The law can collar a dangerous dog

By Jonathan Goldberg, June 16, 2011
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Gillian from Totteridge writes: I was exercising my dog on local parkland last week. She is a small Highland terrier. She was playing happily when an Alsatian suddenly attacked her. Both dogs were off the lead. By the time I was able to separate them, my dog had sustained serious bite injuries, and I myself was almost knocked off my feet by the ferocity of the Alsatian. The vet said my dog was lucky to survive. Although helpful at first, when the owner of the Alsatian saw me phoning for help, she grabbed her dog and ran off. I was able to get the registration number of her car. Can I take any action?

Gillian, they say there is no such thing as a bad dog, only a bad owner. Most certainly you should make a full report to the police without further delay. There is a body of well-developed statute law concerning the ownership and proper control of dogs. The main statute is the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which in general prohibits the ownership, dealing in or breeding of four types of dangerous fighting dog, notably pit bull terriers. It also created a criminal offence of failing to keep a dog under proper control, with a potential punishment for the worst cases of up to two years in prison and a fine. It applies to any type of dog.

This offence arises if, in a public place, or any private place to which it is not allowed, the owner (or any other person temporarily in charge of the dog) allows it to become "dangerously out of control". That is defined as any occasion when there are reasonable grounds for apprehension that the dog will injure any person. Note that it is not necessary to prove that any person was actually injured, but merely that such injury was reasonably to be apprehended, and note also that injury to other animals, such as your pet, is not the test. However, the circumstances you describe in which you yourself could easily have been hurt, appear to satisfy this test amply. If the dog does indeed injure any person, an aggravated form of the offence is committed.

Moreover, the owner is liable if the dog behaves dangerously as above, even if not present at the time. Thus there is an absolute duty to ensure that your dog is never "dangerously out of control" in public. It is, however, a defence for the owner to show that he had left his dog in the charge of a person whom he reasonably believed to be a fit and proper person to be in charge of it. Parents should be warned that where the real owner of the dog is aged under 16, the head of the household is deemed to be the owner for these purposes.

The police have wide powers to seize the offending dog and house it in kennels pending court proceedings, and it is amusing to relate that the addresses of these kennels are a well guarded secret, realising that the English dog owner is capable of going to extreme lengths to effect the escape of his pet from captivity.

After a conviction, the court has remarkably wide powers of sentence over the dog, let alone its owner

After a conviction, the court has remarkably wide powers of sentence over the dog itself, never mind its owner. The court can (and frequently does) order the destruction of the dog, and can disqualify the owner from having custody of any other dog in future, for such period as it thinks fit. If the dog has indeed injured any person, the statutory presumption is to order its destruction, unless it is proved not to be a danger to public safety.

The hearings in such cases are often highly emotional. A whole industry has sprung up of "dog psychologists", who will try to persuade the court on behalf of the often distraught owner that the pet was behaving out of character, and constitutes no danger in future, and deserves another chance.

I recall one such case in which I was myself sitting as a Recorder in the Crown Court, hearing an appeal from magistrates who had ordered the destruction of a dog following an incident. My colleagues and I were invited to substitute a contingent destruction order, which essentially means a suspended death sentence, and to order that the dog be castrated to curb any future aggressiveness. That too is one of the very wide powers granted by the statute

Castration seemed to me a fate worse than death. Nor was the evidence compelling that it does have a real effect on aggressiveness. We felt able to deal with the matter by ordering instead that the dog must be kept on a lead and muzzle at all future times when not kept inside the home.

The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.goldbergqc.com

    Last updated: 9:42am, July 13 2011