The UK is said to be a nation of dog lovers, with some 8 million canine petsyet over 100,000 strays are found each year, incidences of cruelty and neglect are rising and many dogs are out of control due to the irresponsible or deliberate actions of a minority of owners. Seven people, including five children, have been killed by dogs in homes since 2007 and the cost to the NHS of treating severe dog attack injuries is over £3 million annually. Additionally, many animals, including livestock and some eight assistance dogs a month, are attacked by dogs.
Current dangerous dogs laws have comprehensively failed to tackle irresponsible dog ownership and Defra's current, belated proposals are woefully inadequate. Ministers' inability to provide us with detailed answers on a range of dog control and welfare questions has done little to reassure us about the priority the Government gives to these issues. Defra should urgently introduce a comprehensive Bill consolidating the fragmented legislation relating to dog control and welfare. This should include tailored Dog Control Notices which would allow enforcement officers more effectively to prevent dog attacks by enabling action on any dog-related antisocial behaviour. Failing this, Defra must be given a much firmer locus in policy-making so that dog-related issues can be fully taken into account in the Home Office current proposals for a 'one size fits all' set of antisocial behaviour prevention measures. The Government's simplistic approach ignores the real cause of antisocial behaviour related to dogs. Irresponsible dog breeding and the failure to socialise puppies in the first few months of life can lead to persistent problems which are hard to tackle later on. The current Home Office approach appears to focus solely on the current owner of a dog rather than the initial breeder and this cannot begin to tackle the scale of the problem.
Local authorities must ensure that dog warden services are fully resourced so as to more effectively manage stray dogs: failing this the Government should consider returning statutory responsibility for stray dogs to the police.
There is a gap in the current law on dog attacks which means that those attacked on private property have no recourse to the criminal law provisions which apply to attacks on public land. We fully endorse the Government's proposed amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to encompass attacks on private land but it will be crucial, in enforcing this, that the police and prosecutors distinguish between those lawfully on a person's property and intruders. The Government's assurances on this are too vague and clear guidance is needed to avoid unintended consequences.
Dog attacks on animals are not given sufficient attention in the current legal framework. Attacks on assistance dogs such as guide dogs can have severe impacts on a disabled person's mobility and daily life. Legislation should be amended so that an attack by a dog on an assistance dog is treated as an aggravated attack in the same manner as an attack on a person.
The police must be more consistent in prosecuting those whose dogs attack livestock and existing legislation must be updated to include livestock such as llamas and other camelids.
The Government's proposal to require the microchipping of all dogs from April 2016 will have positive benefits since microchipping provides a means of identifying a stray dog to allow it to be reunited with its owner. However, it will do little to prevent irresponsible dog owners from allowing or encouraging their dogs to be aggressive and rigorous enforcement will be needed to ensure that all owners comply.
The current law banning ownership of specific types of dogs was introduced with the laudable intention of banning fighting dogs, but the criteria for inclusion of a dog type in the banned list is flawed and has led to the exclusion of some dangerous dog types. The Dangerous Dogs Act should be amended to enable the Secretary of State to add other types of dog with particularly aggressive characteristics to the list of banned dogs as required. We believe that Government policy should be consistent with targeting 'deed not breed'.
Welfare issues related to dog breeding remain an issue of high public concern, particularly the practices of so-called 'puppy farmers' and some pedigree breeders. A breeder can currently produce up to five litters per year without being licensed or facing checks on welfare standards. The threshold should be reduced to no more than two litters a year per breeder. Online advertising is making it easy for disreputable breeders to find a market for puppies and dogs with little redress available to buyers of pets that turn out to be unhealthy. A voluntary Code of Practice should be established for websites offering dogs and puppies for sale and such sites should do more to educate potential buyers and to check up on the credentials of sellers.
The dog breeding community, including the Kennel Club and some breed clubs, has taken steps to improve the health and welfare of pedigree dogs in recent years. However, too many dogs continue to suffer ill-health due to inbreeding and breeding for exaggerated characteristics. The Kennel Club must also do far more to use its influence with the pedigree dog community, including refusing to register puppies from breeders not compliant with the Club's Assured Breeder Scheme. The Kennel Club should also commission an independent annual review of Breed Standards led by vets.
Defra has been insufficiently proactive in tackling dog welfare issues related to breeding practices. Reliance on voluntary action has led to limited and slow reform. The Minister's evidence to us did little to reassure us as to the priority the Department places on these issues. Defra should give the Advisory Council on Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding a regulatory role in enforcing standards. Given the complexity of genetic health issues, breed-specific strategies are needed to improve the health of breeds but further data is required on the incidences of heritable diseases.