| Dangerous dogs policy in the wake of the terrible death of Jade Anderson|
|Visiting old friends in Wigan on Tuesday afternoon, Jade Anderson was savagely attacked by four dogs. When police got to the scene it was too late. Bite marks from the gang attack covered her body. Her death has left a community devastated, a family broken and a nation agonising once again about what to do with dangerous dogs.|
Nothing can be done without understanding the context of these attacks. Breeding dogs is a growing way of generating income in inner city areas. Staffie pups can sell for £200-£500 each, and with an average litter size of eight, you can do the maths. Breeding provides a form of income when there are few jobs available. It allows you to work from home without losing benefits. The owner of the bull mastiffs and Staffordshire bull terriers that attacked Jade bred pups from her terraced home and sold them on Facebook.
Then there's demand, which also comes from our inner cities. For some owners it's about fashion, for others it's about status. If you feel unsafe in your neighbourhood and don't trust the police, a dog can help. If your aggressive neighbour has one, all the more reason for you to get one back. For kids from loveless families, they provide companionship and loyalty. Dogs are subject to the same arms race as knives, but they are harder to be turned against the owner and there is no prison sentence for carrying one. And our culture increasingly glorifies these animals. Gangs use them as mascots and walking a dog without a lead is a sign of control. We must be careful of making assumptions about Jade's case, but this is the context we are working with.
Our country's laws are not fit to cope with these complex problems. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, certain dangerous breeds are illegal. That makes sense given the physical capacity and history of some of these animals – like the English bulldog whose underbite was bred for bull baiting. But in almost all cases, what really determines whether an animal is dangerous is not its breed, but its upbringing. Staffies have a terrible reputation, but if you visit Battersea Dogs Home, you'll see from the burnt, scarred and beaten animals that they are often the victims. Making dogs like these illegal misses the point, and may only increase their status and their street value.
For legal breeds, a dog can be destroyed or an owner prosecuted if the dog is dangerously out of control or if the animal is deliberately used to threaten or intimidate someone. That said, it will almost certainly not punish the owner of the dogs that attacked Jade Anderson, because at present the law only applies in public spaces and this attack happened on private property. The government recently announced it would extend the law to apply to attacks on private property, after years of complaints from postmen, midwives and others who are work-bound to visit other people's homes – but the change has not gone through yet.
But even if this law had applied to private property, it still might not have stopped Jade Anderson's death. The real problem is that preventative action can often not be taken until the tragedy has already happened. Warnings from neighbours – and there were plenty of those in Anderson's case – could not be acted upon because the dog had not actually committed any offence. The government's plan to microchip all dogs by 2016 doesn't help here either. For communities up and down the country who can see accidents waiting to happen, this is intensely frustrating.
Scotland has taken a different approach. Local councils can introduce dog control notices (DCNs) to owners if an animal is consistently out of control, or is causing a "reasonable" sense of alarm to any individual who reports it. These notices can force owners to take a variety of actions before an incident takes place, including muzzling, neutering, exclusion from public places or making the owner go on a training course. If you breach it, you can be fined £1,000 or banned from owning a dog. This is a million miles away from dog control orders in England, where owners can only be fined for minor offences in public places, specifically walking a dog without a lead or failing to clean up its mess.
Jade Anderson. Jaden Mack. John-Paul Massey. Harry Harper. We owe it to these children and the other victims of the estimated 210,000 dog attacks in this country every year to look at these measures seriously. The Scottish system is one preventive measure that might give people and local authorities confidence that measures could be taken if reasonable suspicions were raised. But we will need deeper action too. We owe Jade Anderson and her community more than just a kneejerk response: a serious attempt to engage with the deeper social causes behind dangerous dogs – unemployment, fear, poverty – that will otherwise continue to leave all of us at risk, whatever legislation we bring in.