Owners of dangerously out-of-control dogs that attack people in a public place could be jailed for up to two years under new guidelines for judges issued today.
The proposals from the Sentencing Council are aimed at ensuring irresponsible owners who put the public at risk are banned from keeping dogs; genuinely dangerous dogs are put down and compensation is paid to victims.
Almost 1,200 people were sentenced for offences that would be covered by the new guidelines last year, up 35 per cent from 855 offences in 2009, the council said.
The guidelines cover the most common offences under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 including allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control causing injuury and posession of a banned dog.
Where someone sets an animal deliberately on another as a weapon of attack, the offender is likely to be charged with assault.
The guidelines also cover cases where injury is caused by dogs that are dangerously out of control as well as the possession of prohibited dogs.
Anne Arnold, a District Judge and a member of the Sentencing Council, said: ?The majority of dog owners take good care of their pets and keep their dogs under control but we want to ensure that irresponsible dog owners who put the public at risk are sentenced appropriately.
?Our guideline gives guidance to courts on making the best use of their powers so that people can be banned from keeping dogs, genuinely dangerous dogs can be put down and compensation can be paid to victims.
?This consultation provides an opportunity for anyone interested in this issue to give their views so we can make sure the guidelines are as effective as possible.?
Under the proposals, owners, or anyone in charge of a dog, could face up to a maximum sentence of two years in the most serious of cases.
These could include incidents where a dangerously out-of-control dog has caused serious injury during a sustained attack, injured a child, or where the owner has failed to respond to previous warnings or concerns.
Any deliberate goading of the dog by its owner would also be seen as an aggravating factor by judges.
But the owner could walk free from court with a discharge if the injuries caused were only minor, attempts had been made to regain control of the dog and safety steps had been taken by the owner.
In cases where no injury is caused, owners could still face up to six months in jail if they allow their dogs to be dangerously out-of-control in a public place, especially if children were around at the time or a number of dogs were involved.
But the starting point for the most serious of offences would be a community order, while a lesser offence could attract a fine.
The council also issued guidelines for judges sentencing those involved in the possession of prohibited dogs.
The maximum sentence, it said, should be six months in custody, but all but the most serious of cases would attract fines or be discharged.
John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates? Association, said: ?It will help magistrates decide the appropriate sentence for both the normally careful owner whose pet gets momentarily out of control and the negligent owner who doesn?t care if their dog poses a risk to the public.
?It will also help magistrates decide if additional action to keep people safe is needed, such as banning someone from owning a dog.?
Trevor Cooper, of the Dogs Trust, said: ?Courts often face the difficult task of deciding on appropriate sentencing in dog cases, which can be emotive and complex.
?These draft guidelines on dangerous dog offences will help to provide much needed clarity and consistency in assessing individual cases and this consultation will be considered with due diligence.
?This also presents a timely opportunity for dog owners to proffer their own views on this consultation and play a part in helping to shape the sentencing procedure.?
The consultation on the guidelines, which closes on March 8, comes as animal welfare campaigners joined vets, MPs and trade unionists to urge the Government to press ahead with reforming the law on ?irresponsible? dog ownership.
Organisations including the Kennel Club, the Communication Workers Un
ion, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Police Federation and the Royal Mail are supporting a petition calling for a Bill to be included in next year?s Queen?s Speech to update dog control legislation.
The groups said the issue of irresponsible dog ownership covered allowing them to foul or stray, encouraging them to be dangerously out of control, contributing to anti-social behaviour or even using them as a weapon.