RSPCA effectively challenges Breed Specific Legislation

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Any committee is only as good as the most knowledgeable, determined and vigorous person on it. There must be somebody who provides the flame – Lady Bird Johnson

It was interesting to see on a recent Facebook page somebody bemoaning the fact that the ‘same old, same old’ subjects kept being recycled without anyone coming to a conclusion.  I am afraid it is the way of the world but it is not surprising because although any particular problem may seem simple, there can be many thousands of opinions as to how it might be solved – and with a complex problem the ‘solutions’ are close to infinite.  It is a reflection of the unique DNA which each of us carries: even people who are generally of ‘the same mind’ will often differ.  This is why we had tribal gatherings, senates, assemblies, moots, convocations and the like in the past and why we have committee meetings now.  My views on committees are well known (a smaller the better – and a committee of one is best) but I concede that conclusions based on my view are less likely to be acceptable to the majority (even though, again in my view, they are likely to be right!) than those which are the result of a broad-based (hopefully sensible) groups which recognises or represents a wider view.

It is why, since John Major introduced the concept in the early 1990s, governments insist that legislation should be based on ‘evidential need’ rather than because any government or Minister thinks that it is ‘a good idea’.  Part of the reason for this concept was that there were several instances (the Dangerous Dogs Act being one of them) where legislation had been introduced without sufficient forethought: a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to public and media demands after a series of serious dog biting incidents.  It is also the reason why there is now a requirement for government departments to review any legislation introduced after a five-year period with a public consultation to see whether it has been effective.

Those of us who were around at the time remember that the DDA actually had the support of most of the animal care related charities and lobby groups and it is an excellent example of the law of unintended consequences for it was quickly realised by everybody (outside government circles) that it was a car crash piece of legislation which cost a fortune to implement, did not achieve its objectives and increased stress on everyone involved from the dogs themselves, the owners of many perfectly well-behaved dogs, the police, local authorities and those charities whose veterinary surgeons were increasingly forced to put dogs down for no good reason.

A new RSPCA report sums up the position perfectly

The reason these thoughts have come into my mind is the recent publication by the RSPCA which reviews the Dangerous Dogs Act and the two subsequent, minor amendments.  Entitled ‘Breed Specific Legislation – a Dog’s Dinner’, the 30 page report sets out the history, the effectiveness (in this case ‘non-effectiveness’), and proposes a number of solutions and recommendations.  The UK legislation was a world first and the concept was soon followed by other countries although, as the report points out, it has been reversed by three European countries and many US administrations simply because it does not work and is extremely costly.  The introduction says: ‘25 years on, the RSPCA now believes it is paramount that the UK government launch an enquiry into the effectiveness of BSL, assess other options to improve human safety and welfare and ultimately repeal the breed specific part of the legislation.’  Having sat on several committees over the last 20 years trying to persuade successive governments to do exactly that there is no doubt in my mind that this sums up the situation perfectly.

Unfortunately, although the RSPCA says it would like to thank everyone who contributes to an assisted in this report there is no list of the names of committee that put it together: a shame because I personally would like to thank them and especially the person that provided the ‘flame’ in the quote from Lady Bird Johnson.  This is a report which, if you will forgive the pun, has a real ‘bite’ and includes an extraordinary two pages of detailed references which show quite clearly how much work has gone into it and that it is, indeed, evidence-based.  The wording of the conclusion could hardly be bettered: ‘The RSPCA strongly believes that the evidence presented in this report clearly shows that BSL has been ineffective in achieving its goals of protecting public safety and reducing the number of prohibiting types of dogs.  Since its introduction in 1991 a significant proportion of dogs involved in fatal incidents are not those prohibited by law and hospital admissions due to dog bites have increased substantially in the past decade despite the provisions.’

This is not for a moment to say that just repealing the Dangerous Dogs Act and its subsequent amendments is the answer.  It needs doing and it needs doing soon but it should also provide an opportunity to focus on implementing effective regulation and education to ensure that biting incidents reduce rather than increase them.  This is important because the whole objective of the DDA was to reduce the incidence of dog bites and an initial assessment of the act five years after it was introduced found that there had been ‘no significant reduction in dog bites’ and in fact, in the period between 2009 in 2015 the total number of hospital admission episodes for dog ‘bites and strikes’ increased from just under 6,000 to just over 7,000 each year.   As far as those who have died as a result of dog related incidents (there were 30 in all) two thirds involved dogs of breeds or types not prohibited.

A specific breed is not a good predicator of risk

Danny Mills, one of Europe’s foremost researchers into canine behaviour says in the report:  ‘Not only is a specific breed not a good predictor of risk, I would also argue that the promotion of breed as a risk through legislation like this may even be counter-productive as it gives the impression some breeds are completely safe and we know that the vast majority bites from come from breeds not listed’.  He continues: ‘We need responsible owners and responsible behaviour around dogs… This is a complex problem with social as well as biological dimensions which need to be considered if we really want to address the risk posed by dogs or people attracted to certain types of dogs.  From a biological perspective, until we have a validated genetic test, I would say solutions like BSL are themselves dangerous, because they might give a false sense of security and thus increase the risk’.  He goes on to indicate that a number of countries and regions outside the UK are now retracting such legislation in recognition of this.

Of course, whenever there is a media storm around an incident people begin to report dogs that they consider are of a ‘Pit Bull’ type and the number of seizures each year since 2006 has gone from almost none to over 1,500: each costs many thousands of pounds to progress.  The report highlights the number of dogs which are killed for no good reason and discusses the particularly difficult problem of puppies which may or may not grow up to fulfil the ‘definition’ of a banned breed.

The report draws our attention to the ways in which this problem has been tackled in other countries particularly in Canada and Australia and proposes ten recommendations with which not all will agree but nevertheless suggest possible solutions. One of these is that there should be a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the several resources which are designed to help people and children stay safe around dogs.  This is a matter on which I have touched on many occasions.  Charities, lobby groups and non-governmental organisations such as the Kennel Club do much good work but they seldom work together because they are more interested in protecting their ‘brand’ they are in getting the message out.  This includes the RSPCA of course but I am hoping that as it becomes more influential, the Canine and Feline Sector Group which represents most of those organisations (including the RSPCA) will be able to resolve this sort of problem.

I congratulate the RSPCA which so far, under its new CEO, is focusing on its true objectives.  The subject of this report is one of them and it is well worth reading.  You can find it quickly by searching for RSPCA BSL dogs dinner.

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