Police and local authorities were granted new powers to tackle irresponsible dog ownership on October 20. The aim is to use early intervention measures such as Acceptable Behaviour Contracts and Community Protection Notices to prevent future dog attacks.
Whilst broadly speaking this is a step in the right direction, it will only be effective if there is sufficient resource to be able to implement and enforce the measures. Engagement and follow up takes time and manpower and that seems to be in short supply in all public services.
The good news is that finally there is some legislation focused on the human end of the lead. The banning of breeds in the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 is widely regarded as a fine example of knee jerk legislation, hastily put together following a series of attacks by Pit Bulls in the early nineties. Rather than look at the owner, the focus was on the dog and a specific type of dog. This has led to a situation where we immediately demonise the dog in any attack with no reference to the human input in that dog’s life.
Dogs are not born dangerous. Yes some breeds are obviously going to inflict more damage than others in the wrong hands because of their size, power and ‘gameness’, but the environment they grow up in and the training they receive (or lack of it) also play a major part in their development. On top of that, many of the tragic fatal dog attacks have involved dogs of a breed type and characteristics that have been wholly unsuited to the size of the home and the capability of the owner to manage the dog.
All too often the family dog is selected on a whim, with no consideration to matching the breed to the home environment and the owner’s level of experience in dog ownership. No thought is given to where the dog is purchased – is it from a responsible breeder, a puppy farm or the bloke down the pub?
We need to be looking back to the start of the dog’s life where its first few weeks in the litter and then the early stages in its new home shape the dog’s behaviours long before it comes to the attention of the authorities.
We should be investigating every aspect of the life of any dog involved in serious attacks, to piece together the elements that led to the tragedy. Yet, in the majority of fatal UK dog attacks the dog is put down at the scene, thus destroying a key piece of evidence in any case. If there is a fatal car accident the car is not immediately scrapped and the make and model banned, there is a painstaking inspection of the car to check for any mechanical failure that may have contributed to the accident. The same should apply in dog attacks; behavioural experts should assess the dog to understand its levels of sociability and potential for aggression. Let us not forget that in the majority of cases these are family pets which the parents were happy to have around their children.
By learning from this, guidance can be provided to dog owners and particularly parents to help prevent attacks in the future. Legislation based on what the dog looks like is not working - a dog is mostly a product of its owners, and society needs to accept that the human part of the relationship has a massive impact on the dog’s behaviour.
From day one humans start to shape the adult dog and until we stop blaming the dog and start to understand the impact of the human - dog relationship dynamic, all we can do is sit and wait for the next tragic headlines.