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Dangerous Dogs - Breed Specific Legislation

July 16th, 2012 by Louise Humphreys

Posted In: Environmental Health

If you are a Twitter user you cannot have failed to notice the tweets about Lennox and Belfast City Council. I do not propose to go into the rights or wrongs of that particular case, simply because I do not have all of the facts (rather than opinions or views). One thing the case certainly has done is to bring Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) once more to the public's attention.

As a dog owner I have my own views on BSL. I certainly have no difficulty with the intention behind the legislation, namely to protect people from injuries caused by dogs. However, any dog regardless of breed has the potential to cause harm. You only have to look at a dog munching on a bone to know how powerful their jaws are. BSL does not in my view address the primary underlying cause - irresponsible dog ownership - nor does it seem to have reduced the number of incidents involving dogs.

Regardless of my views, the law as it currently stands incorporates BSL and therefore this blog post is designed to provide information on that topic.

Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 prohibits the ownership of certain types of dogs, unless they are exempted on the Index of Exempt Dogs. The breeding, sale, exchange, advertising or gift of any such dog is also prohibited.

So what are the listed dogs?

  • Any dog of the type known as the Pit Bull Terrier (PBT)
  • Any dog of the type known as the Japanese Tosa
  • Any dog of any type designated for the purposes of this section by an order of the Secretary of State, being a type appearing to him to be bred for fighting or to have the characteristics of a type bred for that purpose

Under the designation provisions the following dog types have been added:

  • Any dog of the type known as the Dogo Argentino; and
  • Any dog of the type known as the Fila Braziliero

It is important to note that the Act doesn't refer to the "American Pit Bull Terrier" but rather a looser "type known as the PBT".

The problem arises in determining what is a dog "of the type known as" a PBT. The other prohibited breeds do not appear to have caused such difficulty, whether that is simply because cases involving them have not been so public or because those breeds are relatively uncommon in the UK is unknown.

In 1993 the Courts determined the legal definition of the word 'type'. In the landmark case of Regina v Knightsbridge Crown Court, ex parte Dunne & Brock v Director of Public Prosecutions it was determined:

"That a dog of the type known as a Pit Bull Terrier is an animal approximately amounting to, near to, having a substantial number of characteristics of the Pit Bull Terrier".

Thus any dog regardless of parentage can be of the 'type'; the law effectively covers cross-breeds, mongrels and potentially dogs which have registration certificates identifying them as another breed entirely.

In 2009 DEFRA published guidance entitled Dangerous Dogs Law : A Guide for Enforcers

This document has the following to say about identifying "PBT types" (the guidance confirms that this is a starting point to the identification and the list of characteristics is not exhaustive).

The standard used to identify a PBT is set out in the American Dog Breeders Association standard of conformation as published in the Pit Bull Gazette, vol 1, issue 3 1977 - please refer to this for the full description and also relevant cases as this is only a brief overview. Although the law does not require a suspected PBT to fit the description perfectly, it does require there to be a substantial number of characteristics present so that it can be considered 'more' PBT than any other type of dog.
  • When first viewing the dog it should appear square from the side, and its height to the top of its shoulders should be the same distance as from the front of its shoulder to the rear point of its hip.
  • Its height to weight ratio should be in proportion.
  • Its coat should be short and bristled, (single coated).
  • Its head should appear to be wedge shaped when viewed from the side and top but rounded when viewed from the front. The head should be around 2/3 width of shoulders and 25 per cent wider at cheeks than at the base of the skull (this is due to the cheek muscles).
  • The distance from the back of the head to between the eyes should be about equal to the distance from between the eyes to the tip of its nose.
  • The dog should have a good depth from the top of head to bottom of jaw and a straight box-like muzzle.
  • Its eyes should be small and deep-set, triangular when viewed from the side and elliptical from front.
  • Its shoulders should be wider than the rib cage at the eighth rib.
  • Its elbows should be flat with its front legs running parallel to the spine.
  • Its forelegs should be heavy and solid and nearly twice the thickness of the hind legs just below the hock.
  • The rib cage should be deep and spring straight out from the spine, it should be elliptical in cross section tapering at the bottom and not 'barrel' chested.
  • It should have a tail that hangs down like an old fashioned 'pump handle' to around the hock.
  • It should have a broad hip that allows good attachment of muscles in the hindquarters and hind legs.
  • Its knee joint should be in the upper third of the dog's rear leg, and the bones below that should appear light, fine and springy.
  • Overall the dog should have an athletic appearance, the standard makes no mention of ears, colour, height or weight.

The police and authorised local authority officers are permitted to seize a dog which is in a public place if it is of a type as set out in s1(1) of the Act. A warrant can also be sought for the seizure of dogs on private premises if they are evidence of any offence under the Act. Finally a dog can also be seized from private premises if a police officer is lawfully on the premises - for example if the police are executing a warrant and a prohibited dog is found on those premises.

Section 5 (5) of the Act reverses the burden of proof so that the onus is placed on the accused to show that the dog is not of a type specifically controlled by the Act.

In 1997 an amendment to the Act was passed removing the mandatory destruction penalty for dogs falling within the prohibition. Discretionary powers were returned to the courts giving the option to order the dog placed on the Index providing that the dog would not constitute a danger to public safety.