The Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) has been in place in the UK since 1991, making it 25 years old this year. This means that the Act has been in the news a lot this year, raising questions that have never really gone away since the Act first came to pass about whether or not the law is actually effective, or if it only serves to cause worry and heartache for owners of certain types of dogs, which may be classed as potentially dangerous just because of the way that they look.
In this article, we will cover the basics of what the Dangerous Dogs Act is supposed to achieve, how effective it has been, and what the alternatives might be. Read on to learn more.
What does the Dangerous Dogs Act actually police?
There are two separate elements to the DDA, both of which are intended to improve public safety by means of clarifying what is expected of dog owners when it comes to controlling their dogs, and by banning certain breeds of dog from being kept in the UK.
The first part of the Act mandates that dogs of all types, regardless of breed, must be kept under control, and never be “dangerously out of control,” which is loosely defined as hurting or injuring another person (or potentially, another animal) or causing a person to fear that they might be in danger.
When the law came into force, this element specified only that it was relevant to public places; however, amendments to the Act in 2014 added coverage for the law in private places too (such as people’s own homes) and made it an additional offence for a dog to attack a service dog.
This part of the law itself is not particularly controversial, although there are concerns about whether or not it actually achieves anything in terms of people’s propensity to report incidents, and the police’s willingness to respond appropriately and fully understand their powers under the Act itself.
It is the second part of the Act that is particularly controversial: the banning of four specific dog breeds, and all dogs that may have partial ancestry from one of these breeds, or of that “type.”
The four breeds that are banned in the UK (aside from a few narrow exceptions for dogs owned under special license) are:
- The Pit Bull Terrier
- The Dogo Argentino
- The Japanese Tosa
- The Fila Brasileiro
These four breeds in particular are banned due to the fact that all of these breeds both have a historical background of being used for fighting and defensive roles, as well as having the size, strength and power to potentially cause a significant injury if they should attack a person; and this is where the controversy arises.
Why the controversy?
The concept that certain breeds of dog are by nature dangerous to people is one that is not generally well-received by dog lovers in the UK, particularly those that have spent time around dogs of any of these four breeds or that have a good understanding of the nature of dogs and how they think and react to things.
Also, the four breeds that are outlawed are by no means unique in terms of having both a history of fighting roles and the power and tenacity to cause a serious or even fatal injury; the English bulldog fits the bill too in that respect, and yet the English bulldog is not only legal, but very popular, being a kind of mascot and symbol of all things British in many people’s minds.
The argument against the banned breeds side of the Dangerous Dogs Act is based on the principle of “Deed not Breed,” which is an ethos that states that all dogs are of course individuals, with their own personality traits and temperaments, and that you cannot make sweeping generalisations on the temperament of all dogs from within one breed as a blanket rule.
Additionally, the Deed not Breed argument falls strongly on the “nurture” side of the “nature versus nurture” concept, believing that the way that is dog is handled, treated and trained is what determines it personality and aggression levels, not some inbuilt breed-specific trait that covers all dogs from a certain breed.
After all, just because a dog has the potential strength to hurt someone does not mean that they are likely to do so; every person has the potential strength to injure someone else too, but that does not mean that we are apt to go around punching people in the street as a general rule!
What happens in practice?
When the Dangerous Dogs Act first passed into law, a significant number of dogs from the four breeds mentioned above were taken from their owners and destroyed, and restrictions were placed on importing further dogs of these breeds, or breeding them in the UK. Additionally, the “type” aspect of the law is one of the main bones of contention when it comes to how the law is used in practice.
If a dog is perceived to look in any way like one of the four banned breeds or share any traits with them, the onus is on the dog’s owner to prove their ancestry, which can sometimes be achieved with DNA testing. However, the vast majority of modern dog breeds were formed from a combination of other breeds, and so this is not always conclusive.
For instance, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home was forced to euthanize almost 100 dogs last year that were judged to look a little bit too much like the Pit bull terrier, despite the fact that the charity’s professional and experienced behaviourists deemed almost 75% of these dogs as suitable and safe for rehoming with a family.
My personal and professional thoughts and experiences
While the ideas of a dog attacking a person or another dog is of course horrific, and as many of our readers own smaller dog breeds, undoubtedly, some of you will have first-hand experience of how terrifying and horrendous it can be if your dog is attacked in the dog park by another dog-I fall down on the side of the “Deed not Breed” argument.
I believe that each dog should be considered on its individual merits, and that all dogs should be properly trained, managed and kept under control, be that a huge, heavy Saint. Bernard or a tiny Chihuahua.
Having worked with dogs professionally since I was 18 years old, including training both dogs and owners and working with “problem” dogs, I believe that only a miniscule proportion of dogs are genuinely dangerous, and that these dogs should be dealt with individually-and I also believe that the way that a dog is trained, handled and managed is what shapes the dog’s behaviour.
I also think that it is fair to say that I have formed my opinions from a position of knowledge of both sides of the argument; I have treated dogs that have been attacked by other dogs in clinics, and last year, my own cat was attacked by an unsupervised English bulldog, resulting in a total of over £22,000-yep, you read that right-of vet’s fees as a result of three weeks of treatment in a high-level referral clinic, after which my cat ultimately died anyway. I also sustained injuries myself during the attack, as I tried to save my cat.
I still have the scar on my neck to show for it, and the box containing my cat’s ashes on the shelf-and I don’t think I will ever truly get over what happened, and the fact that it could easily have been prevented by the owner of the dog if they had only seen fit to keep it on a lead, or even within their sight.
Additionally, whilst working some years ago in a local veterinary clinic in London, I have assisted the vet in killing a healthy dog on behalf of the local council’s dog warden, because it was deemed by sole merit of its appearance to be too much like a pit bull. I say that we killed the dog, because that is what happened-it was not euthanasia, the dog was healthy, personable and gentle, and did not deserve such an end.
I left that clinic shortly afterwards-after all, I didn’t get into veterinary medicine to kill healthy animals. That is something that I will never forget, nor really get over too.
What is the answer?
The above section undoubtedly makes for uncomfortable reading for many people on both sides of the divide-those who have experience of a dog attack, and those who own a dog that may be judged simply for their appearance.
So exactly whether or not the DDA has proven effective or not is something that I think people need to establish an opinion on for themselves, with all of the facts in front of them. So on that note, let’s tie off this piece with some of the facts:
- Since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into law, a total of thirty people have been killed in the UK as the result of dog attacks-and 21 of those fatalities were caused by dogs that are not on the banned breeds list.
- The breed recorded to have caused the highest number of dog bites that required hospital treatment is, possibly surprisingly, the Labrador retriever! Part of this comes down to the fact that there are more Labs in the UK than virtually any other breed-but this also neatly demonstrates the fact that any dog can potentially behave aggressively, and aggression is certainly not a trait that we commonly associate with the Labrador.
- Hospital admissions for dog bites over the last ten years have risen by a massive 76%, and continue to rise each year.
What are your own thoughts on the Dangerous Dogs Act? Do you think it is fit for purpose, or in need of a serious overhaul? Tell us in the comments.