The press and consequently our politicians get very excited about dog related incidents. Earlier this year an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 dramatically increased the sentence that cam be imposed on those who own or who are in charge of dogs that are dangerously out of control and the Sentencing Commission is currently considering its response to those changes. But is there any evidence that dogs are really the menace some say they are and is the cost of enforcing the breed specific parts of the Dangerous Dogs Act money well spent?
NHS Choices conducted an investigation to discover how many people were treated for dog related injuries in the United Kingdom during 2014. They found that in total 6,743 received hospital treatment for dog bites during 2014 which equates to 0.01% of the current United Kingdom population. They also found that dogs related injuries were more common in areas that they considered to be less well off than others and they found that Merseyside held the record for the highest number of dog related incidents in 2014 which at 2081 which equates 0.236% of the population.
Collating statistics for deaths following dog attacks is rather more difficult due to the absence of a central database but on the 6th November 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported that there had been 17 deaths from dog attacks since 2005 other press reports suggest that there have been three more deaths since that report, making a total of 20.
Any death represents a tragedy for the family concerned, particularly if it was avoidable as many dog related deaths might have been if the dogs had been kept by responsible owners, but it is necessary to keep a sense of perspective. In 2013/14 government crime statistics recorded 551 homicides in England and Wales. During the same period road traffic incidents caused 1,713 deaths. It follows that you are far more likely to be murdered or killed in a road traffic accident than you are by a dog.
The NHS Choices statistics did not grade the level of injury, so it is impossible to say how many of the 6,743 people who presented at hospitals across England and Wales had suffered a serious injury or required anything more that a dressing and a tetanus injection, which would be given to a patient who had suffered a human bite, however those figures pale into insignificance when you compare them to the level of suffering humans inflict on one another in England and Wales.
There were, according to Office of National Statistics figures 1,326,000 offences of assault during 2013/4. Of those 694,000 resulted in no or minimal injuries, 322,000 involved some more significant degree of injury and 310,000 were classified as “woundings” which means that either bones were broken or both layers of the skin were pierced.
Assaults are of course just one example of violence between human beings. Others include robbery where force or threats of force are used to steal. There were 52,028 offences of robbery of the person in 2013/4 and a further 5,786 offences of robbery against businesses, many of which are small shops with vulnerable occupants.
Sexual offences represent another form of violent offending. Government statistics recognise there is a great deal of under reporting and therefore determining the true number of offences is difficult. None the less the government estimates that during 2013/4 there were between 430,000 and 517,000 sexual offences and between 60,000 and 90,000 rapes.
If you add those figures together you find that, taking the lower estimate of sexual offences, there were in total at least 1,869,355 human on human incidents of violence in 2013/4 yet only 6,743 dog on human incidents during the same period. It follows that you are 277 times more likely to be injured by a fellow human being than you are by a dog. When it comes to the risk of being killed our fellow human beings and motor vehicles present a much greater risk than out canine friends.
That is important when it comes to considering enforcement policies. Far more of our fellow citizens are likely to be protected from harm if scarce resources are targeted at reducing offending effectively. Police forces across England and Wales spend hundreds of thousands of pounds enforcing the breed specific elements of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 yet there is very little evidence to suggest that has any effect on preventing injury. Encouraging responsible dog ownership is likely to be much more effective. It may also be the case that as police budgets are to be cut to the point where it is predicted that 2016 will see the lowest number of police officers in post for 40 years the police should target areas of enforcement where they can be most effective. Given the levels of human on human violence in England and Wales there seems to be a much better case for police resources to focused on preventing violent offending than supporting poorly drafted and ineffective provisions within the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
James Parry is a solicitor advocate and partner with Parry Welch Lacey LLP.