The dangerous dogs act – sledgehammer to crack a nut – a personal story

In the first covid lockdown in 2020 I was returning from a walk on a lovely sunny evening with Rover and Spot.  We were just about to turn into our road when two women and a small dog coming from the other way crossed onto my side of the pavement.  There wasn’t sufficient room for two people and a dog to get past one person and two dogs, both in covid and dog terms, so I backed into a drive way and waited for them to pass.  They needn’t have crossed to my side of the pavement, the road was clear and had they crossed instead to the other pavement, it wouldn’t have inconvenienced them any.  I deduced that they were paying no attention! 

As they drew level their dog barked at us, I jumped out of my skin and inadvertently dropped our dogs’ leads, Spot ran to their dog and attacked her.  This happened when we were opposite a neighbours garden from which a dog barks at us regularly when we pass.  Spot gets very upset by this dog and I’m guessing she was expecting that something unpleasant was going to happen.  I ran out of the drive way after Spot and immediately pulled her off by her lead – I was there in a second, Rover followed.  At this point the women started to scream at me, both at the same time, at the tops of their voices.  There was no opportunity to see if the other dog was hurt, apologise or anything.  This went on for some time.  My daughter heard the disturbance and came to see what was happening.  She thought it was a domestic abuse situation, imagine her surprise when she realised it was me being shouted at?  Soon after the other dog’s owners walked away, without checking their dog to see if it was ok.

I went home and tried to forget about the incident.  Spot had never been aggressive towards any other dogs for the first 6 or so years of her life, although she has been the victim of several dog attacks, including one where she sustained some nasty puncture wounds.  During her 7th year, Spot started to behave aggressively towards some other small, inoffensive dogs on our most regular walk.  I see this behaviour as essentially defensive, attacking dogs that were unlikely to fight back has allowed her to control her anxiety where other dogs have attacked her.  It is her way of taking matters into her own paws.  Fortunately, Spot had never drawn blood or hurt another dog physically. 

I know enough to know that we won’t be able to change this behaviour and we had already decided to keep Spot on the lead prior to the above incident. Interestingly, to this day, all Spot’s aggressive behaviour has been limited to where bad things have happened to her on our most regular walks, however, I don’t entirely trust her now!  To find out more about Spot and why I believe she’s the way she click here.   

Of course, Spot was on the lead when it happened and had the dog not come too close and barked, she would have remained on the lead.

The next thing was a visit from the police, apparently one of the women recognised me as I had worked with her neighbour’s dog and her neighbour had pointed me out to her.  The women had then stalked me down through the internet.  I was called to the police station under caution and with the duty solicitor.  I was two hours in there giving my statement.  I described the events much as I have above.  It was only when I got to the police station that I was informed that Spot had actually injured the other dog.  Their poor dog had sustained 3 puncture wounds and vet bills of £55.  I wished I had known this at the time as we would have happily paid any vets bills then.  As it was, at the point we knew that vets bills had been incurred, we offered to pay them.

I assumed my account of events, that Spot didn’t have a ‘record’, that we offered to pay the vet’s bills and the fact that the police knew that we now keep Spot on the lead would be the end of it, common sense having prevailed.  Not in the least!  The next thing, to my absolute astonishment, was a court summons.  This was for November 2020 when the judicial system was wondering if they would ever clear the back log of cases delayed by covid and there were even ‘nightingale’ courts.  Indeed a friend told me of a friend of hers who had been waiting over a year for a court date after her ex came through her window with a breeze block.

We were charged under section 3 of the dangerous dogs act 1991.  Not everyone knows but this barbaric, ineffective and knee jerk legislation doesn’t just apply to the Pit Bull and the 3 other banned breeds, section 3 applies to all dogs.  I should know as I taught the basics of dog law to my students at Harper Adams. 

Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (amended 2013). 

Section 3:

  • applies to all dogs
  • Section 3 formerly only applied to dogs deemed ‘out of control in a public place’ but the 2013 amendment abolished the distinction between public places and private property, and now section 3 applies to dogs deemed ‘dangerously out of control’ everywhere, even in your own home.
  • ‘dangerously out of control’ only need mean that a bystander has grounds for ‘reasonable apprehension’ that the dog was going to cause an injury to the complainant. It doesn’t apply to dogs attacking other dogs (for that you need the 1871 Dogs Act), it only applies to risk to human safety
  • The DDA is strict liability and doesn’t take into account any provocation of the dog by the victim
    • dog being on lead is no defence
    • beware of dog sign no defence – in fact this is likely to work against you as it implies that you are aware there is a risk
  • most prosecutions are for the aggravated offence when injury is actually caused.

