Dog Attacks on Assistance Dogs
On 13th March 2014 the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 received Royal Assent. This Act makes significant amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, in particular with regard to the law surrounding dog attacks on assistance dogs.
Under the new law, if a dog is dangerously out of control anywhere in England and Wales (whether or not a public place) and it injures an assistance dog, the owner of the dog will be guilty of an aggravated offence. The amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act include heavy penalties for such aggravated offences. In the case of assistance dogs being injured, the attacker’s owner could receive up to three years in prison, or a fine, or both.
Surprisingly, given the fact that prior to these amendments the Dangerous Dogs Act was silent on the subject, attacks on assistance dogs are a relatively common occurrence. Guide Dogs chief executive Richard Leaman claims that on average ten assistance dogs are attacked each month. It goes without saying that the effect of such attacks can be devastating on the owners of assistance dogs, many of whom are completely reliant on their dogs for their independence and quality of life. In addition to the trauma suffered by the owner and the dog itself as the result of an attack, there can be severe financial consequences for charities which provide dogs to those in need. After an attack an assistance dog may be so severely injured or distressed that it is unable to work either temporarily or permanently. With guide dogs costing in the region of £50,000 to be trained, this is obviously a huge unwanted cost to charities.
For the purposes of the amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act the term ‘Assistance Dog’ is defined as it is in the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act states that an Assistance Dog is:
(a) a dog which has been trained to guide a blind person;
(b) a dog which has been trained to assist a deaf person;
(c) a dog which has been trained by a prescribed charity to assist a disabled person who has a disability that consists of epilepsy or otherwise affects the person’s mobility, manual dexterity, physical co-ordination or ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects; or
(d) a dog of a prescribed category which has been trained to assist a disabled person who has a disability (other than one falling within paragraph (c)) of a prescribed kind.
This is a fairly wide definition and goes beyond what the general public may recognise as ‘typical’ assistance dogs. Therefore, there is an onus on dog owners to ensure that their dog is under control at all times, not only when in contact with a dog that they can see is obviously an assistance dog.
Critics have argued that the new protection afforded to assistance dogs should be extended to all animals that are the victims of dog attacks, as such attacks are invariably traumatic and can cause financial loss to pet owners due to vet’s fees incurred, but the legislation is clear that the aggravated offence is applicable only to attacks on assistance dogs as defined above. However, it will be of some comfort to animal lovers that although an attack on an animal other than an assistance dog is not an aggravated offence under the new legislation, it is still an offence for a dog to be out of control anywhere in the UK and the owner of an out of control dog could still be punished with up to 6 months in prison, or a fine or both. This means that an owner could be punished if any animal is injured in a dog attack if that dog was deemed out of control at the time.
Whilst many have praised parliament for taking action in this area, others, such as Trevor Cooper from the Dogs Trust, believe the answer to the problem of dog attacks lies in prevention through education, rather than in punishment of offenders after the event has taken place. Whether or not the new measures coming into force will act as a deterrent, thereby reducing the number of attacks on assistance dogs remains to be seen, the only thing that can be certain is that an irresponsible dog owner can now be heavily punished if their dog instigates such an attack.