Monday, October 02, 2006

Dog Attacks: Dog Owner Suitability Tests are the Obvious Answer

We're off again. The News of the World ( Britain 's top selling Sunday newspaper) has joined its sister title, The Sun in calling for a change to dog legislation.

They are calling for owners of dogs who attack people, whether on their own property or not to be liable for criminal prosecution.

Whilts this is not exactly the same stance as The Sun, who are calling specifically for the muzzling of Rottweilers at home and in public, at least it appears that this is what they were calling for (you can read it here.), both newspapers are keen to see 'devil dogs' and their owners legislated against.

Both newspapers are calling for something to happen in the style of we want change, we want it now and we want children protected. We agree, change is needed. But change for change's sake won't prevent a single death or future dog attack. There is a solution, both newspapers have missed it.

The thing is, this whole debate is rapidly turning into a 'them and us' situation when in reality the dog owning community want the same thing. Nobody wants to see people injured as a result of a dog attack but surely prevention has got to be better than cure.

The News of The World's campaign is supported by the views of Clare Carey and Mark Lawrence, the parents of little Harvey Lawrence the boy who received horrendous injuries when he was attacked by a Rottweiler last week.

Clare stormed:

"Dangerous animals in zoos are kept behind bars. Dogs like Rottweilers have the same kind of characteristics so even putting them on a lead is not enough. They're stronger than a person. "We've seen the damage this dog's teeth did to Harvey 's skull and his face and I wouldn't want any other parent to have to go through this. "Children shouldn't have to live in fear of animals. We must do something to protect them. "The law needs to be changed. People who own dogs need to take responsibility."

Comparing "dogs like Rottweilers" as having similar characteristics to dangerous zoo animals is understandable in part. In many ways, they do. They are capable of delivering fatal attacks, physically they can indeed be stronger than many people and yes, they are animals. They are not wild animals though and belong to a group of animals who are collectively known as our best friend, the Rottweiler is not an exemption from that description. There are many reasons for this.

The main difference between animals in zoos and dogs is that canines were domesticated and are absolutely predisposed to accept training and psychological conditioning delivered by humans. Punishing the people who chose to ignore their responsibility to train their dogs is fine (see how much we're still agreeing here). But at what point does the punishment actually prevent the attack in the first place? Surely this has to be the aim because unlike 99.9% of crimes, it's rare that the owner of an attacking dog actually wanted the crime to happen, they didn't chose for it to happen and they certainly don't profit from it when it occurs. Negligence is the issue and the way to combat negligence is by demanding that owners are aware of their responsibilities.

A dog ownership suitability test would ensure that dog owners knew of their legal and social responsibilities. A dog ownership suitability test would make certain that would-be dog owners were required to understand dog law, learn how the dangerous dogs act relates to them, understand how dog body language works, realise how powerful certain breeds are and what makes them tick. A dog ownership suitability test WOULD prevent dog attacks, WOULD go a long way toward stopping the wrong people owning dogs that were unsuitable for their level of experience or lifestyle and WOULD guarantee that all dog owners were equipped with at the very least, a basic level of understanding of what their responsibilities were to their dog and to society.

The dangerous dogs act is quite unique in that it is a piece of legislation, a much criticised piece of legislation at that, where the group of people it's aimed at (dog owners) widely don't know what's in it and the specific group it legislates against (dogs) can't actually read it. The truth is, the dangerous dogs act could be the finest piece of law making in British legal history but would still be rendered next to useless if the people it's meant for don't know what's in it and the section of society it was brought in for can't read the thing.

Given that we have taken dogs to new levels of achievement over the past 100 years - think guide dogs, cancer detection dogs, Police dogs, drug detection dogs, bomb detection dogs (Rottweilers playing a role in many of these disciplines) , it still remains unlikely that we'll ever be able to teach man's best friend to read and understand the complexities of the British legal system. With that in mind the only sensible way to ensure that the dangerous dogs act offers a benefit to society is to try and think of a system that obligates dog owners to understand it. How can we do that? A dog ownership suitability test or, 'Doggie Driving Licence' would do exactly that.

A dog ownership suitability test would take care of this and then some. If dog owners still don't understand their responsibilities after that and their dogs are attacking people, fouling the streets or causing a nuisance to innocent members of society then yes, let's see them prosecuted as criminals.

If we didn't have driving tests, theory exams and laws of the road legislating for speeding, dangerous driving, understanding traffic signals etc, laws which are understood by the vast majority of the people they were designed to apply to, drivers, and are there not just to protect the people behind the wheel but other members of society who inevitably come into contact with them, would we honestly be surprised if accidents occur as a result of sheer ignorance/negligenc e? Seems illogical that we don't seek to apply the same theory to dog owners.

Breed specific legislation will not stop people dying and being injured as a result of dog attacks. Muzzling orders will not stop people dying and being injured as a result of dog attacks. Prosecuting negligent dog owners whose dogs injure or kill is fine in theory but it's still retrospective, somebody has still been killed or attacked. Let's try and prevent dog attacks, prevent abuse of dogs as a result of owner negligence and let's make something positive come out of a tragic week. Dog ownership suitability tests are the prevention, criminalisation is only the cure.


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