Dangerous dogs

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’. 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 (DDA) was the first law to proscribe some breeds of dog in England & Wales. The law was introduced in August 1991 and amended in 1997 and again in 2014.

The DDA says the following dogs are unlawful:

  • Pit bull terrier;
  • Japanese tosa;
  • Dogo argentino;
  • Fila brasiliero.

If you have a banned dog, the police or local council dog warden can seize it and keep it, even if it isn’t acting dangerously and there hasn’t been a complaint.

The police don’t need a warrant to do this if your dog is in a public place, but they will need a warrant if your dog is in a private place.

A police or council dog expert will decide what type of dog you have and whether it is or could be dangerous to the public. Your dog will then either be released or kept in kennels while the police (or council) apply to a court.

If your case goes to court, it’s up to you to prove your dog is not a banned type. If you manage to do this, the court will order the dog to be returned to you. If you can’t prove it (or you plead guilty), you’ll be convicted of a crime. You can get an unlimited fine or be sent to prison for up to six months (or both) for having a banned dog against the law. Your dog will also be destroyed.

Pit bull terrier type dogs

Whether your dog is a banned type depends on what it looks like, rather than its breed or name.

For example, what makes a dog a pit bull terrier type is not defined and it is not a recognised breed in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), however, refers to 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.

This list is not considered to be exhaustive 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.

Index of Exempted Dogs (IED)

If you have a banned dog but the court believes it’s not a danger to the public, it may place it on the Index of Exempted Dogs (IED) and allow you to keep it. If this happens, you’ll be given a Certificate of Exemption. This is valid for the life of the dog.

Your dog must be:

  • neutered;
  • microchipped;
  • kept on a lead and muzzled every time it is out in public;
  • kept in a secure place so it can’t escape.

As the owner, you must:

  • take out insurance against your dog injuring other people;
  • be aged over 16;
  • show the Certificate of Exemption when asked by a police officer or council dog warden, either at the time or within five days;
  • inform the IED if you move house, or your dog dies.

Out of control dogs

Section 3 of DDA 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.

If your dog is dangerously out of control, you can be jailed for up to six months and/or receive an unlimited fine. You may be banned from owning a dog in the future and your dog may be destroyed.

If you allow your dog to injure someone you can be jailed for up to five years and/or fined. If you deliberately use your dog to injure someone you could be charged with ‘malicious wounding’.

If you allow your dog to kill someone you can be jailed for up to 14 years and/or get an unlimited fine.

If you let your dog injure an assistance dog (eg, a guide dog) you can be sent to prison for up to three years and/or fined.

Dogs Act 1871

As well as being charged with a criminal offence, it is possible for dog owners to face civil proceedings under s 2 of the Dogs Act 1871 if their dog is not under proper control (this usually means it is not on a lead or muzzled) and is dangerous.

The Act allows police, local authorities, or individual members of the public to bring such proceedings before the magistrates’ court. The court can specify the measures to be taken for keeping the dog under proper control, whether by muzzling, keeping on a lead, excluding it from specified places or otherwise. In extreme cases, it can order that the dog be destroyed.

It is different to DDA 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.
Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.