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Legal matters: Dog off the lead bit my son in public park

I walk my son to school and walk across a public park to get there. The other morning a man had his dog off the lead. The dog ran up to my son and bit him. While the bite didn't puncture the skin I immediately brought him for a tetanus shot. I was stunned at the attitude of the owner who was very blasé about the incident and told me he had a right to leave his dog off the lead between certain hours. Is this the case?

It's a very shocking thing to happen to your child. According to the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA) it is estimated that up to half of children will have been bitten by a dog by the age of 12.

Control of dogs is taken seriously in Ireland and there is a lot of legislation controlling the area.

Under the Control of Dogs Act 1986 and 1992 all dogs in public places must be under the control of their owner or another person capable of controlling them.

Bye-laws regulate the control of dogs in specific areas like parks and public places which is relevant to your own experience.

These bye-laws usually specify things such as places where a dog must be kept on a leash or if they are prohibited from certain areas such as beaches.

The Control of Dogs Act divests power of enforcement to the local authorities. They can appoint dog wardens who can impose on-the-spot fines and pursue the prosecution of owners who fail to adhere to the legislation.

In 2010 there were 3,654 on-the-spot fines issued and 225 dog owners prosecuted nationwide under the Act.

In your case you should check the bye-laws in operation in that particular park where the incident occurred. You should also find out from your local authority if they have a dog warden on duty.

Aside from the issue of the control of the dog, a bite is a very serious incident.

Under Section 22 of the Act, where a dog is proved to have caused damage in an attack on a person, it may be dealt with as a dangerous dog which has not been kept under control.

On application to the District Court, in addition to imposing penalties such as fines, the court can order the dog be destroyed.

An owner is also liable for damages for any damage caused in an attack on a person under the Civil Liability Act 1961.

While you don't refer to the breed of dog it is worth noting there are stringent restrictions placed on certain breeds of dog.

The requirements include that these breeds must be muzzled securely in a public place and be on a strong chain or leash held by a person over 16.

Some of these breeds are rottweilers, Alsatians, bull mastiffs and the Staffordshire bull terrier.

The DSPCA have some good guidelines on their website (www.dspca.ie) on child safety around dogs, such as being "a statue" if a dog rushes at you.

They reckon that most bites are from dogs that the child is acquainted with -- either a dog in their own house or someone they know like a neighbour's or friend's dog.

Of interest to parents whose kids are around dogs, the DSPCA say that many dog-biting cases can come about from teasing or unintentional provocation.

The dog bites can also be made worse if a child approaches a dog when it's asleep or eating and this can also lead to a full attack.

Mary Kirwan is a barrister who can be contacted with legal queries at mkirwan@independent.ie

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