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You would think that whether or not a dog is dangerous is quite straightforward. If a dog bites then surely it is classed as ‘dangerous’? However, legally it isn’t as simple as that and a court will want to look at whether or not a dog falls under the definitions and classifications in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
An understanding of the law regarding dangerous dogs is vital to the success of any dog bite claim, but it is important to appreciate that compensation can be claimed whether or not the dog concerned is officially recognised as a dangerous dog.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a curious piece of law and has been heavily criticised in the past for being unclear and for being rushed through Parliament after a spate of high profile dog attack cases were reported in the media. One of the criticisms is that it is too narrow. It refers to specific types of dog and if a dog isn’t on the list then arguably it is not a “dangerous dog”. Clearly just because a dog isn’t on the list it doesn’t make that dog any less dangerous than those which are, but the narrow definitions of the Act mean that the police are often unable to prosecute.
Did You Know?
According to vets, the most common breed of dog in the UK that is inclined to be aggressive is the German Shepherd. This is followed by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Rottweilers and Jack Russells. According to US data Pit Bulls are the most likely dog to bite humans, but attacks in the UK are rare as they are banned. The second most aggressive dog that is likely to attack a human is the Rottweiler, a very common breed in the UK which is not mentioned in the Dangerous Dogs Act.
Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act
This section prohibits the ownership of certain types of dogs unless they are exempted. Prosecutions can be brought based upon what the dog looks like. The DDA gives power to the police and local authorities to seize any dog they believe to be prohibited. The law places responsibility for proving that the dog is not of a prohibited type on the dog owner.
The maximum penalty for possession a banned dog is a fine of £5,000 or six months’ imprisonment, or both.
The dog types on the banned list are:
- Pit bull Terriers;
- Japanese Tosas;
- Dogo Argentinos; and
- Fila Brazilieros
Not only is ownership of these dogs banned, but so is the breeding, sale, exchange, advertising or gift of such a dog. It is also an offence to abandon a banned dog or allow it to stray.
The law specifically refers to “type” rather than “breed”. This is a very important distinction as they are not the same thing. A dog type is not the same as a dog breed. This means that whether your dog is a banned type depends on what it looks like, rather than its breed or name.
If the dog matches the characteristics of a Pit Bull Terrier for instance, it may be a banned type. This is because dogs with these characteristics are more likely than other dogs to cause severe harm if they attack. It won’t matter what type or breed a dog’s parents were. Even cross-bred and mongrel dogs can have the characteristics of a Pit Bull Terrier.
Pit Bull type dogs
Pit Bull types may include the following dog breeds:
- American Staffordshire Terriers;
- Irish Staffordshire Terriers;
- Irish Blue or Red Nose; and
- Some kinds of American Bulldogs have been found to be Pit Bull types.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has listed many of the characteristics which they feel would make a dog a Pit Bull Terrier type. The law does not require a suspected Pit Bull Terrier to fit the description perfectly, but it does require there to be a substantial number of characteristics present so that it can be considered more of a Pit Bull Terrier then any other type of dog. DEFRA rely upon the standard used as set out in the American Dog Breeders Association standard of conformation as published in the Pit Bull Gazette, vol 1, issue 3 1977:
- The dog appears square from the side, and the height of its shoulders is the same distance as from the front of its shoulders to the rear of the dog’s hip.
- The ratio of its height to its weight is in proportion.
- The dog’s coat is short and bristly.
- From the side, the dog’s head looks wedge-shaped and looks rounded when viewed from the front.
- The head is roughly two thirds of the width of the dog’s shoulders, with the width at the cheeks being approximately 25% wider than at the base of the dog’s skull.
- The space between the tip of the nose and the eyes is about the same as the distance from the back of the dog’s head to its eyes.
- The dog’s muzzle is straight and box shaped.
- The dog’s eyes are small and deep-set.
- The dog’s shoulders are wider than the eighth ribs.
- The dog’s elbows are flat.
- The dog’s front legs run parallel to the spine.
- The dog’s forelegs are roughly twice the thickness of the hind legs at the point just below the hock.
- The dog’s ribcage tapers at the bottom and is not “barrel” chested.
- The tail hangs down like the handle on an old fashioned “pump handle” to a point close to the hock.
- The dog’s hips ought to be broad allowing for good attachment for muscles.
- The knee joint is in the upper third of the dog’s rear leg and the bones below should appear to be light and springy.
- Overall, the dog should appear to be athletic.
- There is no mention of ears, colour, height or weight.
Owning a Dangerous Dog
If you own a Dangerous Dog then a court can allow you to keep it if you agree to it being added to the government’s Index of Exempted Dogs.
If a dog is put on the IED, it will have to be:
- kept on a lead and muzzled at all times when in a public place;
- kept in a secure place so it can’t escape; and
- insured against injuring third parties.
The owner will have to pay for this and must:
- take out insurance against the dog injuring other people;
- be over the age of 16 to own or be in charge of the dog;
- show the Certificate of Exemption when asked by a police officer or local council warden, either at the time or within five days; and
- let the IED know if they change address, or the dog dies.
The Act prohibits a banned dog from being in a public place without a muzzle or lead.
If an attack takes place and is caused by one of the named types then there will be a very good legal argument that the owner should be held responsible for any injury suffered and if a Dangerous Dog is off its lead or without a muzzle at the time of the attack then that will add extra weight to any compensation claim.
Section 3 of the Act
This section was most recently amended in May 2014 after years of campaigning by organisations such as the Postal Union. Before then it was only a criminal offence if a dog (regardless of breed or type) was dangerously out of control in a public place or a place where it is not allowed. This meant if someone was attacked on private land or in someone’s home police powers were severely restricted. The amendment means that criminal proceedings can now be considered if a dog is dangerously out of control in “any place in England or Wales (whether or not a public place)”. A dog is seen as being “dangerously out of control” when it causes fear or apprehension to someone that it may injure them. If the dog does cause an injury then the offence is “aggravated” and legal action can be taken against the owner as well as the person in charge of the dog at the time.
A dog being “dangerously out of control” does not automatically mean that the dog’s owner should be held responsible for any injury suffered. Much will still depend on application of the Animals Act as well as whether or not they were negligent and if they could have foreseen such an attack was likely.
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