Dog owners need to know that their dog may be deemed ‘dangerously out of control’ in a public place or at home.  This can be simply by being perceived to be overly boisterous.  ‘Dangerously out of control’ relies on the victim’s assessment.  Prosecution may result in seizure of the dog, possible destruction, costs and a criminal conviction!

As an aside, there are other sanctions the police could have chosen to use, especially bearing in mind Spotty’s lack of ‘previous’ and the other circumstances.  It would have been highly consistent for the police to impose a ‘dog control order’ under anti-social behaviour legislation.  Police, councils and social housing providers all have powers when it comes to imposing dog control orders. 

  • We could have been asked to have Spot on the lead through a Dog Control Order

At which point I would have said ‘alright officer, you got me bang to rights’.

At first I was keen to fight.  It didn’t seem possible that I might get a criminal conviction for a minor dog fight, the like of which is happening many times, everywhere, every split second!  Dog bites dog is hardly news.  My summons suggested that I had gone out with ‘criminal intent’.  I can’t imagine what this might have been, I thought I was just walking our dogs!

My specialist, dog law solicitor advised me that because one of the women mentioned in their statement that they felt ‘reasonable apprehension’ that the other woman might get hurt breaking up the fight, I might well get a conviction.  Because the DDA is ‘strict liability’, I effectively had no defence.  Honestly though!  Two small dogs and 3 people and both dogs with a lead attached, how hard could it be to split them up?  I don’t need to be a pet behaviourist to work that out!  However, the women said I had taken 3-5 minutes to get to the scene.  I was approximately 12 metres away in the adjacent driveway.  My dog was in the road for goodness sake!  I was there in two seconds.

However, at that time I was coming to terms with my Mum’s dementia, it was lock down and this was a threat my career and the business that I had worked so hard to establish.  In the end, I couldn’t bear the prospect of having it hang over my head, so I pleaded guilty, my dog had been ‘out of control in a public place’, after all. 

In the end, the police only sent the papers through on the Friday and my court date was on the Tuesday.  This wouldn’t even have given us time to prepare a case had I been planning to fight it.  To be honest, I’m flabbergasted that the magistrate, who was unfamiliar with dog law, wasn’t more nonplussed by the triviality of the case, but he didn’t seem to be. 

Spot is to be kept on the lead in public spaces for life, fortunately, the length of lead wasn’t specified, as in some cases dogs are only allowed to be on a short lead.  We were also lucky that I was able to pipe up in court and successfully negotiate our way out of Spot having to wear a muzzle in public.  However, Spotty now has a ‘contingent destruction order’ whereby she could be destroyed if ever reported off the lead in a public place.  Oh, and I got a criminal record, £500 costs and a £1700 legal bill.  I was relieved to learn that had we not been able to afford the legal fees we should have received legal aid because a dog’s life is at risk and that at least is deemed important.

To rub salt into the wound, around the same time in another part of the UK, a colleague’s dog was attacked by a another dog.  Although the attacking dog, had ‘previous’ and did serious damage to both dog and owner the local police have consistently refused to prosecute.  My colleague’s dog was badly bitten in the face, sufficient to cause nerve damage and my colleague’s partner was also badly bitten trying to break up the fight.  I believe it has taken him a long time to regain full use of his hand.

Nearly two years after the event, I came home to a letter from the police requesting that I report to the custody section at the police station for my ‘biometrics’ to be taken – that’s finger prints and a DNA sample for those of you who are fortunate enough not to have suffered this indignity.  There were no details of what it referred to.  I thought that I was being arrested (by post!), inevitably nearly two years, on I didn’t associate the police correspondence with Spot’s court case and my mind went mad with possibilities, when I read the letter my heart was beating 19 to the dozen.  When I eventually got hold of the police to find out what it was a about, it turned out they hadn’t done my biometrics at the time and needed to do it now.  I realised when I reported to the police station that I have been quite traumatised by the whole saga.  

Please read Kendal Shepherd’s (BVSc., MRCVS) expert witness report of the 9th September 2022 to get a perspective on the DDA and what happened to me.  It’s really quite shocking and rather frightening.