Dangerous dogs: not that dangerous

Further proposed state restrictions on pets always mean yet more state restrictions on humans.

James Woudhuysen

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Topics Politics UK

Pets are certainly in the news at the moment. This week, the British government announced that it was consulting on whether to raise the maximum jail term for owners of dogs that have killed people from two years to life imprisonment. This itself was a response to calls for changes to the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill from Shirley and Michael Anderson, the parents of a girl who was bitten to death by four dogs earlier this year.

And it’s not just dogs under the spotlight in pet-loving Britain. Last month, it was reported that cats might be able to catch tuberculosis from cows or badgers and give it to their owners.

Rising concern about pets is not confined to Britain. In mid June, Beijing police launched a citywide crackdown on 41 breeds of dogs deemed dangerous, and also on dogs taller than a rather diminutive 35cm. Indeed, dogs are being microchipped, ostensibly to identify them to their owners and cut down the number of stray dogs, from Britain (get yours done by 6 April 2016) through to Western Australia.

But wait. What exactly are the grounds for these rather extreme measures? For example, are there really that many cats out there with TB? Well no, not really. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received just 80 reports of bovine TB in domestic cats since 2009. In a British cat population of about eight million, that’s very few. If, as some authorities believe, wildcats first offered themselves up to humans for domestication 3,600-12,000 years ago, it’s clear that domestic cats in Britain have by now become, well, domestic. Moreover Edinburgh university professor Danielle Gunn-Moore, whose drastically upped estimates of the incidence of TB-causing mycobacteria in cats set off current British worries about them, reports that among all the infected cats she has observed in Britain, she has never seen one pass TB on to a human.

As with infected cats, so with iffy dogs. It’s thought there are 200,000 dog-bites-human incidents a year in Britain. Yet among eight million hounds, that’s not many. Given the existence of repeat-offender dogs, it’s clear that well over 97.5 per cent of dogs behave themselves all year round. And although wounds from our canine friends account for a full 0.5 to two per cent of new attendances at hospital accident-and-emergency departments, only one in 10 cases needs stitches, and only one in a 100 requires admission to hospital (1).

Dogs don’t even bite postal workers that much. They attack perhaps 5,000 postal workers and about 400 telecom engineers each year. Yet in 2012, Royal Mail delivered nearly about 18 billion letters and one billion parcels. Even with junk mail and Amazon books bulking up the size of each delivery, that means dog attacks around letters and parcels occur relatively infrequently.

Most seriously, just eight people have died from dogs since 2007. That’s eight people too many; but mercifully the statistic shows that very few dogs kill.

The Andersons’ experience is wholly regrettable. Yet there’s much more to the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill than the simple, humanistic desire not to see such experiences, rare though they are, being repeated any further. The second clause of the bill says that, when deciding whether a dog might be a danger to public safety, the courts must now consider ‘the temperament of the dog and its past behaviour’, and ‘whether the owner of the dog, or the person for the time being in charge of it, is a fit and proper person to be in charge of the dog’. As explanatory notes to the bill observe, the second clause insists that the courts assess ‘the character of an owner or keeper, as well as the temperament of the dog, its past behaviour and any other relevant circumstances’.

In effect, the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill gives courts a licence to decide who, among dog-owners, are People Like Us, and who are not. Just how much any court can properly and fairly determine an owner’s character, and the ‘temperament’ of a dog, is left to the imagination. As Brendan O’Neill wrote in 2007: ‘The “dangerous dogs” issue has become a scare story for our times, expressing the political and media elites’ innate distrust, fear and loathing of working-class and poor communities.’

We can be sure that the authorities in Beijing manipulate fears about dogs taller than 35cm so as to try to open up new avenues of social control. And we can be equally sure that well-meaning policymakers in Britain want to keep pet-owners in their place. No legalese on a piece of paper can prevent a demented dog from running amok. Yet that isn’t the prime purpose of the proposed legislation.

The British middle classes have always loved animals in the same measure as they have disliked people. Myself, I’m no great fan of pets. But you don’t need to be a fan to agree that yet more state restrictions on pets presage yet more state restrictions on humans.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and blogs on www.Woudhuysen.com.

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Topics Politics UK