New Initiative Concerning Dangerous Dogs

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 When the press release from the Kennel Club regarding a special meeting to discuss strategies for dealing with the problems of dangerous dogs and dog biting cross my desk I read it with a degree of scepticism. Since the original act was put into place I have been involved in numerous attempts to change it and I was on the original Dangerous Dogs Reform Group which was put together by Canine Defence League (now Dogs Trust), Association of British Dogs and Cats Homes and the Kennel Club among others, which eventually managed to push through some minor but important amendments to the Act. I am also chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council (PETbc) and the issue has, of course, been high on our agenda too, for the problem has not gone away and in fact, the number of dog biting incidents has increased over the years. This meeting was called to see whether there were ways in which the situation could be improved.

My initial reaction, which is usual for me, is that not enough emphasis has been put on the education of dog owners, particularly those taking on their first puppy, to ensure that their dog is properly socialised. An understanding of the psychology of canine behaviour greatly decreases the chances of dogs either being aggressive or defending themselves and alerts owners to situations where a dog might be forced into a position where its instinct or only alternative is to bite.  It seemed to me that concentrating on the number of biting incidents and how they are treated (the three speakers were a surgeon and two veterinarians) was approaching the problem from the wrong end. I telephoned Bill Lambert, who was to Chair the meeting, to discuss it and he explained that they were looking for a completely different approach. I have no problem in admitting that my initial reaction was wrong. I believe the meeting could be of immense value if the ideas set out are followed through.

Specialists from every sector within which biting incidents have an impact had been invited. They included many canine behaviourists, experienced expert witnesses, representative of social and health services, local authorities, academics, sociologists and the police. The Board Room at the Kennel Club was packed to hear presentations by facial reconstruction surgeon, Chris Mannion, veterinary surgeon, Danielle Greenberg and a veterinary surgeon, expert witness and canine behaviourist, Kendal Shepherd.

The meeting was based on a statement made by Kennel Club Secretary, Caroline Kisko who, in the press release, said: ‘The Kennel Club is firmly of the view that dangerous dog law as it stands is next to useless and has done nothing whatsoever to reduce the number of dog biting incidents across the UK: instead it demonises certain breeds based on stereotypes and not scientific evidence.         There are a range of factors which contribute to dog biting incidents and each incident is specific to its circumstances and we need accurate data to build a more reliable picture of the incidence of dog bites and their causes’.

The speakers raised a number of very important factors and many organisations have been taking the problems of dogs biting not just very seriously but have put in place a number of different ways to try and reduce the number of dog bites.   However, what quickly became clear is that although these strategies may be useful they are piecemeal and far from coordinated. Danielle Greenberg in Liverpool is running a study in association with Liverpool Veterinary School, the Blue Dog charity is developing techniques to help dog owners recognise signs of stress, the Kennel Club developed its Safe and Sound initiative which it promotes on its website, through Crufts and through Discover Dogs, the London Borough of Sutton has taken the decision to become actively involved in any circumstances where dogs are a problem within the community and to engage with those involved before there is a serious incident and the major charities have ll tried to address the problem.

There is an enormous quantity of information available but most been acted upon simply because there is no central data collection and distribution service in place. For instance, did you know that most dog bites occur in the home and about 70% of those occur between three and seven o’clock in the afternoon and evening.         The reason that this is it is the time when there is the greatest stress within the family with children coming home from school, with arguments between them and their parents and arguments between the parents themselves: just too much going on within a short time frame all of which places the family dog under stress. One of the things that came through very clearly was that the dog is reacting in a way which, to it, is perfectly natural and instinctive but the Dangerous Dog Act places the responsibility on the dog for behaviour which is likely to be the thoughtless, unconscious or accidental behaviour of the owner, the family or anyone else who does not recognise the signs of stress in the dog.

We need to recognise that any time the dog is outside its comfort zone. stress can lead it to react by biting, so veterinary surgeons, groomers, police, doctors, those representing local authorities and many others need to understand this and have some dog handling skills which will ensure the dogs with which they come into contact will not react badly.

Dog biting incidents, it was agreed, should be seen as a national health problem.  Dogs are valuable and important to people in very many ways just as are, for instance, as food, drink and cars.    Where these last have an impact on the health of society the government takes steps to reduce the damage: much thought is being given to reducing the amount of salt and sugar in our food, bringing the damage caused by too much alcohol to the public’s attention and imposing speed limits, fines and driving courses for those who persistently offend against the Highway Code. There was general agreement that much pain and money could be saved if more information about dog biting incidents were available and there was a structured method of assessing the circumstances of each case (as there is an investigation after a serious road accident) so that we can gradually bring together information which will help develop strategies to reduce incidences.

One of the points made was that there are proportionally few bites which are the result of dogs which are known to be aggressive, where dogs have been abused or from dogs which are on the controlled/banned lists: precisely those that the original Act was supposed to address. Most bites are unexpected although where investigations have taken place there is almost always a history which should have triggered concerns.

There is clearly base for government to become involved through the NHS, Defra and the Home Office for the ideas put forward at this meeting would only be effective with ‘will’ and funding from government. If it can be demonstrated that, say, the initiative of the London Borough of Sutton has reduced the number of incidents in its area, this would provide evidence that their approach is working and be used as a lever to generate funding from, say, National Health England.

It was also made clear that the development of agreed criteria for assessing dogs, families and the environment where any incident has taken place, would greatly improve our knowledge and understanding of the circumstances of incidents.

We can only hope that those who attended this meeting have the will and the wherewithal to develop the strategy. Caroline Kisko made it clear during the meeting that the Kennel Club Charitable Trust might be prepared to contribute to research and the development of these ideas. This meeting could be the start of something which will finally make a breakthrough in this serious problem which has be-devilled us for so many years.

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