In the Media

Muzzling the menace

PUBLISHED August 20, 2012

The 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act is often cited as a classic example of knee-jerk legislation, a law made in haste and repented at leisure. But this is a caricature of what was a genuine, if ill-starred, attempt by the then Conservative government to respond to growing public concern over a spate of dog attacks. A media campaign for Something To Be Done culminated in an emergency measure that sought to eradicate several breeds renowned for their fighting prowess, notably the pit bull terrier. The government also introduced a tougher criminal offence to penalise dog-owners, of whatever the breed, who failed to keep their animals safely under control in public, as well as a power to allow a court to specify the control of a particular dog of any type. That could include muzzling.

The idea behind the Act was that the neutering of all the pit bull type dogs would see them die out. Yet 20 years on, it has clearly failed to achieve this goal. More angry-looking young men than ever can be seen out on the streets with what seem suspiciously like pit bull fighting dogs. They have become a must-have accessory in some inner-city communities. The number of dog attacks continues to rise.

Yesterday, tougher sentences came into force in an effort to deal with this menace once and for all. Owners of dogs that are dangerously out of control in a public place will face up to 18 months in prison, and two years in exceptional cases. Courts will also be encouraged to ban irresponsible owners from keeping dogs, order dangerous dogs to be put down and arrange compensation for victims. Arguably, someone using a vicious dog as a weapon deliberately to maim another person deserves longer than two years in jail. But at least this is the right approach: in the end, it is not the dog that is the problem, but the owner.