Last week, the first man from Gwent was jailed under the new sentencing guidelines for convictions under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Emma Mackintosh and Ben Frampton look at the changes in the law and dangerous dog ownership.
THE Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was introduced following a number of highly-publicised dog attacks and amid public outcry for something to be done.
The introduction of the act was seen as a reaction to the public mood and the act affected four breeds of dog – pitbull terriers, Japanese Tosas, Dogo Argentinos and Fila Brasileiros.
The act said people were banned possessing dogs ‘belonging to types bred for fighting’ and ownership of dangerous dogs was dependent on meeting conditions, including keeping the dog muzzled and on a lead at all times while in a public place, having the dog microchipped, keeping the dog insured against third party liability and having the dog neutered.
The details of dangerous dogs also had to be registered on the index of exempted dogs.
Owners of these types of dogs could no longer give away or sell their dogs.
The second part of the act covered all breeds of dog and made it a criminal offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place The Dog’s Trust described the 1991 act as a kneejerk reaction to public outrage which resulted in a poorly thought out piece of legislation.
Until amendments were made to the act in 1997, owners convicted under the 1991 act of either having a prohibited dog or a dog which had injured a person, no matter how minor the injury, faced a mandatory court order to have the dog destroyed.
The amendments made in 1997 gave courts the power, providing it was satisfied the dog was not a danger to the public, to impose alternative punishments to a mandatory destruction, such as muzzling.
As of August 20, new powers for courts in England and Wales came into effect, allowing them to hand down tougher sentences under the Dangerous Dogs Act.
The Sentencing Council’s guidelines mean an owner who has allowed their dog to be dangerously out of control and injure someone can now be jailed for up to 18 months.
Previously, sentences tended to go up to a year.
Possession of a prohibited dog now carries up to a six-month jail term, encouraging courts to impose more jail sentences for more serious cases, as well as community orders. The purpose of these guidelines is to reduce the number of discharges handed out for these offences.
Irresponsible owners can also be banned from keeping dogs and compensation can be paid to victims.
Kay Piatek, 51, was mauled when she was out walking her three Yorkshire Terriers in Pill on September 24, 2011.
She suffered a double break in her left arm, as well as open wounds and one of her dogs, Maxi, was killed when a pitbull-mastiff cross savaged him.
The owner of the dog, Kirk Fleming, 31, of Alexandra Road, Newport, was jailed for nine months. Mrs Piatek said: “I’m glad it’s been toughened up, something needed to be done because there are all these people going around with these big dogs is ridiculous.
“It’s a status symbol, they want to seem like the ‘big I am’ and people like us are suffering. These dogs are brought up to fight, if people don’t treat dogs kindly it’s wrong, poor dogs don’t know different.”
‘License owners to stop attacks’
RACHEL Chamberlain, from Newport, is a member of the online Facebook group ‘The many faces of breed specific legislation’.
She said she would like to see people assessed for eligibility to keep dogs.
Miss Chamberlain, who owns a rottweiler puppy called Cariad, said: “Unfortunately, people like to breed the (violent) nature of the dogs. Yes, it is in their gene pool, because that’s how they’re bred to be.
“If you nurture that side, it will come out, but if you nurture the loving side, they will protect you. It’s how they’re bred and brought up – owners have a big part to play in this.
“I think licensing people would help but with the number of attacks, it would be time-consuming but it would stop these poor animals being brought up badly and these attacks happening.
“People like Kirk Fleming should not be allowed to own them.”
The animal was owned by Kirk Fleming. Inset, a close up of Ms Piatek’s injuries
RSPCA claim act is unjust as dogs could be saved
YEARS ago rottweilers, dobermans and German shepherds were perceived as dangerous dogs, but as trends have shifted, so have attitudes.
Andy Robbins, a spokesman for the RSPCA, said that muscular dogs such as pitbull terriers have been lumbered with a tough, macho image following a trend of them being bought as a status symbol.
There is no real way of saying how many banned dogs are out there, but a lot are brought to RSPCA centres – as well as Staffordshire bull terriers or ‘Staffies’ which are not banned.
“We have got lots of dogs looking for homes and we do see a lot of Staffies abandoned,” said Mr Robbins.
“In our centres, dogs have often not had the greatest start in their lives, but all the dogs we receive are assessed behaviourally and we wouldn’t rehome a dangerous dog.”
Under the law, if any banned dog is brought to the RSPCA, they have no choice but to put it down.
“If there is a cruelty case and a dog has been neglected or used for fighting, and the police identify that dog as a pitbull, we have no option but to put that dog to sleep under the law, even if we think it’s the sweetest dog in the world,” said Mr Robbins.
“We have campaigned since 1991 against the Dangerous Dogs Act. If a dog is kept in kennels during a court case, that is not cheap, and it’s a sad way for the dog to spend their final few months.
“It is incredibly unjust that after a cruelty case the owner gets custody or a fine, but the dog has lost its life.”
Due to their association with pitbull terriers, people looking for pets might not initially think of owning a Staffy, but they used to be called the ‘nanny dog’.
“A pure breed Staffordshire bull terrier or ‘Staffy’ is actually a fairly small dog, but has been lumped in with pitbulls,” Mr Robbins said.
“These dogs have picked up stereotypes through no fault of their own. They’re so loyal and eager to please, they’re real characters and make brilliant family pets.
We want to turn people’s perceptions around.”
The police identify banned dogs based on their physical appearance, chest size, height and general dimensions, a practice which the RSPCA claims is unfair to the animals.
“From our point of view, how can you determine a dog is dangerous just because it fits some criteria?” said Mr Robbins.
“Does that make that dog more likely to attack someone?
We always say, it’s about deed not breed. It’s the owner’s responsibility to keep the dog under control.”