THE DANGEROUS DOGS ACT By Nick Mays

The Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in by the last Conservative Government after a spate of particularly nasty attacks by dogs alleged to be American Pit Bull Terriers. The cases, which galvanised media and public opinion (in that order) were 6 year-old Rukshana Khan from Bradford and Frank Tempest from Lincoln, both of whom sustained horrific injuries by these dogs in the Spring of 1991.

John Major had only recently become Prime Minister and the Government was deeply unpopular. The recession was beginning to bite and the Government was "on the ropes". The media had found a new bogeyman to hit on in the form of "dangerous dogs". Since 11 year-old Kelly Lynch had been mauled to death by two Rottweilers in 1989, there had been lurid accounts of dog attacks in the national newspapers. Things reached fever pitch in the summer of 1990, but miraculously, when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, the dog attacks either ceased to happen or weren't good copy any more. When, however, the Gulf War ended in early 1991, dogs were back on the agenda.

It is pertinent to remember that there WAS a problem insofar as this was the time of the "lager lout" and there WERE some idiots buying big dogs as "macho accessories". The RSPCA also played a part in whipping up the frenzy against dogs with their repeated bleatings for compulsory dog registration. (Another hot topic!)

Major's Government had to be seen to do something, so, the then Home Secretary Kenneth Baker drafted the Dangerous Dogs Act with the help of the RSPCA. The Kennel Club's involvement was minimal. Pit Bulls were not a recognised breed in the UK, so it didn't concern them. The Act was rushed through Parliament with minimal debate and, as we all know, the DDA came into being in May 1991. Pit Bulls were effectively illegal and had to be muzzled in public, registered on the Index of Exempted Breeds and microchipped, tattooed and insured. Any PBT or - crucially - Pit Bull 'type' unregistered after November 1991 would be seized and liable to be destroyed under Section 1 of the Act.

More insidious however, was Section 3 of the Act, which covered ALL dogs in the UK and stipulated that any dog "dangerously out of control in a public place" would also be liable for destruction. A mandatory death sentence, as with Section 1.

Thus it was that the DDA came about... and, as we all know, scores of mongrels and crossbreeds were seized as Pit Bull "types". At least ten pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terriers have also been seized and most of these destroyed. A well-known RSPCA Chief Inspector regularly appeared for the prosecution in DDA cases, even after the RSPCA withdrew their Inspectors from such cases in April 1993 after donations were hit by public disgust at their stance. Even two Labradors were taken under the DDA.

A veritable cottage industry of experts for prosecution and defence grew up around the DDA... Three vets regularly appeared (and still do appear) for the prosecution. The cases lasted months, years even... dogs were held in solitary confinement... public opinion changed.. the Act was cruel and unjust. Campaigns were launched. The most bizarre aspect was (is) that Section 3 dogs, that is dogs which had, IN SOME cases bitten people did not have to be seized, but a poor PBT lookalike was seized, just for resembling a breed "type".

The very worst aspect of the DDA was that the burden of proof was reversed. The dog was guilty and had to be PROVED innocent. It was down to the owner to prove that it was NOT a Pit Bull "type" or dangerous... hence the plethora of experts for both sides. It is also clear that the prosecution side, the Crown side, has greater financial resources than the Defence, so experts could - ad do - make a tidy sum out of their "expertise"...

After years of refusing action, Major's mob eventually agreed to amend the Act... interestingly just before the 1997 General Election. It didn't win them any votes. Far from being the stick to hit the thicko, working-class Pit Bull owners, (a fact which Kenneth Baker later acknowledged in his own autobiography) the Act had offended everybody... many traditional Tory voters...

Now the DDA is less draconian. Magistrates have discretion in sentencing dogs found "guilty" under the Act... but the abuses go on. On the South Coast no less than five dogs seized by the SAME police officer as "Pit Bulls". Why, when there is so much drug abuse, petty crime, assaults etc. do the police bother with dogs that have not harmed anyone? Answer: it looks good on the crime figures. The Metropolitan Police are the worst offenders, and individual officers seem to have carte blanche to throw their weight about. The Home office has issued guidelines that MINOR control incidents should NOT be dealt with under Section 3 of the DDA, but the less draconian 1871 Dogs Act. Yet still dogs are seized under the DDA.

Crucially, a dog does not actually have to BITE anyone. If a dog - your dog causes someone "apprehension", then the police can seize it. The burden of proof is still reversed... you have prove that your dog did NOT bite, just as under Section 1 an owner has to prove that it is NOT a Pit Bull "type".

A lot has been written about the DDA and it has to be said, without becoming a conspiracy theorist, there does appear to be evidence that certain individuals for their own agendas use the Act. Such a conspiracy would not come from the Government (and Labour have left the DDA intact, despite their pre 1997 General Election pledge to "look at it"), but most likely individual police officers, civil servants, vets and others have their own reasons for using the DDA... and it is used against PEOPLE rather than their dogs.

So - as regards "dangerous dogs".... the DDA has done little, if anything, to improve dog ownership, or to cut down dog attacks. Dog fighting has moved further underground, so the professional dog fighters are untouched by it. Instead of Pit Bulls they use other breeds. It's still here... it still goes on.

(c) Nick Mays 2001


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