Thursday, 15 August 2013
Dangerous dogs and bad laws
The idea of being savaged by a dangerous dog is a very frightening one. It has very deep roots in our history and our culture, and it's a wake-at-night-sweating type of nightmare that we all suffer from. Stuck in a burning house? Attacked at night in an alleyway? Yes, it's all pretty grim out there in our imaginations. The Historian himself has his own morbid fears of dog attacks, as regular readers will know. It might not be entirely rational, but it's there, and it's real.
All that makes recent calls for harsher UK laws to prevent horrendous dog attacks entirely understandable. It's often children who are attacked in this way, partly because they're more likely to be playing in the garden, and partly because they're easy prey at dogs' eye levels. Sixteen people have been killed by dogs in the UK since 2005, a doleful list of victims which includes the awful case of fourteen-year-old Jade Anderson, savaged by four different dogs in Wigan. Who could possibly object to new measures to reduce the number of such attacks?
But wait a minute. The main initiative being proposed in Whitehall and Westminster is a potential life sentence for the dogs' owners. A rethink of these laws is indeed long-overdue. Unfortnately, this isn't it, and it is a knee-jerk reaction that can't be dignified with the word 'thought' at all. This from the Government that brought you landlord checks on non-EU citizens' documents (quietly being dropped) and the disastrous Youth Contract debacle that most employers haven't even heard about. But I digress.
This specific proposal is all-too-reminiscent of the absurd and much-flouted, as well as hysterical, Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which attempted to outlaw entire breeds of dog (pit bulls, for instance). The result? The destruction of dogs - dangerous as they may or may not have been - that had done nothing wrong at all, simply on the basis of their genetics. Breeding programmes that muddied the waters (or the bloodflow) sufficiently to just get round those laws. And no diminution at all in the number of attacks: in fact, there's been a rapid increase in dog bite outpatient consultations.
What might work? Well, compulsory training. Registration. Education programmes. Encouragement, and enlightenment - the carrot, rather than the stick. Better application of the laws we already have - actually charging owners for all sorts of violent behaviour by their pets, rather than just letting them off with a caution or a finger-wagging lecture. The issuing of dog control notices, to nip any problems in the bud before they become really entrenched.
Hey, these sorts of ideas might not be perfect, but they're all we've got. They're much more likely to work than punitive laws that probably won't be enforced, and which are less likely to make any irresponsible dog owners think twice than more gradually attempting to change some of our violent and nasty dog ownership sub-cultures. Life in prison for another being's behaviour? You can only get 14 years for causing death by dangerous driving - a sin of commission that most citizens would probably think of as a worse crime than letting your dog get out of control. How long before we see the first famous martyr of a dog owner, serving many years in prison because a dog the public perceived as an 'acceptable' one (an Alsatian, for instance) acted out of character? It might take many years. But it might not be long - dragging Parliament's sausage-factory legislation into the mire. Again.
You're probably at risk from this over-reaction, as well as from any vicious dogs themselves. For if this unending emphasis on punishment allows public and policymakers to ignore the deep-seated roots of machismo-fuelled violence in our society, if it permits us to look away from the reasons why so many men breed and keep dogs that are better suited to cage fighting than domestic homes, then it does us a disservice. If such legislation undermines public faith in the law, the void will be filled by all sorts of dangerous fantasies and promises. All for a piece of crowd-pleasing headline-making that might, just might, punish the relatively innocent, and probably won't make any difference anyway.
Dangerous dogs? Bad laws can be more pernicious.