The Memo: The Dangerous Dogs Act: A bark more effective than its bite?

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The Dangerous Dogs Act: A bark more effective than its bite?

Isaac Hickford – 18 September 2023

Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the American bully XL would become the latest breed to be banned in the UK, following a suspected attack that left a 52-year-old man dead. Attacks by the breed have become increasingly common over the last few years, and it has prompted a number of concerns around the extent to which aggressive behavioral tendencies are characteristic of the breed.

31 years ago, in response to several attacks on members of the public, an Act of Parliament was passed banning, among other things, four different breeds of dog in the UK: the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino, and the Fila Brasileiro. The move was immediately controversial. The breeds were, as a matter of fact, originally bred for fighting, and as a result, it was argued that the change would reduce the number of attacks that took place in the UK. Critics of the legislation however argued that to concentrate on the breed of dog was a mistake. After all, surely it was the behavior of a dog that defined a dangerous one.  Indeed, 25 years after the Act was first introduced, the BBC published the statistic that of 30 deaths from dog-related incidents in that time, 21 involved breeds not prohibited by law. As a part of the same report, the charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home claimed that 71% of the 91 pit bull type dogs that the charity had to put down in 2015 were suitable for rehoming as pets.

Of course, proponents of the ban will highlight the fact that certain behavioral tendencies are more common in some breeds than they are in others. While you might get a mix of temperaments among terriers, for example, a deep, instinctive prey drive for small mammals like rats, rabbits and foxes is nearly impossible to completely extinguish. After all, it’s what they were bred for. So too, the argument goes, is it difficult to completely remove aggression from a dog that was bred for fighting.

The first hurdle to any kind of blanket ban, however, comes in the difficulty of properly defining these kinds of breeds. At the time of writing, Sunak has called for work from police and experts to legally define the American bully XL (generally considered to be the result of breeding American pit bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers), but the breed (while recognised in the US), isn’t currently recognised by the main British dog associations, such as the Kennel Club. What’s more, part of the reason the Dangerous Dogs Act was so controversial to begin with is that a lot of the work to identify banned breeds revolved around their appearance, rather than any substantive genetic testing.

The Act has been modified throughout the years, and it remains the case that a disproportionately high percentage of fatal attacks involve banned breeds. What’s more, it is possible to obtain a certificate of exemption if you can prove the dog is safe. Dog owners seeking a certificate of exemption must obtain a specific kind of insurance, as well as keep the dog muzzled in public. Police also require the permission of a court to seize a dog, unless it is in a public place.

There are, too, serious questions to be asked about the extent to which owners - with sole legal responsibility for the behavior of animals in their care – are to blame. There have been legitimate calls for tighter restrictions and special licenses for people seeking to own breeds of a certain strength and size, especially where those breeds require an experienced hand to manage latent aggressive tendencies.  

The discussion will undoubtedly rage on, with the safety of the general public at front and center, but questions remain over the emphasis on appearance over behavior.