It is a criminal offence to breed, sell, give away, exchange or own some types of dog and there are other laws regarding the control of ‘ferocious dogs’ that owners ought to be aware of. There is no law stating that a dog has to bite somebody for it to be considered dangerous.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
The Dangerous Dogs Act was the first law to proscribe some breeds of dog in England & Wales. It gave owners a time limit in which they could choose to register their dogs, making ownership of them legal, but that time limit has now run out and it is no longer possible for a person to voluntarily register a dog.
The Act says that the following are unlawful dogs:
- Pit bull terrier;
- Fila Braziliero;
- Dogo Argentino; and
- Japanese Tosa
If a person owns one of the above and it has not been registered, then they are committing a criminal offence and a Police Officer or dog warden can seize the dog. Courts can issue warrants that allow the police to enter a building and seize a dog. The ban covers pure breeds and cross breeds that are similar to the above in terms of their appearance and behaviour. The maximum fine for owning one of these dogs is £5,000 or/and six months in prison. The dog may be destroyed.
Pit bull terrier type dogs
Exactly what makes a dog a Pit bull terrier type is not clearly defined and it is not a recognised breed in the UK, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will often refer the criteria laid out by the American Dog Breeders Association:
- The dog appears square from the side, and the height of its shoulders is the same distance as from the front of its shoulders to the rear of the dog’s hip.
- The ratio of its height to its weight is in proportion.
- Its coat is bristly and short.
- From the side, its head appears to be wedge-shaped and rounded when viewed from the front.
- Its head is roughly two thirds of the width of its shoulders, with the width at the cheeks being approximately 25% wider than at the base of its skull.
- The space between the tip of the nose and the eyes is about the same as the distance from the back of its head to its eyes.
- Its muzzle is straight and box shaped.
- Its eyes are small and deep-set.
- Its shoulders are wider than the eighth ribs.
- Its elbows are flat.
- Its front legs run parallel to the spine.
- Its forelegs are roughly twice the thickness of the hind legs at the point just below the hock.
- Its ribcage tapers at the bottom.
- The tail hangs down like the handle on an old fashioned water pump to a point close to the hock.
- Its hips ought to be broad.
- The knee joint is in the top third of its rear leg and the bones below should appear to be light and springy.
- Overall, the dog should appear to be athletic.
Although long, this list is not considered to be an exhaustive list but rather a starting point when identifying Pit bull terrier type dogs. The law doesn’t say that a dog has to fit these descriptions perfectly, but the dog has to exhibit a substantial number of these characteristics. Any similarities can be contested and it is recommended that you seek the opinion of an expert, such as a vet.
Until a case is concluded, any dog seized as a possible pit bull terrier type will remain in a kennel. If the police have the dog examined and conclude that it is a pit bull terrier type, they will prosecute and unless the person can prove to a court that the dog is not a pit bull terrier type, they will be convicted. Unusually, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, i.e. they must be able to prove that the dog is not a pit bull terrier type.
Out of control dogs
Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act applies to all dogs that are out of control in a public place, not just those listed above. If a dog acts in a manner that makes a person afraid of attack, then it is an offence. The penalties are the same as those imposed upon people who own a banned dog: a maximum fine of £5,000 and/or a six-month prison sentence. A dog that is dangerously out of control may be seized by the a police officer or by a dog warden. It is possible for the courts to issue a warrant that will enable the police to enter a building and seize a dog. Courts can order the dog to be destroyed.
Section 2 Dogs Act 1871
As well as being charged with a criminal offence, it is possible for dog owners to face civil proceedings under Section 2 of the Dogs Act if their dog is not under proper control (this usually means it is not on a lead or muzzled) and is dangerous.
It is different to the Dangerous Dogs Act in that:
- It applies everywhere, not just in public.
- Proceedings can only be brought against an owner.
- Dogs do not have to act dangerous towards a person – if it’s general behaviour is dangerous, it qualifies.
- Except in exceptional cases, a single incident is not usually sufficient proof to show that a dog is dangerous.
- The police cannot seize a dog under this act.
- The court cannot issue fines under this act.
A person with an unregistered pit bull terrier type dog can avoid having the dog destroyed if they can prove to a court that the dog is not a danger to public safety. If this is the case, the court may allow the dog to be registered, but not before the person has paid for it to be registered, insured, micro-chipped and neutered.
If a dog injures a person, then it will usually be destroyed. If a court can be persuaded otherwise, a Contingent Destruction Order will require a dog to be kept under proper control. If it is not, then it will be destroyed.
Although unusual, it is possible for a court to disqualify a person from owning a dog if they are convicted of breaching the Dangerous Dogs Act.