Courts must be given real bite in sentencing owners of killer dogs
I have nothing against dogs – as long as they are on a lead, securely restrained and unable to either lick me, sniff me, jump up on me or, crucially, bite me.
My first encounter with an off-the-leash snappy dog came when I was no more than five years old, playing peacefully in the street with my older brother and some little friends. The animal charged into the group, snarling and barking and biting, catching me on the rear end as I ran away.
Any animosity for canines must have worn off fairly quickly, however, because by the age of about eight or nine our family bought a golden retriever. A gentler and more docile creature couldn't be imagined – and yet, if riled, even this "best friend" was capable of inflicting a minor flesh wound. It is, after all, one of a dog's few forms of communication. Whine, bark, bite – that's about it. It's not their fault they can't discuss their discomforts or fears or frustrations in an more sophisticated way.
Fortunately, the majority of pet dogs in this country are charming companions for their owners. But there is a worrying trend involving the keeping of animals that have absolutely no place in a domestic environment.
Attacks and fatalities – particularly among children – are on the increase, with cases of dangerous dogs being captured and impounded putting severe pressure on the resources of some local authorities.
Sixteen people have been killed by dogs in the UK since 2005. In the latest tragedy earlier this year, 14-year-old Jade Anderson was killed by four dogs while she was at a friend's house near Wigan. Despite the horrific nature of the attack, police were left powerless to prosecute anyone in relation to Jade's death, saying there was no evidence a crime had been committed under current laws.
The current maximum jail sentence for allowing a dog that kills or injures someone to be dangerously out of control is just two years.
However, under proposed new government legislation the owners of dogs that attack and kill a person could face life in prison.
This month, a cross-party committee is expected to deliver its report on a number of sentencing options for a fatal dog attack – including life.
Such sanctions are not an attack on the vast majority of well-behaved, peaceful pooches and their responsible keepers. Instead they are an attempt to curb the increasing number of powerful and aggressive animals being paraded through our town centres every day. Like the wild beasts their owners imagine them to be, these dogs do not belong in public.
As a new reporter on the Western Morning News journalist back in the late-1980s, one of my first assignments was to attend the aftermath of a dog attack in Mannamead, a leafy suburb of Plymouth. The victim, a 90-year-old man, was mauled in a street close to his home by two large dogs. The scene was one of true horror – as if a bucket of blood had been splashed across the road and pavement and up the wall of a house.
Fortunately, the old man recovered from his ordeal, but the deep bites to his face, neck and arms never fully healed. His comment to me, as he lay in hospital, was that had his attacker been a man he would face a serious charge of assault and probably be jailed. The owner of the dogs, on the other hand, faced no such charge.
A report published this week by the Health and Social Care Information Centre shows that in the 12 months to May 2013 there were 6,334 hospital admissions for dog bites in England and Wales. These were most common in young children, with one in six admissions being for a child aged nine or younger. Many more go unreported. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 covers only attacks by dogs in public places and private areas where they are prohibited from being, such as a neighbour's garden or a park. The Government consultation on the new proposals, which is due to be completed this month, follows the announcement in February of plans to extend the scope of the law to enable a prosecution to be brought against anyone whose dog injures someone or acts aggressively in a private place where they are permitted to be, such as the owner's home.
But while this new legislation might result in stiffer penalties, tougher laws will not, in isolation, reduce the number of attacks. The RSPCA, along with unions representing postal staff – 23,000 of whom have been attacked by dogs in the last five years – believe that prevention is only possible if local councils are given the power to impose control notices and mandatory training for owners. Without such measures, they argue, the biting and killing will continue.
Ultimately, the issue is a simple one of rights and responsibilities. Everyone has the "right" to keep a dog but also the "responsibility" to control it in such a way that it does not bite, snarl or otherwise interfere with others.
Those who fail to comply must face the consequences.