Dangerous dogs or feckless owners?

If you own a dog in Britain and it hurts someone, you can now be sent to prison for five years. And if your dog actually kills someone, you can look forward to doing time for up to 14 years. These provisions, which will apply even when an attack occurs inside a dog owner’s home, are contained in new amendments to the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA).

These changes come after two British babies were killed by dogs in their own homes earlier this year. With those tragedies in mind, these changes seem reasonable enough. However, it is important to note that even before the DDA was introduced, manslaughter law had provisions for punishing owners of lethal dogs. So why this new twist to the legislation? And why do we need the DDA at all?

Along with the extension of prison sentences for owners of genuinely murderous dogs, these new measures also include a range of preventative measures which, among other things, will empower the police and local authorities to send owners of dogs which are suspected to be dangerous to training classes. A statement released by the ironically named minister for animal welfare, Lord Mauley, in which he hits out at ‘irresponsible’ dog owners and rejoices in the longer sentences they now face, points towards what is really fuelling the clampdown on dangerous dogs. As I have argued before on spiked, dangerous-dog policy in Britain has always been aimed at what officialdom perceives to be the fecklessness of all working-class dog owners, rather than the few who are genuinely liable. These new provisions are no different.

Already there are protests that the new version of the DDA does not go far enough. In fact, the act has always had far-reaching and problematic powers. A rarely noticed part of the 1991 legislation implies that a dog doesn’t even have to sink its jaws into someone for a prosecution to ensue. If there are merely ‘grounds for reasonable apprehension’ then the dog in question is immediately deemed ‘dangerously out of control’.

As ever, the government proves that it’s not so keen on taming dangerous dogs as it is on keeping the lower orders on a tight leash.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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