Legal Advice
Dog Law

History of Dog Law in the UK


Dogs Act 1871

The 19th Century was plagued by a rise in urban dogs and extreme outbreaks of rabies; a combination which often proved fatal for those who came into contact with the dogs who became vicious as a result of the disease and consequently, liable to bite. Medical understanding at the time estimated that the risk of developing hydrophobia, which symptoms included delirium and fear of water, after a rabid dog bite was about one in twenty. With hydrophobia deaths peaking in 1877, thousands of individuals, families and communities feared the streets of Britain and suspect dogs.

The introduction of the 1871 Act was the first major piece of legislation addressing dog law and was described by the government as “an act to provide further protection against dogs” and aimed to address the public fear. Section 1 of the Act dealt with stray dogs, however this was repealed by the Dogs Act 1906. Section 3 dealt with rabid dogs, however this too was repealed and now has statutory protection through the Rabies Act 1974.

Section 2 remains the only part still in force and although over 100 years old, is still a very effective piece of dog control legislation. It requires that the owner should be brought before a Magistrates’ court if the local authorities receive a complaint that a dog is dangerous, regardless of whether in a private or public place, and are satisfied that the complaint is justified. The Magistrates have the power to make any order appropriate which can include destruction, ordering the owner to have proper control, or imposing a fine.

Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953

The value of livestock, which can include cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses and poultry was recognised through the implementation of specific legislation in 1953. Under this law, dog owners and/or anyone else who is in control of the dog at the time of the attack will be guilty of an offence if the livestock is worried. This worrying must be a result of being chased or attacked on agricultural land in such a way that it could be reasonably expected to cause injury, suffering or the loss or diminution of produce. This therefore covers the situation where female livestock are distressed by the dog causing abortion or loss of their offspring.

The Protection of the Livestock Act permits a farmer to stop a dog and even permits shooting in certain circumstances. This development of the law has caused a lot of controversy for owners given that a farmer will very often be on alert if a dog is off the lead and not under close control in a field or enclosure near livestock and may shoot a dog unnecessarily. However, a balance has to be achieved to protect the agricultural industry as trauma to livestock can cause serious financial loss to farmers. Therefore, dog owners should always be extra cautious of keeping their dogs under the control of a lead when near livestock.

Animals Act 1971

The next significant piece of legislation enacted saw the law focus on dog owners, rather than the dog itself, when a dog bites or attacks. The 1971 Act imposes strict civil liability on anyone who is the keeper of an animal which will be the owner, or person in possession of a dog. Strict liability means that the keeper will be liable regardless of whether it was their fault or not.

Section 2(2) of the Act requires that the damage caused by the dog must be likely to be severe, a consequence of the characteristics of the dog which are not normally found in other dogs of the same breed or are only found in particular circumstances, and these characteristics were known to that keeper or person in charge of the animal. This applies to both human victims and livestock, however is more onerous to dog owners than the 1953 Act as the definition of livestock is extended to include game birds that are in captivity.

An owner may also be liable in negligence for a dog attack where they fail in their duty of care to people who come into come into contact with their dog, or a dog in their control, to protect them from harm. Dog owners may therefore be liable to pay compensation to those invited guests, postal workers and professionals that enter private property and are attacked.

The Kennel Club recommend [1] that third party liability insurance should be held by dog owners to cover this happening and is often included in most pet and household insurance policies, so these should be consulted when any attack occurs.

The Road Traffic Act 1988

Section 27 of the Act requires that dogs should be held on a lead on a designated road and similar bye-laws cover public areas. In ensuring dogs are kept on a lead, public safety is preserved as well as protecting the dog from the dangers of vehicles. Failure to do so can result in prosecution and fines.
The Act also requires that dogs travelling in vehicles must not be a nuisance or in any way distract the driver during a journey in order for the driver to have full attention on the road, avoiding any risk of causing an accident.

Furthermore, section 170 specifies that if a dog is involved in a road traffic accident where it runs into the road and is hit or causes an accident then the driver of the car must stop and give their name and address to the person in charge of the dog. If the driver is not the owner of the vehicle then he must supply the owner’s details if requested. If there is no person in charge of the dog, or the driver refuses to give their details, then the owner must report this to the police as soon as possible. This is beneficial to dog owners as it can lead to drivers being prosecuted for failing to give their details and reporting to the police.

Dangerous Dogs Act 1991

Public protection from injury, or fear of injury by dogs was Parliament’s intention when enacting this legislation which places criminal liability on owners and those in charge of a dog.

