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14 year old staffordshire bull terrier

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Legal but lethal. A Staffordshire bull terrier. Two were destroyed after Jade’s death © Getty Images

After a group of dogs savaged a schoolgirl in greater Manchester, calls to change the the law have intensified. But should regulation and punishment focus on the animals or their owners?

Jade Anderson was enjoying the beginning of her Easter holiday. But the friend she was visiting had five dogs sharing the family house. On Wednesday Jade was alone in the house with two Staffordshire bull terriers, two bull mastiffs and an American bulldog when they attacked. Unable to fend them off, Jade was mauled to death.

She is the fifth child to have been killed by dogs on private property, where the owner cannot be prosecuted, since 2007. And the case has renewed a debate about how best to prevent injuries and deaths caused by aggressive animals – an estimated 210,000 people suffer dog attacks every year, according to the government. The NHS now spends more than £3 million on treating the victims.

A few ground-breaking local schemes have taught the owners of aggressive dogs to keep them calm and make sure neighbours and visitors are safe from attack. But the general population is divided between those who want a much tougher crackdown to tackle dangerous animals, and those who believe the dogs are victims of prejudice.

During a consultation on extending police powers to prosecute owners for dog attacks on private property, more than 60% of respondents opposed the move. But campaigners believe recent tragedies like that in Manchester this week will tip the balance – and that few people are now convinced that dogs are always man’s best friend.

‘I don’t take it kindly when people say “my dog won’t harm you”,’ said Anne McIntosh MP, whose cross-party committee recently described dog control laws as ‘woefully inadequate.’ She, and many other politicians and dog-lovers, have criticised as too narrow laws introduced in response to previous dog attack deaths during the 1980s, which banned the breeding or ownership of four breeds believed to be vicious, but restricted prosecutions on owners to those whose dogs attacked in a public place.

Some animal-lovers say almost any dog could become aggressive if it were neglected and maltreated, or deliberately trained for attack. Rounding up and destroying some breeds results only in killing innocent creatures. Even shooting them after an attack is putting the blame in the wrong place: it is the owners who should be made fully responsible for the action of a pet, either on private property or in public spaces.

This is splitting hairs, others retort. Allowing breeds that frighten children, terrorise passers-by and sometimes end up making life-threatening attacks is morally lazy. Forget the sensitivities of ‘victimised’ owners of such animals: either they don’t care about the effect of their pet on others, or they are deliberately using it to intimidate others.

  1. Are dogs still man’s best friend?
  2. ‘It’s not about controlling dogs, it’s about controlling dog owners.’ Is there really a difference?
  1. Experts say dogs can only live in the present moment. This limits their emotions. List emotions which need a sense of time passing to be felt, and which are immediate reactions.
  2. Read the story in the links about a community action project to tackle dangerous dogs. Plan a project to address a problem in your local area.

‘Owning a pet is a serious responsibility.’

What do you think?

The dogs I know are lovely. Lucky you. A dog, which remains dependent on its owner all its life, has to be treated properly to remain healthy and happy. A recent book on the science of canine character and behaviour suggested, for example, that modern urban life, where owners are out all day, can make some dogs miserable and lonely. But loneliness won’t make it aggressive? No, but some owners neglect their animals, making them unstable, while some deliberately train dogs to become fighters. These so-called ‘weapon dogs’ are encouraged to strengthen their jaws by hanging from branches, and some are injected with steroids. In some gangs, the dogs are shared, which disorientates and upsets them, while deliberately hurting the animals makes them quick to attack humans.

Tougher crackdown The government has decided all dogs must be micro-chipped from 2016, to make it easier to deal with strays and prove ownership. It has also promised to introduce a right for police to prosecute owners for attacks on private property, but campaigners say this lacks urgency. Some MPs want powers for councils and police to follow up public complaints about aggressive animals and more intervention before a dangerous dog makes an attack. Man’s best friend Dogs seem to have been domesticated as companions, as well as used for their usefulness as hunters or protectors, during the whole of human history. Prehistoric caves have revealed footprints showing a large dog accompanying a child, for example. Four breeds The Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 (amended in 1997) banned owning or trading in the Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro, Japanese Tosa and pit bull terrier, or any related crossbreeds. Any exception must be allowed by a court, and the dog must be muzzled, registered, neutered, insured, tattooed and micro-chipped.