The law really is an ass sometimes

Dog_01725_Compressor_crWhen I was a child we used to say ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’.  Rather a stupid saying really because words can hurt, but we knew what we meant. However, taken literally, there is a parellel in one ridiculous aspect of the new dog laws.

A dog may just look mean, or a friendly dog bark and lunge at someone approaching the house. He may not make physical contact with the person at all. Even if the dog is friendly but can be seen as threatening – it can mean trouble for owner and dog. At least, this is how it has been reported in the newspapers.

On Tuesday, 13 May, the changes to the  UK Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 came into effect – see Legal changes were made to enable prosecution for a dog attack on private property and maximum prison sentences were extended to:

  • 14 years, from two years, for a fatal dog attack.
  • Five years, from two years, for injury.
  • Three years for an attack on an assistance dog.

The RSPCA explains that under the Act it’s illegal for a dog to be ‘out of control’ or to bite or attack someone. The legislation also makes it an offence if a person is even worried or afraid (the term is ‘reasonable apprehension’) that a dog may bite them’. 

The problem we face is how the notions of an “out of control” dog and ‘reasonable apprehension’ are interpreted. Someone like myself who is accustomed to being jumped on by dogs barely notices a jumping dog. Someone scared of dogs could think they will be knocked over or bitten.

The law provides a defence if your dog attacks an intruder in your own home (and I should hope so too). However, if your dog attacks an intruder in your garden or property outside the four walls of your house, this will be an offence which could land you in court.

Now, from Monday 20 October, police and local authorities will be able to demand that owners take action to prevent a dog attack or risk fine of up to £20,000! The Dealing with irresponsible dog ownership: practitioner’s manual will guide police forces and local authorities in the use of their new legal powers to prevent dog attacks. This manual helps practitioners in local authorities and the police in England and Wales in dealing with dog-related incidents. This includes how to help prevent matters escalating, using the powers contained within the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

If a complaint has been made about a dog to the council or police, its owners could be ordered to do any or all of the following:

  • Attend dog training classes
  • Muzzle the dog or require it to be on a lead in public
  • Require the dog to be microchipped and/or neutered
  • Repair fencing to prevent the dog leaving the propert

These are sensible and fair enough, but overall I take issue with three things.

Firstly, people are open to time-wasting or malicious complaints and perhaps neighbours with a grudge whilst the real irresponsible dog owners simply won’t care.  So, someone comes into your garden with mischief in mind, or kids torment or tease your dog over the fence and the dog does what dogs do – protects his territory by biting or even just barking, you are in for trouble. The dog is probably in for even bigger trouble.

Secondly, the definition of ‘reasonable apprehension’ is too subjective. This will rebound onto rescue shelters with a) worried dog-owners giving up reactive dogs before anything can happen and the rescues themselves having even more difficulty finding homes for their dogs, meaning more dogs will be euthanised.

Thirdly, I take issue with the first point above: attend a training ‘class’.

Attending a class may help if the trouble occurs when the dog is out, but in my experience dogs are more reactive and excitable on their own home territory. Therefore, basic behaviour work as well as some training needs to be done in their home where a behaviour consultant/trainer can also give advice on sensible management solutions regarding physical boundaries that will keep the dog out of trouble.

Belt and braces.

Over time I have been to many very friendly dogs that would fall foul of this law. Click here for the story of just one such dog.

For my main website and many more stories, please go to

About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. A 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site:
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1 Response to The law really is an ass sometimes

  1. Elaine Rutland-Smith says:

    I agree that a garden is still part of the home and dogs will have an instinct to defend and do not agree that the garden should be a separate entity, it is still part of the home. We have had kids throw sticks over, run loudly behind the fence and even walk past barking loudly themselves. This naturally starts them barking and then gives some malicious neighbours an excuse to complain, it is never the kids fault ! Children need to be taught respect for animals and property. People do know there are dogs there and they enter at their own risk, and some may deliberately enter knowing the dogs and what the consequences are for the owner and dog.


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