Does law control dogs well enough?
Tom was on his usual walk, in the local park, with his two Yorkshire Terriers, Mimi and Fifi. They are sociable dogs who enjoy quiet "hellos" with other dogs that pass by. But today was going to be different.
The solid grey shape rushed up to them, out of the nearby undergrowth, snarling. It was a large terrier, twice as big as the two small Yorkies. The dog grabbed Mimi around the scruff of her neck and started to shake her. Tom had to leap into the fray, leaving Fifi to one side while he pulled the big dog by both back legs away from Mimi. He had heard that this so-called "wheelbarrow" manoeuvre was the best way to separate fighting dogs, and it worked on this occasion. The big terrier let go of Mimi, looking back at Tom to see who was pulling his back legs. Tom let go at this point, and to his horror, the terrier then lunged at Fifi.
It was only then that the aggressive terrier's owner arrived, shouting at her dog, and apologising to Tom. She soon had her dog on his leash and under control, and as she looked at Tom's two dogs, both covered in saliva and looking very bedraggled, she told him that she'd pay whatever it cost at the vet to sort them out. She said that she had no idea what had happened, and that her dog had never done anything like this before.
Tom arrived at my clinic twenty minutes later, and the good news was that both of his dogs were almost unscathed. Their long Yorkshire Terrier hair had protected them from the sharp tips of the terrier's teeth. They were bruised and upset, but they had escaped serious injury.
It could have been far worse. I have heard about dogs being killed on the spot by other dogs, and I have heard about owners of aggressive dogs who have been unpleasant and unsympathetic. Tom, Mimi and Fifi got away lightly on this occasion.
Tom (and his dogs) found it difficult to enjoy walks in the park after this event. The dogs were nervous now, continually scanning the horizon for possible canine interlopers. And Tom found it hard to relax too. When he told other regular dog walkers about what had happened, a couple mentioned that they'd seen the large terrier chasing and jumping on other dogs before. Despite what the lady had said, this was not the first time.
Tom decided to find out about what might be done to stop other dogs having the same bad experience as Mimi and Fifi. He phoned the local dog warden, and that's how he found out about how Irish law applies to dogs in public places.
The strictest controls were brought in over twenty years ago, in 1998, with the introduction of a list of eleven named restricted breeds, including German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Bull Terriers. These breeds (and crosses of these breeds) need to be muzzled in public, kept on a short leash, and under the control of someone over the age of sixteen at all times. The law is not strictly enforced, but at least it is there if it is needed. If someone sees one of these breeds and feels intimidated, they can request that these measures are adhered to.
In Tom's case, this law did not apply: the terrier was just a random cross-bred terrier, so he was not a "restricted breed", and he did not need to be muzzled or leashed.
However, there are other laws that did apply to the terrier. Under the 1986 Control of Dogs Act, all dog owners are obliged to have their dogs under "effectual control". This means that dogs don't necessarily have to be kept on the leash, but their owners must be able to control them at all times. So if a dog reliably comes back when called, it's OK. If, however, a dog runs away from their owner, attacking other dogs, it is definitely not OK. And if this happens repeatedly, the owner is culpable, and can be prosecuted. So in the case of the marauding terrier, the owner was breaking the law.
Tom gave the dog warden details of what had happened, and he was told that the warden would keep an eye out for the dog, and if he saw him off the leash in the park, he would tell the lady that she had to keep him under tighter control. And if any other incidents were reported, the lady would be prosecuted.
Tom feels that at least some action has been taken which may prevent the terrier from causing more damage. But he was interested to hear this week that Ireland's dog laws are currently under review. The Department of Rural and Community Development has published a public consultation paper in relation to the control of dogs in Ireland. Members of the public are being asked to comment on a series of questions about how Irish laws affect dogs. It's like an online Citizen's Assembly. Comments from individuals and organisations will be gathered, published and debated, and hopefully an improved form of dog control will be put into place. Tom favours the Scottish model, where a dog that causes trouble (like that terrier) can be issued with a Dog Control Notice, meaning that they must be muzzled and leashed, and their owner must go to dog training classes. Tom feels that this would be a far better way of tackling the difficult dog that he encountered.
Do you have thoughts on how dogs should be kept under control in Ireland? Visit https://www.gov.ie/en/consultations/ and contribute to the debate.