Section 1 prohibits the ownership of certain types of dog unless they are exempt on the Index of Exempt Dogs list. This section is potentially detrimental to dog owners as they can be prosecuted for predictions on just the dog’s behaviour and physical characteristics.

Section 3 also makes it a criminal offence for allowing any breed or type of dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place or place where it is not allowed. A dog will be considered dangerously out of control where it injures someone, or the person has reasonable apprehension that it may do so. This low threshold imposes a heavy burden on dog owners as the test will be applied to persons universally, with some people having heightened fears and different levels of tolerance to dogs. A dog merely barking or jumping up at a person or child could attract criminal liability. Successful prosecutions can result in prison sentences, fines, compensation and there will be an automatic presumption that your dog will be destroyed unless you can persuade the court it is not a danger.

The Control of Dogs Order 1992

This Act requires that any dog in a public place must wear a collar with the name and address of the owner engraved or written on it or a tag. This ensures a dog can be relocated with its owner efficiently and assists where a dog is involved in an accident or incident.

Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997

Under the 1991 Act, a banned breed faced a mandatory destruction order. The 1997 amendment removed this mandatory destruction and instead the courts now consider whether the dog poses as a risk to the public. This discretion enables a banned breed with a good temperament and of no risk to be spared destruction and instead placed on the list of exempted dogs, the Index of Exempted Dogs.
The banned breeds are the Pit Bull Terrier, the Fila Brasileiro, the Dogo Argentino and the Japanese Tosa.

Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999

The welfare of dogs was the focal point of this legislative development in protecting dogs used in breeding establishments. A person who carries on a business of breeding dogs for sale and keeps a breeding establishment at any premises must obtain a licence from the local council. A “hobby breeder” or someone who produces less than 5 litters in any period of 12 months does not need a licence.

Before a licence is granted, the local council must be satisfied that the dogs have suitable accommodation, food, water and bedding material. The dogs must be adequately exercised and visited at suitable intervals. Finally, all reasonable precautions must be taken to prevent and control the spread of diseases among the dogs.

Licensed breeders have several obligations on them including:
• Not mating a bitch less than 12 months old
• Not whelping more than six litters from a bitch
• Not whelping two litters within a 12 month period from the same bitch
• Keeping accurate records
• Not selling a puppy until it is at least eight weeks of age, other than to a keeper of a licensed pet shop or Scottish rearing establishment.

These positive obligations on dog breeders regulate to ensure the maintenance of healthy dogs and protect against neglect.

The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environmental Act 2005
Local authorities can make orders for offences including:
• Failing to remove dog faeces
• Not keeping a dog on a lead
• Not putting and keeping a dog on a lead when directed
• Permitting a dog to enter land from which dogs are excluded
• Taking more than a specified number of dogs on to land

The Act imposes fines of up to £1,000 for any breaches to a dog control order.

Animal Welfare Act 2006

The Act places a duty of care on all pet owners and makes it an offence if a person fails to take reasonable steps to ensure that the needs of a dog for which they are responsible are met. This can include ensuring it is fed, housed, protected from pain, suffering, disease and the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns.

Other offences covered by the Act include causing, being involved in or accepting a bet relating to dog fighting. Keeping and training a dog for fighting is also covered and tail docking is also made an offence.

The maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine and an order can be made to prevent the person from owning or keeping another animal.

Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

After wide consultation into the effectiveness of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, several amendments to the legislation were highlighted as essential to make the law more satisfactory. These amendments received Royal Assent on 13 March 2014.

The Act increased maximum sentences for owners or controllers of dogs who are charged with aggravated offences, imposing a greater detriment to those found guilty. Whilst the maximum sentences depend on the severity of attack, there has been a significant increase in the amount of time and also, injury to an assistance dog is now also covered.

The contemporary problem of irresponsible dog ownership led to changes to focus on owner specific characteristics. Therefore dog owners or anyone in charge of the dog will be assessed as to whether they are a fit and proper person to be in charge of the dog. This wide ambit of consideration invites any negative aspect of the dog, its owner or environment to be relevant and a case-by-case approach will make it harder to predict the assessment of a dog’s dangerousness.

Arguably the most significant change is that private property now invites criminal liability. This change has been extended to protect those temporarily present in the property which can include invited guests and postal workers.

The convoluted and sequential changes have rendered the laws regarding dogs messy. The law has evolved to place heavy liability on dog owners but it can be argued that the law surrounding dog attacks has continually failed to address the problem from a preventative stand point, continually looking backwards. Despite this, legislation is required to protect dogs from the dangers of over breeding and to protect the welfare of man’s best friend.

[1] Kennel Club – information guide