Reform on dangerous dogs urgently needed

Attack dogs have become such a part of the streetscape that reform is overdue, writes Mark Drinkwater, whose arm is now fully healed

For the social worker out on their rounds, there are few noises more fear-inducing than the sudden sound of ferocious barking coming from behind a client’s front door. However, on one occasion I had no such warning when I was attacked by a dog belonging to a client’s neighbour. The pooch, which was roaming free in the communal walkway of the block of flats, pounced on me. I was taken aback. But since I’d figured that it’s difficult reasoning with a German shepherd that’s sunk its fangs into one’s forearm, I beat a hasty retreat.

Fortunately, the wound I sustained (through several layers of clothing) was described as “superficial” by the genial doctor in A&E. “They were just trying to warn you off,” he said, trying to reassure me. Sounding a bit too upbeat for my liking, he added: “You’re lucky it wasn’t a rottweiler or doberman. They could have done you some real damage.”

But damage was done: psychological, if not physical. The experience highlighted to me that dogs were yet another danger in a profession that seems to have more than its fair share of occupational hazards. It left me with an antipathy to dogs.

When I was a lad, dogs didn’t seem quite so vicious. When you thought of workers inconvenienced by canines, it usually conjured up a cartoon image of a postal worker with a tiny terrier yapping at his heels. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. These days, posties, along with social workers, are much more likely to encounter oversized, aggressive “status” dogs.

Round here, in south London, every high street seems to be populated with angry-looking status dogs trotting around with angrier-looking owners. The other day I saw a young man struggling to control his two enormous dogs whom he referred to as Temper and Asbo – their names giving a somewhat worrying indication of his aspirations for them.

“Bring back the dog licence,” I hear people say. When I was a lad, everyone seemed to have a licence for their dog, though I remember the debates it caused at work. “You need a licence to own a dog, but don’t need one to have a child. Where’s the sense in that, eh?” asked a colleague. For him, the licence supported the notion that we often seem to value the upbringing of animals more than people.

Local authorities have a part to play in tackling aggressive dogs and the London Borough of Harrow has proposed ­vetting and micro-chipping dogs owned by people on the housing waiting list. Other boroughs are piloting programmes that will see residents faced with eviction if they fail to look after their dogs responsibly.

And while our present legislation, unlike the dangerous dogs, seems to have little in the way of teeth, central government seems to be taking some sort of lead on this issue with plans to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Their suggestions include micro-chipping, muzzling and compulsory third-party insurance to ensure victims of attacks are compensated.

I’d vote for them all if they encouraged responsible dog ownership. It’s time to make the streets a safer place. Every week, more than 100 people in the UK are admitted to hospital after dog attacks. For many of us, reform cannot come soon enough.

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker based in Southwark, London

This article is published in the 1 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “The bite is worse than the bark with these dogs of war”

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