The bottom line is that the DDA was never intended to prevent any and all dog attacks, or injuries to people caused by dogs. There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily the law was passed to protect the public from certain types of dog, and to allow the police to prosecute people who let their dogs attack a person. The effectiveness of this law has been widely questioned, not least by vets, the RSPCA and many animal owners, who have argued that it was an overreaction. However, some campaigners and victims of dog bites maintain it needs to be made stronger and stricter.
What is the Dangerous Dogs Act?
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was passed following a series of high profile incidents in which people, including a number of children, were severely injured or killed by dogs. The government of the time decided that certain breeds of dog (that had been specifically bred for fighting) were too dangerous to be permitted to be owned in the UK. These are known as the “Banned Breeds”. In addition, the law introduced certain penalties for people whose dogs were “dangerously out of control” (in other words, had attacked or were threatening to attack people).
What dogs were affected?
Any dog can be deemed “dangerously out of control”; however, the bulk of the legislation was specifically aimed at certain breeds, deemed to pose a greater risk to human health. These banned breeds are the:
- Pit Bull Terrier
- Japanese Tosa
- Dogo Argentino
- Fila Braziliero
And any dog that appears to be of the same “type” as these. In the panic that surrounded these tragic incidents, a series of government posters were released, showing how to identify a “Pit Bull Type”, or a “Tosa Type” and so on.
Has it worked?
Yes and no. The number of banned breeds and associated “types” has definitely decreased; however, the number of dog bites has increased in the last quarter of a century. Since the act was passed, there have been 21 dog-related human fatalities – but only 9 of these were caused by banned breeds or “types”.
However, large numbers of healthy dogs have been put down (including 90 “Pit Bull Types” at Battersea Dogs Home in 2015 – the staff there said that 65 of these dogs would have been suitable for rehoming and would be expected to make good family pets).
The biggest problem is that this is Breed Specific Legislation, and as a result, the courts are not permitted to take any individual dog’s temperament into account. In addition, it is easy to breed Staffordshire Bull Terriers (a popular family pet) into a Pit Bull type in only a few generations – and probably even by accident.
That said, these breeds, if they do attack someone, often cause a disproportionate amount of damage and injury, because their neck and jaw muscles are abnormally strong, allowing them to crush bone and sever blood vessels more easily than most other breeds; in addition, some experts argue that they are more likely to attack, as they have been bred to do so.
What is the current law on dogs who are deemed to be dangerous?
The law as it currently stands operates on two fronts.
- Banned Breeds and “Types”
- Dogs that are deemed to be a banned breed or “type” may not legally be owned, bought, sold, given away, abandoned or bred from.
- Any dog which the police or a dog warden believe to look like a banned breed or type will be confiscated and held in isolation (even if it hasn’t done anything, and even if it never leaves your property). The owner is then required to prove to the courts that the dog is NOT a banned type.
- If they are deemed banned and dangerous, the dog will be put to sleep.
- Occasionally, if a dog is deemed to be banned but not a danger to people or other dogs, the court may issue a Certificate of Exemption. Exempted dogs must be neutered, kept in a secure place, and placed on a lead and wear a muzzle at all times when in public. The owner must also have insurance in case it does manage to attack someone.
- Dangerously out of control
- This applies to any dog who either injures someone or (controversially) makes someone afraid that it might injure them. In addition, a dog may be deemed dangerously out of control if it attacks another animal.
- If the court decides that they were out of control, the dog will usually be put to sleep. In addition, the owner may face a fine or a prison sentence.
- If they decide that the owner encouraged their dog to attack someone, the owner may also be charged with malicious wounding or even attempted murder.
Why do dogs attack people?
Most of the time, a dog will only attack someone because they feel they are being threatened and their warnings (“keep away, I’m scared!”) are being ignored. This is why children are so often the victims – because they haven’t yet learned to read body language and don’t know when to back off and give the dog some space. In addition, some children treat dogs roughly as a sort of moving teddy bear – although most dogs realise this isn’t a deliberate attack, if provoked enough, any dog (however gentle) may bite first and ask questions later.
That said, there are certain warning signs that you need to know how to watch out for – no normal dog will bite without giving some warning. Warning signs typically include:
- Direct eye contact (this is a threat behaviour for dogs!)
- Wide-based stance (legs wide apart – the dog is trying to make himself look bigger to scare you away)
- Hackles up
- Showing his front teeth (this is usually the last warning and means “back away or I bite”)
I’m worried about my dog, what should I do?
Contact your vet for advice immediately.