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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 May 2008

Vol. 189 No. 10

Control of Dangerous Dogs.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue. I welcome the Minister of State.

The primary reason I raise the issue of dangerous dogs and the need for them to be kept under reasonable control relates to the possible impact their being at liberty may have on children. However, given that the Minister of State has responsibility for the elderly, this matter is as much a concern in respect of older people as it is in respect of the young.

There is a growing trend for people to keep as pets animals that appear on the list of ten breeds of dangerous dogs. I refer here to the American pit bull terrier, the English bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, the bull mastiff, the Doberman Pinscher, the German shepherd or Alsatian, Rhodesian ridgeback, Rottweiler, the Japanese akita, the Japanese tosa and every strain or cross of these breeds.

I raise this matter on foot of a situation that was recently brought to my attention involving a young family that lives next door to a house where a Rottweiler is kept as a pet. The Rottweiler escapes on a fairly regular basis and then appears on the private property of the family in question. The difficulty is that the parents feel they can no longer allow their children to play outside, particularly because the Rottweiler previously entered their property and tossed one of the children. The parents to whom I refer have made reasonable attempts to keep their property secure by erecting fences but the dog continues to gain entry. They are worried that the dog may toss the child in question again, causing it to hit its head and be either seriously injured or killed.

It appears that until the dog mauls or bites the child — no one knows too many Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers or Alsatians that will stop at giving someone a gentle nip — the matter cannot be pursued. The Control of Dogs Act 1986 and the Control of Dogs Regulations 1998 specifically state that dangerous dogs must be kept under proper control or destroyed. I am not suggesting that the animal to which I refer should be destroyed. I am merely using the case as an example. According to the regulations, "These dogs, or types and crosses thereof, must whenever they are in a public place, be kept on a short strong lead by a person over 16 years of age who is capable of controlling them". The regulations also stated that such dogs must be securely muzzled. I am concerned that the term "public place" is interpreted in this instance as a public park. An immediate intervention must be made, in the context of the regulations, to ensure that where dogs gain entry to other people's private property, serious sanctions can be imposed.

The parents of the family to which I refer have done everything reasonable to work with their neighbours in order to resolve the situation. They feel that if they take the matter to court, the judge hearing the case will merely direct that the dog be kept under control and that everything will be fine. The children involved do not feel entitled to go outside to play because they do not know when the dog will appear. In addition, they do not know whether it is going to be friendly or whether it will toss them and cause an accident.

The answer from the Minister of State will probably indicate that animal welfare legislation is due to be put in place in the next 18 months and that perhaps cases such as that to which I refer can be dealt with under it. People are concerned, however, that if they are obliged to wait 18 months it might be too late. I wish the Minister of State to clarify whether an intervention can be made by the dog warden or the Garda if one of these listed breeds is found not wearing a muzzle and a short lead and is not under the control of someone over 16 years of age. I want to be informed as to the strength of the regulations. If they are not sufficiently robust, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should immediately bring forward a new regulation that will change the position.

The members of the family to which I refer are living in terror. I do not believe they are on their own in that regard. Having spoken to colleagues in the Seanad and the Lower House, I am aware that there appears to be an increasing trend to keep these types of dogs as family pets. I am a dog lover and I do not have any difficulty with people keeping particular breeds as pets. It is when their choice of pet begins to impact on those around them that issues arise.

I have provided a specific example to try to outline the fact that there is widespread concern about this matter. Urgent action is required in respect of the case to which I refer and others like it that have not been brought to the attention of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which I will be taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley.

I wish to outline the current requirements applying in respect of particular breeds of dogs to which the Senator refers. The Control of Dogs Regulations 1998 provide for special controls in respect of the following breeds or types of dogs: the American pit bull terrier; the bull mastiff; the Doberman Pinscher; the English bull terrier; the German shepherd or Alsatian; the Japanese akita; the Japanese tosa; the Rhodesian ridgeback; the Rottweiler; the Staffordshire bull terrier; every dog of the type commonly known as a ban dog — or bandog — and every other strain or cross of every breed or type of the dogs listed.

The regulations are quite specific in this area and require that a person shall not permit any of these dogs to be in a public place unless the animal is securely muzzled and being led, on a sufficiently strong chain or leash not exceeding two metres in length, by a person over the age of 16 years who is capable of controlling the dog. The Control of Dogs Act 1986 defines "public place" very widely. Included under the definition are any street, road, seashore, park, land, field or other place to which the public has access, whether by right or permission, and whether subject to or free of charge.

The Act also contains specific requirements in respect of the control of all dogs by their owners and persons in charge of dogs, including places where dogs are permitted to be. Section 22 of the Act provides that, on a complaint being made to the District Court by any interested person that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, the court has powers to order that a dog which the court considers dangerous be kept under proper control or be destroyed. While the Minister is generally satisfied with the wide definition of a "public place" where the breeds of dogs to which I refer must be controlled, he intends to keep this issue under review and, if necessary, to introduce further measures to tighten the controls.

I outlined in sufficiently clear terms the issue about which I am concerned, which relates primarily to what happens when these animals gain entry to private property. I do not wish to advocate a specific solution because I might be promoting some commercial interest or other. If, however, the use of electric fences or collars was compulsory on private property, dogs might not be able to escape from their owners' properties. I am not confident that the case to which I refer can be dealt with under the regulations. I trust that the Minister of State will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The Senator has raised an important issue and has identified the fact that even though a dog might be on private property, said property might not belong to its owner. The definition in that regard may not be sufficiently clear and I assure the Senator that I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Gormley, on the next occasion on which we meet.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.50 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 7 May 2008.