independent

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Owners of out-of-control dogs are breaking the law

Published 15/10/2013 | 05:42

All dog owners have an obligation to keep their pets under effective control.

Ruth often goes jogging in the local park, with Tiny, her small dog, on a leash beside her.

Ruth keeps an eye out for other dogs: Tiny is a nervous creature who is easily intimidated by larger animals, even if they are on a leash. If Ruth sees other dogs around, she picks Tiny up, carrying her safely in her arms.

Last week, Ruth and Tiny had a shocking experience. They went around a corner in the park to be faced by two bull terrier type dogs, running free, off the leash. Before Ruth could do anything, the two dogs rushed up to them, and one of them started snarling, grabbing Tiny in its jaws. Ruth leapt to Tiny's assistance, pulling her dog away from the bigger animal, and holding her in her arms, shielding her from further physical assault.

It was the most terrifying experience that Ruth has ever suffered. The two dogs were jumping up on her, trying to grab Tiny. The sound of their snarling filled her ears, and she felt their paws on her back as they scrabbled at her. She kept her head down low, arms clasped around Tiny, hoping that the animals would back off.

Luckily, the dogs' owner was there, and he soon had his animals under control, putting them back on their leashes. He insisted that his dogs had never behaved like that before, and he headed off, leaving Ruth in a shocked and frightened state. Tiny had been badly injured, with bite marks on her underside and extensive bruising: she had to be taken to the vet to have her injuries treated. She did make a good recovery over the following week, but it could have been far worse.

Ruth won't be going back to that park, but she is now worried about the risk of other people and animals suffering a similar experience. She asked me if anything could be done to prevent this.

In this case, the law is clear: all dog owners have an obligation to keep their pets under effective control. And bull terrier cross breeds are on the list of Restricted Dogs which means that their owner has an obligation to keep their pets on a short, strong leash, wearing a muzzle. From Ruth's description of events, the owner was breaking the law, and he would have been liable to an on-the-spot fine of at least €100 even before his dogs launched their attack on Tiny.

The best that Ruth can do is to inform the authorities about what happened. The Gardai will keep a record of her account, and they may investigate it. The local Dog Warden will visit the area, keeping an eye out for the two attacking dogs. If there are seen to be off the leash, unmuzzled again, an on-the-spot fine will be issued. If the owner refuses to pay, the situation could lead to a prosecution in the District Court with a maximum fine of €2,500 and/or 3 months' imprisonment.

In Ruth's case, the law provided boundaries that made it obvious that the other dogs' owner was in the wrong. I heard recently about another incident that was less clear-cut.

Maggie was exercising her whippet, Lexi in the local dog park: this is a fenced-in area designed to allow dogs to run off the leash so that they can exercise off the leash without accidentally upsetting any passers by. Maggie often takes Lexi to the dog park: she uses a plastic launcher to throw a tennis ball, and Lexi loves chasing it and bringing it back to be thrown again. After twenty minutes of ball-chasing, Lexi is ready to come home and spend the rest of the day snoozing.

Lexi often meets other friendly animals in the dog park: they sniff each other and chase around, enjoying one another's company. Last week, a large male Boxer came up to Lexi, and his attitude was more domineering than friendly. He knocked her to the ground, standing over her. When she tried to get up, he knocked her down again. She lay there, not sure what to do.

The dog was not being overtly aggressive, but he was being unpleasantly intimidating. He was a big dog, and Maggie felt uneasy about the situation. She called over to the dog's owner: "Would you please get your dog under control?" His response was the human equivalent to his dog's attitude: "What's the problem? He's just doing what dogs do." When Maggie pointed out that he should stop his dog from harassing other dogs, he shouted at her: "Would you **** off out of here!" Maggie left the park at that stage, and it's the last time she'll be going there.

The man and his dog are bullies, but their aggression is not severe enough for the law to intervene. Ideally, dog parks should have official supervisors to ensure that this type of incident does not happen: that's what happens in New York City's dog parks. In Ireland, this is unlikely to happen, and it's down to human decency to ensure that people behave in a reasonable and responsible way.

Public parks are a wonderful asset for people and animals, but for them to work well for everyone, we all need to act in a reasonable and responsible way. Maggie is right: everyone should keep their dogs under control. If we all did that, there would not be a problem.

Wexford People

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