This has been Royal Mail's Dog Awareness Week.
The aim is to encourage responsible dog ownership to reduce the number of dog attacks. Between April 2012 and April 2013, some 2,400 postmen and women across the UK were attacked by dogs, 187 of them in Scotland.
Dog attacks can be devastating, but it is not just a dog bite that can cause injury. In our experience, a number of personal injury cases have arisen as a result of boisterous dog activity rather than biting.
The decision by MSPs to reject proposals to muzzle all dogs in public and back compulsory microchipping is to be welcomed. Dogs are capable of causing damage in many ways, shapes and forms and muzzling would not have prevented many of these incidents. Also, it would have been difficult to enforce. Muzzling also addresses just one of the symptoms of irresponsible dog ownership. It does not provide an answer to the problem. From biting to fouling, everything starts and stops with the owner's behaviour, not the dog's.
There are some around 640,000 dogs in Scotland. Overall the levels of offences committed in relation to the control of dogs are falling, particularly following the 2011 implementation of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. In 2011/12 there were 140 people in Scotland convicted of crimes relating to dangerous dogs. Since 2005, no-one in Scotland has died as a result of a dog attack but, sadly, a number of children have suffered serious injuries. The consultation around these new measures was prompted following a meeting between the First Minister and children who had been the victims of dog attacks.
In addition to microchipping, the introduction of compulsory pet insurance would be a sensible step, either through a specific pet insurance policy or as part of a dog owner's home insurance policy. This would offer an avenue to seek redress after an injury. Just as number plate recognition has superseded the tax disc in identifying owners, microchipping is the natural next step in ensuring a dog is suitably registered and insured. Similar systems operate successfully in other countries such as France and Canada and, closer to home, in Northern Ireland.
Any such system will require appropriate resources to ensure it is managed effectively and organisations such as Police Scotland, Dogs Trust and the RSPCA should be involved in establishing a system that promotes responsible ownership and improves animal welfare standards.
It might also allow us to overcome one of the idiosyncrasies of the present system in which we have previously encountered resistance from the police in identifying the owners of a dog who had attacked an individual.
Data protection legislation was quoted as being a reason for not releasing the information and a court order was required to obtain this at significant public expense. With a record or register of dog ownership, such bureaucracy might be avoided.
The proposals might be seen as something of a return to the old system of dog licenses, which were abolished in 1987, but the greatest challenge facing any new system is: how do you ensure that all dogs are registered, chipped and processed? The concern would be that many dogs and owners would slip through the net.
Regardless of the scheme the Government decides to introduce, it should be less about blanket punishment for all dogs and more about education and promotion of responsible ownership. Dog attacks are not all that common because the vast majority of dogs don't bite or attack people.
However, it is worth remembering that the Animals (Scotland) Act 1987 states that any dog, by its very nature, has the potential to cause injury. Despite this, dogs remain man's best friend and owners and their families accept a degree of risk when bringing a dog into the family. The key to this issue is taking a balanced view to ensure the public is protected by legislation that is easily enforceable while also encouraging good behaviour in dog owners.
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