority can pressure owners into accepting the officer’s advice and often in the case of ‘minor’ offences, sign up immediately to a voluntary control order. A voluntary control order is a quick way for the Police/authorities to conclude a complaint. The owners agree to the conditions set out in a legally binding document. These conditions usually stipulate that their dog(s) are within secure boundaries on their property and kept on a leash, whilst wearing a muzzle in public. For recommendations on muzzles, please see here. Experts can be called to assess the character and temperament of dogs, if the case progresses to court. But this is not happening at the initial stages of a complaint.
- Media attention. Obviously, the higher profile the incident is in social, local, or national media. The more pressure on governing agencies there will be to apply the law.
- The response of the victim(s) or complainant. There is a collective assumption that if a dog bites or causes harm to someone and a complaint is made, then the dog will be seized by the Police and most likely euthanised. The reality is that a lot of victims are dog lovers or simply very empathetic people, that either do not make a complaint or in doing so, instruct the Police that they will be satisfied if the dog(s) are kept on a leash and wear a muzzle in future.
- The breed of dog, its size, and the publics general perception of that breed or type is also another factor. Physical injuries aside, big, or powerful dogs are likely to cause more psychological trauma than a smaller dog, and the result of that is they have the potential to be treated more severely than a smaller dog, even if the injuries sustained are comparable. At Platinum K9 we have considerable experience training reactive/aggressive dogs, across a wide variety of breeds. The reality is that reactivity/aggression is percentage wise more prevalent and severe in smaller breeds of dog. However, people are less likely to report or complain about a bite or injury from a small dog than they are a big or powerful one, even if the injuries are comparable. This may be down to embarrassment or feeling sorry for a little dog. Whilst small dogs pose less of an injury risk in the event of a bite and are more easily overpowered. It must be borne in mind that this is dependent on the age, size, and physical ability of the victim.
Those dealt with informally by the Police will obviously be relieved not to have the formal Court process, but as members of the public we expect that the application of the law should be evenly applied across all offences under the DDA 1991. It should not be influenced or subject to the vagaries of geography and chance. We feel that each complaint should be investigated and actioned to a set of National standards appropriate to the level of alleged offence. These standards would give the Police/authorities a ‘roadmap’ to follow, which genuinely protects the public, whilst also being fair to the owners and indeed the dog.
The standards should require any initial assessment of a dog to be carried out by an independent professional dog trainer/behaviourist sanctioned by the local authority as soon as possible after the incident or complaint. This would be in the immediate interest of public safety and fair for all parties.
We also believe that a mandatory temperament test of dogs being investigated under the DDA 1991 should be applicable. The results of this independent test would assist the judiciary in the application of its duties. Rather than a written report from an ‘expert’ witness, which is the current situation. This test would be practical and assess the dog’s behaviour in a wide variety of situations and stimuli. It would also, where applicable, assess the dog under the owner’s supervision and on its own. These tests would be videoed and scored. The scoring would allocate the dog a certain category that places certain restrictions on it and or mandatory training. Mandatory training would apply to both the dog and legal owner.
The formal testing of a dog’s temperament under controlled conditions, is not a new idea. This process originated by breeders looking to improve the quality of their progeny, and has been taken up by various other organisations, especially those agencies that require certain traits in a dog. Examples of this range from Military and Police service dogs to assistance dogs, such as Guide dogs for the blind.
In our next article we will be setting out how we think this temperament testing of pet dogs should be carried out and explaining the theory behind the process. We will also be posting a video demonstrating a dog being assessed under those conditions.